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Q&A: Dion on His NYC Roots and His Star-Studded New Album, ‘Blues With Friends’
Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame icon Dion first scored major success almost sixty years ago with smash hits like “The Wanderer,” “Runaround Sue” and “Ruby Baby.” Since then, Dion continued on a path of reinvention as an artist, from blues to gospel to rock and roll, and to this day he continues pushing forward, exploring new artistic territory. Today, June 5, Dion has delivered an impressive new album, Blues With Friends, a record that finds him collaborating with heavyweight luminaries numbering Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Van Morrison, Billy Gibbons, Joe Bonamassa and many more.
Join us for a candid conversation with New York City’s finest, Dion.
Rock Cellar: Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Van Morrison, Jeff Beck, Brian Setzer, Little Steven, Billy Gibbons and Sonny Landreth among others participate on your new album, Blues With Friends. Were the songs written for Blues With Friends always intended as collaborations? Or was this all the result of fate and happenstance?
Dion: I had these 14 songs, 12 of them were brand new. I hadn’t been in the studio because I was working on this play, The Wanderer, which is going to premiere in April 2021 at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. I was working on that and it got rescheduled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. So I had two months off, we had a down period and I was writing all the while.
I thought this was the best group of songs I’ve ever had and that I should go in and cut them. I knocked them out in three days and then I started overdubbing some guitar on it. So I had the tracks.
Joe Bonamassa came over to the house and he heard one of them and said, “I wanna play on that,” so I said, “Hey, be my guest.” He plays on “Blues Comin’ On.” I tell you, I never heard anything like it. I realize how limited I am in comparison to when you ask a great artist to play what they’re hearing and their concept of what they’re hearing. It just amazed me. It was so far beyond what I could think or imagine or ask for. So I thought, Wow, this is interesting. Maybe I should send “Bam Bang Boom” to Billy Gibbons, ‘cause I hear him on it.
Within a week he was in the studio and playing on it. Then I thought, I have this ballad ... Jeff Beck wasn’t in the country, he was in England at the time. I felt Jeff Beck was the guy to play on “Can’t Start Over Again.” He’s the only guitar player that can make me cry. So I sent him the track and he said “yes,” so after he said yes, I knew I had something.
Jeff Beck, Joe Bonamassa and Billy Gibbons … c’mon, this is like the gold standard here.
Rock Cellar: The song “Hymn To Him” was a song you had first recorded for a gospel album of yours, Velvet and Steel. Tell me about bringing Patti Scialfa on board to sing on the track and Bruce Springsteen to play guitar.
Dion: I did it on a gospel album but I always felt it should live somewhere else (laughs); it wasn’t right. I heard Patti’s voice on it. Patti is the Jersey soul girl. I sent it to Patti and said, “Maybe you could echo a couple of lines in the song?” But she heard something on it and developed this whole vocal arrangement, which she carefully did day after day and it was just beautiful.
And then Bruce walks into the studio with his guitar. “You need a solo here? I’m hearing something.” I was like, “Be my guest.” (laughs) You have these guitar players that are so distinctive. Brian Setzer plays on the album, and who plays like him? I’ll tell you who, nobody! So this vision for the album just started growing.
Rock Cellar: As for another special guest, Paul Simon, who appears on “Song for Sam Cooke (Here in America),” you’d worked with him before on the song “Written On The Subway Wall” and your New York Is My Home album; you also performed with him in 2009 at the 25th Anniversary Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame Concert.
It feels like you have a deep connection with him.
Dion: Yeah, we have lunch and talk for hours. But we have an affinity for the music, for a lot of different people, for spirituality, all kinds of things that we talk about. When I first sang this song to Paul I told him, “This is not so much about racism in America, it’s about brotherhood and it’s about Sam’s compassion and understanding towards me.” He was the brightest guy in the room and it didn’t upset him. He had an understanding, and that’s what I was writing about. Paul knew. He had a connection with Sam too, so we both kind of bonded over that.
Paul did some really sweet stuff on it and kind of made it sublime.
Rock Cellar: Bob Dylan wrote the liner notes for your new album, was there any attempt to get him onboard musically for the project?
Dion: Maybe the next time around. I really didn’t think about that. I had everything finished but then I thought I should ask somebody who understands the blues to write something about it. A lot of people don’t know this but Bob Dylan is a great blues singer.
They know he’s the greatest writer of the 20th century and beyond and he’s a Nobel Prize winner and he’s the guy who we really think he is. But a lot of people don’t know what a great blues singer he is.
Just listen to his albums from the very beginning.
So I thought I was gonna send it to him, and see what he says and he liked the album and was very generous to write the liner notes.
Rock Cellar: Interestingly enough, John Hammond signed Bob Dylan to Columbia Records and I understand he was someone pivotal who brought you deeper into the blues world in the mid ‘60s.
Dion: Oh yeah, he did. I was the first rock and roll artist signed to Columbia. Then Aretha Franklin came up. I was in the room with her sitting on a piano bench and I was doing “Drip Drop.” I was showing her this song I was gonna record. Then John Hammond Sr. comes over and said, “Dion, come over here.” He bought me into his office ‘cause he was just across the hall. He said, “Dion, I see you have a flair for the blues.”
He introduced me to the Robert Johnson album. This was in 1962. He played me King Of The Delta Blues Singers. He played me “Preaching Blues” and he was all smiles, saying, “This sold 25,000 albums by word of mouth.” But I knew I was listening to something that was beautiful; I knew it. So he gave me a whole bunch of albums to go home with like Lightnin’ Hopkins and he gave me an album by his son, John Hammond Jr. Then I went down to the Gaslight to see him play and we’ve been friends ever since.
That’s how he wound up on my new album. He’s a friend and he came down to the studio. When you get John Hammond to play harp and you get him to play slide, you’re never gonna hear that form anybody else. I know it sounds like a harp and it sounds like a guitar but he plays stuff that nobody plays. Nobody.
Rock Cellar: When did blues music start finding its way into your work as a songwriter?
Dion: I was on the surface of it ‘cause I grew up with Little Richard and Lloyd Price. Some of the doo-wop records were blues like “Annie Had A Baby.” LaVern Baker. But then when I heard Robert Johnson it really started influencing me. In the mid ‘60s I really started getting into it. And I didn’t realize how much that stuff was a part of me until the 2000s.
I was doing an interview with Terry Gross and I was punctuating the stories with these songs that I grew up with and someone heard me, Richard Gottehrer, and he said, “Let’s do an album of those songs.” When I went in it became an album called Bronx In Blue and I recorded it in two days; it was up for a Grammy. That was crazy. On the way home when I was listening to it on CD in my truck I realized, man, this stuff is at the core of my being. This comes so easy, I don’t even have to think. This is me.
I’ve been following that ever since. It brought me further into it. But the thing is, a lot of people think I’ve changed or something, but “Ruby Baby” was a blues song and “The Wanderer” was a blues song; I think that “Runaround Sue was a cleverly disguised blues song. I’ve always had that bedrock foundation.
Rock Cellar: Listening back to your catalog of work, New York City life is a common theme. You wrote a song called “New York City Song,” then you have “King Of The New York Streets” and “New York Is My Home,” also the title of your 2016 album. You have an album called Bronx In Blue.
Being a native of New York City, touch upon how has NYC colored your inspiration and creativity as a writer back from when you were tearing it up on the charts with “The Wanderer,” “Donna The Prima Donna,” “Runaround Sue,” “A Teenager In Love,” “Ruby Baby” to the present.
Dion: Well, every culture has an approach to relationships and music or whatever it is. It’s just kind of in the DNA. I know for myself, periodically when I make an album the theme of New York City shows up. I grew up from Georgia’s Bar & Grill, where all the wise guys hung out with chains and all the “yo” vernacular, all that attitude. So when I did “The Wanderer,” yeah that’s in there and years later it pops its head up again in a song like “King Of The New York Streets” and on the New York Is My Home album I wrote a song called “Gangster Of Love” and then on this new one, “I Got The Cure.” It’s all kind of like the same guy. (laughs) but from a different perspective.
When I had that song “I Got The Cure” I knew Sonny Landreth would be on it. That guy plucks on the guitar like a virtuoso violinist.
Every time I finished a track with one of these guys I was so excited, just like a little kid. I felt like I was riding a wave. It was just too much fun.
Rock Cellar: You’ve seemingly never lost your enthusiasm for singing, performing and writing songs. What’s the spark that keeps you always moving forward?
Dion: Well, I think a couple of things. My father encouraged this sense of wonder and awe and mystery about life in me. He didn’t like to work but he had a lot of great qualities. He could swim the ocean or dive off bridges. He was like Tarzan. But he encouraged this sense of wonder in me and loving life. I just keep growing and developing and evolving.
I wouldn’t have even started this new album if I didn’t feel relevant. Why would I? What would be the reason for it? Why would I start an album if I didn’t feel relevant?
The blues tradition is a living tradition, it’s not a dead tradition. I think I have a lot of people represented on this new album. This record is steeped in tradition, but the blues music is alive.
Rock Cellar: Both as a singer and as a songwriter, when did you make the jump from being less a product of your influences and finding your own voice/unique slant as a singer and as a writer?
Dion: I borrowed my landlady’s tape recorder and I sang “Cold Cold Heart” and “Honky Tonk Blues” by Hank Williams and I was totally shocked that I didn’t sound like Hank Williams. I thought I sounded just like him. I don’t really know when that happened but I think I just started developing a style to get off notes very quickly.
I don’t believe I have a voice that holds or sustains notes like Pavarotti but I don’t like that kind of singing with the vibrato, I never did. I call myself a rhythm singer. I’m a rhythm singer. You give me a back beat and I could sing. I want to sing like a saxophone, kind of a jazz blues thing. I talked to Van Morrison a lot about this. We relate to each other in the way we phrase vocals. Give me a beat and I’ll sing, but I’m not gonna hold a note, there’ll be none of that shit. (laughs)
Rock Cellar: Listening to the new album, your voice remains remarkably strong. Where many of your contemporaries or younger contemporaries have seen a major deterioration in their singing, any secrets as to how you manage to keep your voice in such good shape?
Dion: You know, I really don’t do anything special but I know I did one thing. I stopped drinking and drugging in 1968 and I stopped smoking. My life depended on it; I felt like I was dying. It’s a funny thing.
I’m a rock and roller but if you opened my head and looked into my brain you would probably see a very ordered place. I was a weird kid, man. I loved music and I wanted to know who God was. I used to read Thomas Merton and Saint Thomas Aquinas. (laughs) I’m like one of those guys. That was my interest. Some people like baseball. I like baseball too, but do you know what I mean? I was always try to find order in my mind and trying to find out why.
Why are we here? What am I doing? What is truth and who has the authority to define it? I ask questions; I’m one of those guys. I have a gift for finding people to take me to higher ground. I’ve got really cool friends.
Rock Cellar: You and Bob Dylan are the only musicians featured on cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album.
Dion: It was a nice compliment. I like to think that they cut out the head of the cover of “Ruby Baby” and used it in the collage.
I met John Lennon in ’64 when The Beatles were in New York City to play Carnegie Hall. I lived on 57th Street right near Carnegie Hall and I was in a shop and we bought the same leather jacket; in fact, I still have mine. He wore his on Rubber Soul. John liked the song “Ruby Baby,” and we had a conversation about that song. He told me The Beatles played that song a lot when they were honing their skills in Hamburg, Germany. That’s why they were so good because they played all these great hit songs like “Midnight Hour.”
Rock Cellar: Pick a song you wish you wrote.
Dion: It was a song Dylan wrote a couple of years ago. I think one of the country singers like Garth Brooks covered it. It was such a good song. Dylan is very biblical. He has these themes. I just love the way he writes.
Rock Cellar: We lost a musical giant recently, the great Little Richard. Your musical paths intersect going back many decades, what’s your most indelible memory of Little Richard?
Dion: Well, he was just Little Richard. He was one in a zillion. He was very unique and a natural gifted rocker. I knew a side of him that probably people don’t know. He was a very thoughtful, serene kind of guy. He was good at maintaining relationships.
When you’d be backstage with him and be talking with him, he was a very calm guy, he wasn’t like the guy you saw as a guest on the couch on The Tonight Show.
I have a funny story about Little Richard. Look, these guys were dancing across my living room floor on the TV when I was seventeen years old. Within a couple of months I was playing the Brooklyn Fox with them. I’m talking about Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Fats Domino. One time I was working a show with Little Richard and I was in the hallway passing his dressing room and this woman sitting on the couch said, “Young fellow? Son? Darlin’, would you come over here?” So I walk over and she motions for me to put my head down so she can talk in my ear. (laughs) She said, “Are you that young fella who sings ‘Ruby Baby’”? and I said, “yes m’aam.” And she said, “Young man, you’ve got soul!” And it was Little Richard’s mother, Leva Mae. (laughs) I said to Richard, “If you told me that I would have forgot but your mother told me that.”
Stream the Blues with Friends album below, via Spotify:
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August 9, 2022