When you mention the blues, the image most people conjure in their minds is some place in the Deep South replete with levees, juke joints and some proximity to the Mississippi River. So while the Bronx may literally be hundreds of miles away from places like Clarkson, MS, and Memphis, TN, it didn’t matter to Dion DiMucci, who grew up in the Belmont section of the borough embracing artists like Jimmy Reed and Hank Williams on the country music side of the coin.
While most know him for his early success as a doo-wop teen idol in the late 1950s and early 1960s, his love of these genres has carried through from that time up to a string of solid records he’s released in the past decade.
This musical love affair became more readily apparent to the general public thanks to efforts like Bronx in Blue (2006), Son of Skip James (2007) and Tank Full of Blues (2011). After a five-year lull, Dion is back with the Jimmy Vivino-produced New York is My Home, a collection of songs reflecting his adoration of roots music and whose centerpiece is a title duet he cut with longtime friend Paul Simon.
“Paul and I have been friends a long time. I was in his apartment when there was a terrible downturn in the country and he wanted to do something for the city, which is the way he put it. I thought it was off the Richter Scale. So when I wrote [the title track], ‘New York Is My Home,’ I thought this could help New Yorkers fall in love with the city all over again,” Dion explained.
“I called him and told him it was a very personal song and I saw it as a love song to the city of my birth and my girl. So I sent him the song and sang it for him. We both have a love for rock & roll street music the way it was done when we were kids and I knew Paul would get the song—and he did. He called to say he was really into it and we started talking,” he continued. “He’s such a historian and has so many gifts when it comes to harmonies, guitar playing, singing, conceptualizing and distinctive sounds. He started talking about the Diablos and what sounds he likes better than The Cleftones. He’s from Queens and I’m from the Bronx. We’re both at home in New York. It was a trip and a labor of love for the both of us.”
A big reason why Dion has been able to go down this particular path is his friendship and business relationship with music industry legend Richard Gottehrer. Gottehrer got his start as a Brill Building songwriter/producer whose fingerprints are on classics like “Hang On Sloopy,” “I Want Candy” and “My Boyfriend’s Back.” He later went on to helm projects by Blondie, Richard Hell, The Go-Go’s and The Bongos. In recent years, Dion’s fellow Bronx native co-founded The Orchard, a digital music company that’s getting ready to celebrate its 20th anniversary next year. It is Gottehrer’s company that has been giving Dion the outlet for his work.
“Richard and I go back a long way. I’ve had a lot of significant songs get out there to people, and it was all done with not-big labels. I did go to big labels, but most of the success and most of the songs that have gone ballistic, like ‘Runaround Sue,’ ‘The Wanderer’ and ‘Abraham, Martin & John’ were all done on a small label, and that doesn’t bother me,’ Dion said. “Richard is enthusiastic and we both go back to when I was with Columbia, where we would write songs together. We wrote a song called ‘Gonna Make It Alone’ and a couple of others with Bert Berns.”
While Gottehrer had lost touch with Dion for a few decades, a chance encounter listening to NPR’s All Things Considered several years ago threw him for a loop when he realized the old blues guy he thought he was listening to was in fact his old friend. After reconnecting and batting some ideas around, Dion took the plunge and released Bronx in Blue. Gottehrer’s admiration for Dion’s ability to evolve from being a teen idol into someone with a mastery of roots music continues to impress the septuagenarian record executive.
“Being a pop star is great, but you always look around and think there’s something of substance beyond that. Success isn’t everything. Doing things you love and doing them really well and being great at it while satisfying yourself and the public as well is important,” Gottehrer said. “But Dion has the ability to do that and he loves this music. He continually represented this intangible, indescribable feeling that really is rock and roll and soulful music. Dion is an exceptionally valid artist for whatever generation to discover.”
For Dion, the restlessness to grow as an artist and love for what he does is a fountain of youth for him, particularly when he’s got a running buddy like Vivino in the studio to drive him.
“I feel more relevant and creative today than I did when I was making ‘The Wanderer.’ So it’s a fun time for me. I tell Jimmy [Vivino], ‘Let’s make music that cannot be denied,’ and that’s how it goes.”
Dion will be appear on July 29 at NYCB Theatre @ Westbury, 960 Brush Hollow Rd., Westbury. Visit www.theatreatwestbury.com or call 800-745-3000 for more information.