Just imagine you're sitting in your own living room and it's nice and cozy and quiet, and across from you in two comfy chairs are Dion DiMucci and Steven Van Zandt talking, for 90 minutes, about Dion's long and amazing career. That's what it felt like last Sunday night at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, as Van Zandt engaged DiMucci in conversation about everything from the songs that excited him on the radio as a child, to the time that Jerry Lieber called him "the best white blues singer he had ever heard." This remarkable evening was part of the 92Y's lecture series and is yet another reason why, if you have some spare cash lying around, you should put it into an envelope and send it their way. It bears mentioning also that there is no better person to interview a bonafide legend like Dion; no one who is more erudite and savvy on the history of rock and roll and all its many iterations than Steven Van Zandt, who for years has hosted the weekly radio show Little Steven's Underground Garage -- as well as helming two channels on SiriusXM, Outlaw Country and Underground Garage.
Van Zandt began the evening with an introduction to Dion, who, he said, created the Italian-American New York/New Jersey attitude. "And where would Rock & Roll be without that?" he asked, grinning. The two first met when Steven, a hired hand with the Dovells at the time, came to Vegas on the oldies circuit, where Dion was playing in 1973. The theatre manager took Van Zandt on a tour and they came upon Dion noodling around on the guitar, by himself, playing a Robert Johnson tune. Thus began a long friendship.
DiMucci grew up in the Bronx, where he first heard Hank Williams and thrilled to country music and blues, as well as doo wop. Talking about those early days, the excitement in his voice last night was palpable -- as fresh as if it were just yesterday he first heard those songs. Dion, as so many others, tried to imitate what he heard on the radio, and music became a lifeline to get out of the neighborhood. "A lot of guys didn't make it out of the neighborhood," he said. "But I found music and it was a bit of salvation for me."
In 1957 he got together with three neighborhood friends to form Dion and the Belmonts. Dion still remembers the exact moment they first did "I Wonder Why" (their first hit) in his house; how great it sounded; the four-part harmonies. For a few years they had a steady string of hits and Dion was the first rock and roll artist signed to Columbia Records. They landed a place on the Winter Dance Party tour with Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper. Holly, at the time, was just 22 years old and on top of the world -- tremendously successful in the brand new genre of rock and roll music.
Dion was very nearly one of the passengers on the small plane that crashed with Buddy Holly, Valens, and the Big Bopper aboard from Clear Lake, Iowa in February 1959. They had to share the cost of chartering the plane and when DiMucci (aged 19 at the time) found that his share was $36, he opted out. That was the exact amount his parents paid for rent every month. He just could not spend that kind of money on a plane flight, even one that cut down many hours of traveling icy roads in a bus to a two-hour airplane ride. The rest, of course, is history. No one survived the crash.
This and other amazing stories poured out of Dion on Sunday, he calls himself quite accurately the "Forrest Gump" of rock and roll. The conversation was punctuated every so often by a verse or two or three from either one of his own songs or a song beloved by him. He left the Belmonts as he wasn't interested in the direction they were going, left Columbia Records, went into a folk-rock period, hung out in the Village with denizens like John Sebastian, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee. There was a very dark time, with drugs, that his wife was instrumental in bringing him through to the other side. There was "Abraham, Martin and John" in 1968.
Over the years, many people -- including John Hammond in 1961 -- told Dion he had a "flair" for the blues and should pursue recording in this genre. But t wasn't until years later that he took their advice. His new album, out this week, is Tank Full of Blues. "When I found music -- it was like a handle to life to me," he told the rapt audience at 92Y. The evening ended with Dion performing a song from the new album called "Holly Brown" accompanied by Van Zandt on guitar.