TERRY GROSS, host:

Coming up, Dion brings his guitar and performs a tribute to some of the great early rock and rollers, including Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley. His new CD is called "Heroes: Giants of Early Guitar Rock." It ends with this new version of Dion's signature song.

(Soundbite of the song "The Wanderer")

Mr. DION: (Singing) They call me the wanderer - yeah -the wanderer. I roam around around around around. Oh, well there's Flo on my left arm and there's Mary on my right. And Jenny is the girl with that I'll be with tonight. And when she asks me which one I love the best, I tear open my shirt and show her Rosie on my chest. 'Cause I'm the wanderer, yeah the wanderer. I roam around around around around. Oh, well I roam from town to town. I go through life without a care. And I'm as happy as a clown. And with my two fists of iron but I'm going no way on. Oh yeah, I'm the type of guy that likes to roam around. I'm never in one place, I roam from town to town. And when I find myself fallin' for some girl, I hope right into that car of mine drive around the world. 'Cause I'm a wanderer, yeah the wanderer.

GROSS: This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. Fans who love Dion's hits from the '50s and '60s, like "The Wanderer," "Runaround Sue," and "Teenager in Love," were surprised to hear his two recent albums paying tribute to the blues musicians that influenced him. Now, Dion has a new CD called "Heroes: Giants of Early Guitar Rock." It pays tribute to some of his contemporaries, most of them are no longer with us, people like Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, Roy Orbison, and Gene Vincent.

(Soundbite of song "Be Bop a Lula")

DION: (Singing) Be-bop-a-lula, I don't mean maybe. Be-bop-a-lula, she's my baby. Be-bop-a-lula, I don't mean maybe. Be-bop-a-lula, she's my baby doll. My baby doll, my baby doll. Well, she's the girl in the red blue jeans. She's the queen of all my dreams. She's the woman walks around the storm. She's the one that gives me more, more, more. Be-bop-a-lula, she's my baby. Be-bop-a-lula, I don't mean maybe. Be-bop-a-lula, she's my baby doll, My baby doll, my baby doll.

GROSS: That's Dion doing Gene Vincent's "Be-bop A Lula" from Dion's new CD, "Heroes." He brought his guitar to our show to play and sing some of the songs on the new CD and tell some stories about the musicians who originally recorded them.

Dion, welcome back to Fresh Air. It's really great to have you back. When I ask you start by playing a song from a new CD, would you do "Summertime Blues"?

Mr. DION (Singer, Song Writer): Yeah, I'd like to - this is the Eddie Cochran song I did, and it goes like this.

(Soundbite of song "Summertime Blues")

Mr. DION: (Singing) Well I'm a-gonna raise a fuss, I'm gonna raise a holler About working all summer just to try to make a dollar. Every time I call my baby, trying to get a date, My boss says, no dice, son, you gotta work late. Sometimes I wonder what I'm gonna do 'Cause there ain't no cure for the summertime blues.

Terry, this guy had a great sense of humor. I will do the last verse.

GROSS: OK.

(Soundbite of song "Summertime Blues")

Mr. DION: (Singing) I'm gonna take a week, Gonna find me a vacation. I'm taking my problem to the United Nation. Well, I called my congressman and he said quote, I'd like to help you son, but you're too young to vote. Sometime I wonder what I'm gonna do 'Cause there ain't no cure for the summertime blues.

GROSS: I am glad you pointed that out. When I was young and listening to that song when I was growing up, that line, I'm going to take my problems to the United Nation, always made me laugh. Actually, like, you don't hear a lot of pop songs with that in it. Did you know Eddie Cochran?

Mr. DION: I did. He and I played the Palace Theater with Eddie Cochran on 46th Street and Broadway back in his heyday. It was, you know, the late '50s and great looking guy. He wore this tan suit, had this orange guitar, you know, that Chet Atkins Gretsch guitar with the whammy bar on it that Bixby invented in the '50s. And he'd come out, man, take that stance and get it on, you know? He was like, he was a little guy, was about five-foot-two.

GROSS: Really that short, wow.

Mr. DION; Yeah. And the guitar always looks gigantic on him. You know, what's he playing? A bass. You know, but he was a little guy, but man, did he cause a racket, let me tell you.

GROSS: Did Eddie Cochran show you anything on the guitar that you hadn't already thought of?

Mr. DION: Eddie Cochran, he had his own style, but no, I loved rhythm. In fact, I call myself a rhythm singer because, you know, we all develop styles from listening to certain things. I used to go down to the Apollo Theater in Harlem and listen to Red Prysock and Big Al Sears and King Curtis and Sam 'The Man' Taylor, and they'd all play like da-da-da-dop bop da-da-da-dop bop.

So I became like a rhythm singer in some sense of the word. If you give me a beat, I could sing. And Eddie Cochran had that. You know what I'm saying?

GROSS: Yeah, ahah, ahah. Now, your new CD is called "Heroes." How did you choose the song on like what holds them all together?

Mr. DION: Well, it's subtitled "Giants of Early Guitar Rock," and I was trying to, this is quite a story because I always felt like I flew under the radar as a guitar player. Gerry Wexler always told me, the guys at Rolling Stone always told me, they'd say, we didn't know you play guitar, but I played guitar on all my hit records. You know, if I did.

(Soundbite of song "The Wanderer")

Mr. DION: (Singing) Oooh, I am a type of guy that likes to roam around...

You know, I got it from Jimmy Reed. You know that...

(Soundbite of song "You Got Me Runnin'")

Mr. DION: (Singing) You got me running, Hiding, run, hide, hide, hide, run, and away you want to let it go, Babe, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, yeah. You got me girl, What you want? Any way you want to let it roll.

And that's where I got like.

(Soundbite of song "Ruby Baby")

Mr. DION: (Singing) I love a girl and Ruby is her name.

You know, when you use it as a springboard, all that - you know, if Jimmy Reed didn't exist, I wouldn't be here, Terry.

GROSS: Right, right. Well, because you started with Dion and the Belmonts, and because it had a a cappella sound, you know, a harmony sound, the musicianship wasn't emphasized. It was like the vocals that were emphasized. Is that why you weren't known as a guitarist?

Mr. DION: Well, what happened was, I got a record contract down at Lori Records, and they wanted to put this group with me that was from Oklahoma. And they kind of sang like good ol' boys, like, yodi, doti, do, we're out in Oklahoma, doti, doh, doh.

And I said, no, no, guys, guys, let me go back to the Bronx and recruit some of the guys on the street. So I went back, and I recruited the best street singers that I knew. I brought them down to Lori Records, and, you know, they were naming groups after birds and cars at that time, you know, like the Flamingos, the Cadillacs, the El Dorados, you know, stuff like that. So we said, let's do streets. We are going to be called Dion and the Kretoner, which I thought was great, but two of the guys were from Belmont Avenue. And I said, that has a good ring. Let's do that.

I get with these guys, we - God, it was a very defining moment in my life. It just - to create a song like "I Wonder Why" in my little apartment where I lived, you know, with my parents in the Bronx. We were paying $36 a month rent. You know, we had very little room, but here we created "I Wonder Why," and I felt like I was in heaven.

We went down there. We - to Lori Records, recorded the song, and when it came out, they said, put the guitar down. Lead singers don't use guitars. So I kept putting the guitar down, you know, doing these Dick Clark Shows with, you know, you lip-synched the record, and I didn't have a guitar. So there's very few pictures of me with - but yet, every time we created this song, there I was with the guitar playing and working it out, you know.

GROSS: Let me ask you to do another song that you also do on the CD. You want to do "C'mon Let's Go," the Ritchie Valens song?

Mr. DION: Let me try.

(Soundbite of song "C'mon Let's Go")

Mr. DION: (Singing) Well, come on let's go, let's go, let's go little darling. Come on tell me that you love me. Come on, come on, let's go again. Again and again, Well, now, sing me, sing me, all the way down there. Come on now you know I must love you baby. Come on and I'll go it again.

Balalala , bamba, Balalalala,

You know like that.

GROSS: You worked in his other big hit there.

Mr. DION: You know, he a lot of that - he had that rhythm thing, too, that Latin thing going, you know?

GROSS: You know, Ritchie Valens died in a plane crash. You were supposed to be on that plane. You were almost on that plane, the crash of 1959 that killed Valens, Buddy Holly, and the Big Bopper, and, you know, so many of the people who you paid tribute to on this CD are dead, you know, Eddie Cochran, Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly, Ricky Nelson.

Mr. DION: They're all gone except...

GROSS: Del Shannon, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins - do you often think about that? So many people who you came through the ranks with aren't around anymore? And some of them, it's like a plane crash, traffic accidents, suicide, and it's just a real mixe of reasons, illness, drugs, yeah.

Mr. DION: Well, you know, I don't know. I look at like it's the grace of God for me that I am still here. You know, I, you know, they say, if you remember the '60s, you really weren't there, and that was me. I was using a lot of drugs, drinking. I was kind of crazy and got pretty way out there. And in '68, my friend, Frankie Lymon, died of an overdose and just kind of shook me into my senses, and I said, what am I doing, you know. And I said a prayer, and I haven't had a drink or a drug in over 40 years, Terry. It's just amazing. I think God just touched me on the top of my head and said, it's your time.

GROSS: My guest is Dion. His new CD is called "Heroes: Giants of Early Guitar Rock." He'll perform more songs from it after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Dion. His CD is called "Heroes: Giants of Early Guitar Rock." It pays tribute to some of his contemporaries. Let me ask you to do another song that you do on your new CD, "Heroes," and this is the Johnny Cash song "I Walk the Line." Why don't you do the song, then we'll talk about why you did it and how you knew Johnny Cash. Is this a hard one to do solo?

Mr. DION: Well, it - you know, I didn't know, but Johnny Cash wrote this song - it changes key like six times. I didn't know that from some reason. I don't have that musical - but when I got into it, I said, wow, it goes.

(Soundbite of song "I Walk the Line")

Mr. DION: (Singing) I keep close watch on this heart of mine. I keep my eyes wide open all the time. I keep the ends out for the tie that binds. Because you're mine, I walk the line.

You know, he - take a song like that. You know, Johnny Cash was, come on, he was a bad ass. You know, he was like a rapper. He was a country singer, you know, punk rocker. You know, and here he is, he writes a song that is leaning into his relationship, you know, to me to reach higher ground. That's where you go to mine the gold and to go deeper.

GROSS: How did you meet? Did you do shows together?

Mr. DION: Well, I met him in Nashville. And I met him through Waylon Jennings, who was on that Buddy Holly tour with me. We go back again, I said, with that tour because after Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper died in that fatal plane crash, Waylon and I were on that bus alone. I mean, we talked. We bonded. I told him to - in fact, you know, in a way, I feel like I launched his career because I loved the ways he sang, and I always said, you should sing. I loved the way - because we had guitars, and we'd sing on the bus.

GROSS: Was he there just a guitarist?

Mr. DION: It was his first gig. He was playing bass. He never played bass before. He was playing bass for Buddy Holly. He was one of the Crickets on that tour.

GROSS: Oh, so he introduced you to Johnny Cash?

Mr. DION: Yes he did, and I just wanted to...

GROSS: And did Johnny Cash know your records?

Mr. DION: Johnny Cash loved the song that I did called "Born To Cry." It goes ..

(Soundbite of song "Born To Cry")

Mr. DION: (Singing) I'd like to tell something all about the good and the bad. I wish today the world, my friends would stop being sad. There is so much evil around us, I feel that I could die, And I know, that I was born to cry. I know some day, and maybe soon, the master will call. I'd tell you, I won't cry at all. I know some day, maybe soon, But I know that I was born to cry. I said, cry, cry, cry.

You know, I've got to tell you. Let me tell you one thing about this song and one of the reasons why I wrote it. You have minute?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. DION: I was 16 years old. I was walking in Pelham Bay area, and there was a synagogue, and I heard the cantor of the church singing. So I walked in. I was 16. I probably had a tank-top on, and they was wondering what I was doing there. And his name was Henry Rosenblatt. And I asked him, I said what is that? He saw I was interested, and he took me in the back, and he played me some of his father's records, Cantor Rosenblatt, who was in the original Jazz Singer.

And I went home after hearing all that stuff, and I wrote "Born to Cry." And it's kind of like I was cantoring, you know, imitating this rabbi. And it was - it's kind of like fusion, Jewish rock and roll.

GROSS: That's really funny considering, you know, you grew up Catholic and weren't often in a synagogue.

Mr. DION: Yeah, but it's all about the music.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. So Johnny Cash really liked that song "Born to Cry?" It's too bad he didn't record it.

Mr. DION: Yeah. But, you know, the song's like - I recorded a song called "Ruby Baby." You know, like I said, sometimes, you meet people.

(Soundbite of song "Ruby Baby")

Mr. DION: (Singing) I love a girl and Ruby is her name. Hear me talking, now. The little girl don't love me but I love her just the same. What I say? Whoa, oh, oh, oh, oh. I've got love, I've got kisses, too. I'm gonna give them all to you. Now, listen up, Ruby, Ruby, when will you be mine? I'm gonna get you some time, Ruby.

You know, that song, when I met John Lennon, when I met Bob Dylan, and there was somebody else, I know who it was. It was Little Richard's mother, Leva Mae. I want to tell you something, Terry. This is the greatest compliment I ever got in my life. It's number one. She said, are you the boy who sings that song "Ruby Baby?" And I said, yes, ma'am. She said, son, you got soul. And I want to tell you, Terry, I never forgot it.

GROSS: Nice compliment from Little Richard's mother. You know...

Mr. DION: If it came from Little Richard, I probably would've forgot it. But it came from Little Richard's mother.

GROSS: You do a Ricky Nelson song on your new CD, "Heroes," that I'm not really familiar with. It's called "Believe What You Say." How do you know the song, and how did you know Ricky Nelson? And then I'll ask you to do the song.

Mr. DION: Well, I met Ricky Nelson at his birthday party out on the west coast in the late '50s. And, you know, back then, another reason for doing this album - I mean, a lot of guys, we would just watch "Ozzy and Harriet" just to see the last four minutes of it, to see Ricky Nelson holding one of those Martin guitars or Gibson guitars. And James Burton, the great James Burton played behind. So there's a lot of history to a lot of these songs. And this one goes like...

(Soundbite of song "Believe What You Say")

Mr. DION: (Singing) Well, I believe what you say when you say you're going steady with nobody else but me. Well, I believe what you say when you say you don't kiss nobody else but me. Well, I believe, do believe, I believe. I believe, pretty baby, believe you're going steady with nobody else but me. Well, there's one thing, baby, that I want you to know. When you're rocking with me, you don't rock too slow. A-move on in, get toe-to-toe. We're gonna rock till we can't rock no more. I believe, I do believe, I believe, believe, pretty baby, believe you're going steady with nobody else but me.

You know, like that.

GROSS: How well did you know Ricky Nelson?

Mr. DION: I knew him pretty well. I mean, we were like - it was like a little bit of a mutual admiration society because he loved "The Wanderer," "Run Around Sue," again "Ruby Baby." Man, I tell you, Terry. That guy was good-looking. He had them light-blue eyes. Man, I tell you, man. When I first met him, I got so - I must've combed my hair about five times that day. I was like...

GROSS: Put more Brylcreem on it.

Mr. DION: I'm telling you, I said, wow.

GROSS: Was he self-conscious about how much his family and the "Ozzy and Harriet" show had come to kind of symbolize, like, suburban middle-class life in the 1950s?

Mr. DION: You know, I didn't - I wasn't thinking on that level at that time. We were just thinking of, like, songs. And Ricky Nelson and I loved Carl Perkins and Fats Domino, you know. We just - you know. And so we would talk a lot about that and guitars and playing, you know. But he was a very, very shy guy. And I was shy at the time. I just kind of got more verbal as I went along because I got comfortable, I don't know. But he was very shy and remained that way. He didn't talk a lot at all.

Same with the Everly Brothers. I've known the Everly Brothers for years. I think I've heard them say two things. I think Don once said, yup. And Phil said, right. You know, and that was it. They were like, you know, Gary Cooper and, you know - I don't know. It was kind of embarrassing.

GROSS: My guest is Dion. His new CD is called "Heroes: Giants of Early Guitar Rock." He'll perform more songs from it after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Dion. His new CD is called "Heroes: Giants of Early Guitar Rock." It pays tribute to some of his contemporaries. Your new CD is all covers of great songs from the '50s and early '60s. If I asked you to do one more from the new album, is there one that you'd want to do since I've been doing most of the choosing from there?

Mr. DION: Well, I did want to just say that what I was trying to do with the new album was champion the cause of a lot of these great guitar players that flew under the radar. And this is - this album, I just wanted to capture the original intent and essence and passion of these first generation rockers and - let me give you an - this is a Buddy Holly tune that I chose.

(Soundbite of song "Rave On")

Mr. DION: (Singing) Well, baby, baby, now, the little things that you say and do makes me be want to be with you. Rave on, it's a crazy feeling And I know it's got me reeling When you say I love you, rave on. Well, the way you dance and you hold me tight, The way you kiss and say goodnight. Rave on, it's a crazy feeling, And I know it's got me reeling, When you say I love you, rave on. Rave on, it's a crazy feeling, And I know it's got me reeling, When you say I'm revealing your love for me. Rave on, rave on and tell me. Tell me I'm not to be lonely. Tell me you love me only. Rave on to me.

GROSS: Thanks for doing that.

Mr. DION: I just - you know, I must've heard that song like five times a day when I was with Buddy Holly.

GROSS: One of the guitarists you paid tribute to on your new CD is Scotty Moore, who played with Elvis Presley. So I'm going to ask you to do a little bit of "Jailhouse Rock," which I realize is probably hard to do solo, but I'm sure you're the man for the job.

Mr. DION: I had a great band doing this with me, but I'll try to go.

(Soundbite of song "Jailhouse Rock")

Mr. DION: (Singing) We're going to a party in the county jail. The prison band there and they began to wail. The band was jumping and the joint began to swing. You should've heard those knocked out jailbirds sing. Let's rock, everybody, lets rock. Everybody in the whole cell block, They were dancing to the Jailhouse Rock.

GROSS: That's great. I want to thank you so much for performing for us and talking with us again. I really appreciate it. Thank you. And let me just ask you before you go, how have you managed to keep your voice in such good shape?

Mr. DION: Well, I don't - you know. I don't know. I guess it's because, like, many years ago, like I said, 40 years ago, no smoke and no drinking and no drugging, and I think that's part of it, you know, and a lot of love from my friends and my family. It's good to be here, Terry. And thank you again.

GROSS: Dion's new CD is called "Heroes: Giants ff Early Guitar Rock." You can download podcast of our show on our website freshair.npr.org.

(Soundbite of acknowledgment)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of song "Jailhouse Rock")

Mr. DION: (Singing) Number forty-seven said to number three. You're the cutest jailbird I ever did see. I sure would be delighted with your company, Come on and do the jailhouse rock with me. Let's rock, everybody, let's rock. Everybody in the whole cell block, They were dancing to the jailhouse rock. The sad sack was a sitting on a block of stone, Way over in the corner weeping all alone. The warden said, hey, buddy, don't you be no square, If you can't find a partner use a wooden chair. Let's rock, everybody, let's rock. Everybody in the whole cell block, They were dancing to the jailhouse rock. Shifty Henry said to bugs, for heaven's sake, No one's looking, now's our chance to make a break. Bugsy turned to shifty and he said, nix, nix, I want to stick around a while and get my kicks. Let's rock, everybody, let's rock. Everybody in the whole cell block, They were dancing to the Jailhouse Rock. Then they'll do the Jailhouse Rock. And they'll do the Jailhouse Rock.

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