by Jerry Finzi, February 7, 2016
(Read the UPDATE at the end of this article about Dion signing my son Lucas' guitar!)
When I was a kid, there was no better tune on the radio for a young, hip kid trying to get girls to notice him than The Wanderer. The man singing that song was Dion DiMucci, better known as Dion... of Dion and the Belmonts, do-wop fame. His voice was edgy with its phrasing... of the streets... rougher than the silky smooth, clean shaven voices at that time--even though his own look was clean shaven. Somehow, I saw through all that hit-factory polish. He sang of real life experience. He wasn't so much singing a song as much as teaching me a life lesson.
When he sang about Runaround Sue, you knew two things... you wanted to find a girl like that to have a sweet taste of what passion is really about, but at the same time you just knew you didn't want that kind of girl for your forever gal. You also knew that you needed to find that place he talks about in Lovers Who Wander... you just had to get there somehow. Perhaps he was giving us the address in his early bluesy version of Kansas City... at "12th Street and Vine".
"I have a full life off The Road. I was never in it for the money or career. That's why I'm comfortable with myself. I know who I am out of the spotlight."
When I finally fell for that first girl--and fell hard--I lamented with Dion, Why Must I Be a Teenager in Love? He taught me that real men can--and do--cry, but only for the truly important things. Then when I finally had a chance to be alone with "my girl", walking along the Palisades Cliffs overlooking the Hudson River where I grew up, with that magnificent, nighttime twinkling view of the Manhattan skyline... testing out each others' romantic limits on one of the wooden benches... I'd find myself asking her to Stay Just a Little Bit Longer.
And when Donna the Prima Donna broke his heart, he gave solid advice to me about how to handle that type of inconsiderate, Italian princess. I've had my share of those... and learned how they aren't worth the effort. Dion taught me that when life kicks me down, I have to get up and keep on keeping on.
A smooth, clean a capella, impromptu rendition of The Wanderer
Not many people know that Dion nearly lost his life during the infamous Winter Dance Party rock and roll tour with Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper and other performers. On a frigid February 3 in 1959, after a concert stop in Iowa, Holly and others chartered a flight to the next venue rather than travel on the cold tour bus. Dion was invited to go with them, but said he didn't want to spend $36 for the flight--the same monthly rent his parents paid their Bronx apartment--he couldn't justify the indulgence. The plane crashed, killing all on board. It was dubbed "the end of Rock and Roll" by many at the time. It profoundly gave him a new outlook on life, but proved not to be the end of rock.
This video is amazing... Dion paints a portrait of what it was like growing up in the Fifties--with some heavy hitters along for the ride: Lou Reed; Paul Simon; Joan Jett; guitarist Dave Edmunds; Dire Strait's drummer, Terry Williams; Phil Chen on bass; and Rolling Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell.
As the sixties turned from do-wop to pop to mod to psychedelic and the madness in the world turned sweet, often ethnic, Kumbaya folk songs into full blown protest songs, Dion taught me another lesson of peace. With his haunting Abraham, Martin and John he compelled me into feeling the pain of the assassinations of the best of us--Lincoln, King and Kennedy--and perhaps even to make my own personal statements and stance against the madness.
He continued to play music all through the rest of his life, but of course never with the pop star status as when he wore the shark skin suits and sang "dum-da-didy-do-wa-diddy" skat lyrics of do-wop. But he grew as a man and a musician and is now considered one of the best blues singers/guitarists in the world. This is what I love him for, musically speaking... he took the a Capella echoes of the candy store entrances and alleyways and the grittiness of the street, along with the heart of his Italian upbringing and merged it into his blues playing.
Rightfully recognized for the talent he gave to the music scene, Dion was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. Bun nowadays, and at this stage of my life, I identify more with the blues songs he sings, like the blues classic Built for Comfort (I'm Not Built for Speed). About an aging man, somewhat overweight, but still passionate inside his heart and mind. That's the blues, Man.
Yes... Italians can play the blues, too. We've had our own share of discrimination and loss and suffering in our heritage. Dion expresses that, but he also still expresses the blues we all feel in the course of finding love--and losing it.
And this brings us to the present day... Dion is still valid, poignant and effective as ever, as evidenced by his recent New York is My Home featuring Paul Simon. His voice is clear and sweet as ever.
Take the time to sit back and enjoy a great Do-Wopper, Rock 'n Roller, Bluesman, singer-songwriter and Italian-American... please watch and listen to the videos I've included in this article.
You'll thank me for it.
Dion Signs Lucas' Guitar at Morristown, NJ Concert
--July 29, 2016
After writing this article about how Dion's music influenced my life, Dion's publicist contacted me and complimented me on the sentiments and asked if he could re-post it. As an exchange, I told him about Lucas' guitar with a growing collection of famous musicians' signatures on it (James Taylor, Steve Martin, Loudon Wainwright III, Jorma Kaukonen of Hot Tuna fame, Doc Watson and more...). I told him how Lucas was a big fan of Dion's early music and how he would be thrilled to get his signature. He then emailed and said "Dion would be glad to sign your son's guitar". All we had to do was get it to him at one of his appearances.
It took a while, but finally Dion was going to perform at a venue that we visit for concerts: the Mayo Performing Arts Theater (MPAC) in Morristown, NJ. I booked the tickets a while back and last night we attended. With a copy of the emails in hand and Lucas carrying his guitar and putting on his best 12 year old puppy eyes, we kept our fingers crossed. We've been through this before... overly protective security in such events or absolute "NO" from a performer's manager. Things didn't look good as his publicist informed me the day before that Dion's manager was "very, very, very" protective of Dion.
Ok... so we started in tracking down the theater's stage manager and he promised to get the email copy (along with a copy of this article to refresh Dion's memory) backstage--but no promises. After the concert we should wait by the stage-left door.
The concert was fantastic and Dion didn't disappoint. He played a myriad of songs--old and new. He played his new hit New York is my Home, Runaround Sue, the Wanderer and a solo acoustic blues favorite of mine, "Built for Comfort" about a rotund man built for comfort, not for speed but never disappoints with the ladies.
Lucas had a ball. He loved all the songs and rocked out.
Then the end came... and we waited at the stage-left door with a bunch of Brooklyn 75 year old "goombas"--old buddies of Dion (we supposed), and a clean cut VIP couple with their three pre-school kids that had all the earmarks of a congressional family. After the theater cleared out and the roadies had nearly emptied the stage, the stage manager came out and ushered up backstage. The first two groups we having quick chats and photo ops with Dion while we waited in the backstage hallway... but then it was out turn...
Lucas was so excited when he saw HIM. Dion was very nice about it all when I introduced Lucas to him... taking his guitar in his hands and then playing an impromptu blues song with Lucas' name in it! Lucas was star-struck, for sure. Then he asked where Lucas wanted him to sign, and signed it just above the sound hole. I asked to take a photo with my smart phone and the stage manager shoved me into the shot. What a memory!
Lucas left the theater in the light rain wide awake (it was 11:30 pm.... way past his normal bedtime) stunned, "I can't believe that a Rock n Roll Hall of Famer just hugged me!" He wants to save the Sharpie that Dion used to sign his guitar. He wants to never wash the T-shirt he was wearing. What a kid.
I'd do anything for him... like jump through a lot of hoops to get a rock star's signature on his guitar.
Thanks, Dion. Lucas is glowing this morning....