When Dion DiMucci was attending junior high school in the Bronx, not long before he became a rock and roll sensation with the Belmonts—named for Belmont Avenue, near his home—his grandfather came over every morning to perform a ritual with a wooden spoon and tin cup. “My mother’s father, Tony [Campanile], made zabaglione for me, seemed like he did it for years,” says Dion in a phone conversation with the Voice, his New York accent making the pronunciation zah-bah-leh-oh-ne (depending on whose kitchen you’re in) sing. Then he adds, “Do you know what zabaglione is?”
It’s a story Dion has told often, as he did at the podium in 2011 while accepting an award from the National Italian-American Foundation, where Barack Obama, known to eat up to half a dozen eggs with potatoes for breakfast, was in the audience. Dion related that his nonno “put three egg yolks in a cup with three tablespoons of sugar, maybe two. And he would beat it, beat it, beat it for 20 minutes. All through school, that was my alarm clock. Then he’d put some wine in there to kill any impurities. It was brain food, you could have taught me trigonometry. I was buzzed, man.” Clean and sober for more than half a century now, the kid from East 183rd Street who wrote “(I Was) Born to Cry” in the days when he wolfed down that brain food hasn’t been buzzed on anything stronger than Robert Johnson’s blues for a long, long time.
Zabaglione is old-country fare, a peasant restorative that Italian mothers imposed upon their children the way American moms once spooned cod liver oil into theirs. “To ‘make-a you strong,’” is the way John DeLutro, the Mulberry Street “cannoli king” at Caffé Palermo, remembers his grandmother saying. “She beat the yolks with sugar and poured it into espresso every morning.” (The confection tastes like eggnog fortified by Ernest and Julio Gallo.) DeLutro dined with Dion a few years ago, during a New York Columbus Day celebration. “I have all of his 45s in my closet,” he says. When the pastry chef was growing up on Mulberry Street, he was told zabaglione “would coat your soul.”
Ah, “Bronx soul.”
That’s the way Lou Reed introduced Dion —of “Runaround Sue,” “The Wanderer,” and “Abraham, Martin and John” fame—when DiMucci was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, in 1989. Both solo and with the Belmonts, Dion has charted 11 singles on the Billboard Top 40, beginning with “I Wonder Why,” in 1958. But he did not make it to Cleveland’s hallowed hall as an oldies act. Once upon a time, he was a heartthrob, but the long-ago “Teenager In Love” (No. 5 in 1959) is 83 now, born four years after Elvis. Dion says he met the King just once, when they were performing at different hotels in Las Vegas. “It was happenstance, we sort of brushed through a quick introduction,” he recalls. “He said he liked ‘Ruby Baby’ [No. 2 in 1963], but he never recorded it.”
Speaking of rockers born before World War II: Did Frankie Avalon ever open for Frank Zappa? Frankie Valli? Nope. But Dion did, in 1974. “I was doing coffeehouses with my guitar and he liked it,” he says. “We took a private plane to maybe a half-dozen gigs with him and George Duke.” Zappa’s fans, says Dion, were somewhat confused by a folk act opening for the orchestral madness that was the Mothers. At the Indianapolis Convention Center, in May of ’74, the Zappa fans were downright rude to the opening act, according to a blog post by Taylor Martin, who was at the show. Dion, as always, soldiered on.
Nor did anyone see the folk smash “Abraham, Martin and John” coming from doo-wop royalty at the height of the late ’60s hippie era. Perhaps the best-known tale of American assassination (“I just looked around and he’s gone.…”), the single had sold well over a million copies less than six months after it was released, in 1968. That was the year Dion kicked heroin, gave up booze, and began life as a serious Christian, a journey of a half-century—documented in several 1980s gospel LPs—that eventually returned him to his Roman Catholic roots.
“I’m a visual learner,” he says. “And I see life as a relationship with God, that’s what gives you your identity … your mission comes out of that.” The dual missions of Dion: Make music and follow Christ. He doesn’t proselytize, but he doesn’t hold back when asked. “You can’t judge anybody’s heart,” he explains.
Dion tours regularly (he played gigs in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania this past summer); is the subject of a 2022 off-Broadway play written by Charles Messina, The Wanderer; and has put out a dozen new albums since 2000. His 2020 release, Blues With Friends—and marquee friends they are, from Jeff Beck to Springsteen to Billy Gibbons—was Billboard’s No. 1 blues LP of the year.
Lou Reed once said, “Who could be hipper than Dion?” He is one of two American musicians (with Bob Dylan) on the cover of the Beatles album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. While the definition of “hip” seems to change tweet by tweet, there are still young people—many miles and decades removed from the corner of Belmont and 183rd—who think Dion’s cool. A band called King’s Hope—a quintet barely out of their teens, in Leuven, Belgium—released an acoustic cover of “Teenager in Love” on YouTube in 2015.
Why? “It’s an absolute bop!” says vocalist Alexandra Van Landuyt, in an email to the Voice.
Captivated by all the music that floated through his old neighborhood—from opera to jazz trumpeter Louis Prima (who sang “The Monkey Song” in Disney’s The Jungle Book) to the local cantor—Dion’s life changed when he heard Hank Williams’s honky-tonk ballads on the radio. It soothed him as his parents fought outside his bedroom door. He didn’t know what jambalaya was and he sure hadn’t tasted it in the Bronx’s Little Italy, but he couldn’t stop singing about it. Before long, he was taking the subway from the Bronx to Harlem to catch gospel, blues, and R&B at the Apollo, trying to mimic the sound of the horns with his own voice and those of his buddies. Out jumped Bronx doo-wop, and the hits followed. “It’s Black music filtered through an Italian neighborhood,” he has said many times. “It comes out with attitude.”
After the Beatles redrew the pop music map with permanent markers, Dion was the first rock and roll star signed to Columbia Records. But the company shelved a blues-tinged LP he recorded in 1965 (Kickin’ Child, produced by Tom Wilson, who was also the producer of the first Velvet Underground LP) because it didn’t fit their idea of what Dion should be—the industry was looking to mold Dion into a Sinatra for the Pepsi Generation. “I was listening to a lot of Staples Singers at the time,” he says. “I loved Pops’ [Staples] tremolo guitar.” Columbia did not agree, not even for the guy who took “Donna the Prima Donna” to No. 6 for them less than two years earlier. Kickin’ Child was finally released in 2017, by Norton Records. It was embraced by blues enthusiasts and collectors but missed the mid-Sixties blues moment that might have put it on the charts. According to Dion, Pete Townshend (who wrote the liner notes for the record) told him that his ethereal take on Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” was one of his favorite songs.
Through albums of gospel, rock, and pop, Dion clung to his instincts, eventually taking a hard turn into the Mississippi Delta, in 2006, with the release of Bronx in Blue. “That album was a turning point in my life,” says Dion, who did his own picking on acoustic blues by Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Jimmy Reed, and originals by an Italian-American kid baptized at Our Lady of Mount Carmel on 187th Street. Dion’s take on Son House’s “Walkin’ Blues” is so eerie—adorned with warnings and grievous whispers—that you know he’d seen too much of the dark side before giving in to the light.
Dion’s surrender to something bigger than drugs, alcohol, money, and fame, back in 1968, is dramatized on stage in The Wanderer when actor Michael Wartella falls to his knees below a large stained-glass window in the sanctuary of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Between Dion and the Lord above stands actor Joseph Barbara, in the role of Monsignor Joseph Pernicone, parish priest and childhood influence on the restless youngster, who repeatedly asks the boy, “What would make you truly happy?”
That actual moment occurred at his in-laws’ house in Florida, what Dion calls “my first conscious prayer”—the one that released him from his addictions and, as he continued to pray, opened up the path to the happiness Father Pernicone had been talking about all those years before.
The blues he’d been living began to dissipate and the blues he’d always loved endured.
“I had some friends come to see me in Westbury [in late July], and after the show, they said, ‘Dion, there’s young people in the audience!’ At least half of them were singing the blues stuff.”
Dion traces the late career surprise to a 2000 appearance on NPR’s Fresh Air radio program, with Terry Gross. “I was telling her about my life and punctuating the stories with some of the [blues] I grew up to,” he says. “When they repeated the show, my friend [songwriter/producer] Richard Gottehrer heard it and gave me a call. Richard said, ‘I’d like to do an album of those songs you played on Terry Gross. It’ll probably get nominated.’” It did—Bronx in Blue received a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Blues Album, losing to Ike Turner’s Risin’ With the Blues in February 2007. (Turner died 10 months later.)
It’s meaningful that Dion’s nomination was for “traditional blues,” and not simply blues, a genre—not unlike “country”—that has been twisted and diluted nearly beyond recognition by guitarists who feel the need to shred and to imitate Hendrix for attention. The gold standard that Dion seeks (the follow-up to Bronx in Blue was titled Son of Skip James, followed a few years later by Tank Full of Blues) never bends more than a G-string on a slide guitar.
“It came so easy,” Dion says now of Bronx in Blue. “I knocked it out in two days. I don’t even have to think, it just comes out of me. I never saw myself as a blues artist, but it’s the foundation of everything I do.” ❖
Rafael Alvarez, a former staff writer for HBO’s The Wire, is the author of Don’t Count Me Out: A Baltimore Dope Fiend’s Miraculous Recovery, published this year by Cornell University Press.
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