'The Wanderer' Has Got the Blues Dion DiMucci used to sing rock 'n' roll hits: That's him on "Runaround Sue" and "The Wanderer." But he says he's always really been a blues singer. His new CD, Son of Skip James, is his second blues album.
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'The Wanderer' Has Got the Blues

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'The Wanderer' Has Got the Blues

'The Wanderer' Has Got the Blues

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When Dion DiMucci made it big in the music business, it was the early '60s, and his music sounded like this.

(Soundbite of song, "Runaround Sue")

Mr. DION DiMUCCI (Singer): (Singing) Ah, I should have known it from the very start, this girl will leave me with a broken heart. Now, listen people what I'm telling you. I keep away from a Runaround Sue.

WERTHEIMER: "Runaround Sue." But now Dion has got the blues.

(Soundbite of song, "If I Had Possession (Over Judgment Day)" )

Mr. DiMUCCI: (Singing) If I had possession over judgment day. If I had possession over judgment day. A little woman that I'm loving will have no right to pray.

WERTHEIMER: That from his new CD "Son of Skip James." Actually, Dion has been a bluesman at heart since his early days back in 1962 when he was a young sensation from Belmont Avenue in the Bronx. Remember Dion & the Belmonts?

After signing a half-million-dollar contract with Sony, Dion recorded hits like "The Wanderer" and "Lonely Teenager." "Son of Skip James" is Dion's second blues recording in recent years. And on it, he pays tribute to the likes of Robert Johnson, Willie Dickson and Chuck Berry. And he plays a couple of his own cuts as well.

Dion DiMucci joins us now from member station WLRN in Miami. Welcome to our program.

Mr. DiMUCCI: Hi, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Let me ask you about the blues. You stayed away from the blues for a long time. Why, and why record now?

Mr. DiMUCCI: A lot of my friends, they think I grew up to rock and roll, but I didn't. I grew up to Hank Williams, Jimmy Reid, Howlin' Wolf, listening to a race record, blues. And there was a janitor in my neighborhood in Bronx, New York City, played blues, and I learned all that from him. And then when I got a contract, they shoved these songs in front of me, and I interpreted them. So people today, they say, gee, is this stuff a stretch for you? I say, no, "Teenager in Love" was a stretch for me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DiMUCCI: I was - I think it was the undercurrent of those songs you were talking about like "The Wanderer" and "Runaround Sue." Maybe those songs will cleverly disguised blues songs, you know, treat them as rock and roll songs.

WERTHEIMER: What about Skip James. Your title is "Son of Skip James." And that's the title track. Could you play a little bit of that for us?

Mr. DiMUCCI: Yeah. It goes like…

(Soundbite of song, "Son of Skip James")

Mr. DiMUCCI: (Singing) You now wanna be more like Jesus. Mary don't you weep. I'll keep my lamp turned and burning. His grace don't come cheap. I'm the son of Skip James. Whoa, my father taught me well. You know, I can't live without Sunday. It will be a burning hell. You know, there's a slow train coming. Whoa.

You know, like that.

Skip James, I was the…

WERTHEIMER: Who was he?

Mr. DiMUCCI: Well, I was the first rock and roll singer signed to Columbia Records, which is Sony now. And Dylan came up there and, you know, in the early '60s. You know, I was at a lot of his early sessions. And when he went up to Newport folk festival to do "Blowing in the Wind," I went up there and I met Skip James. He was - they took him out of retirement. He was a great blues singer. He was like from out of space. And we talked about guitars. We talked about blues. We talked about God. And he passed away right after "Abraham, Martin & John" went gold like in 1969. I had a big record out at that time, which he loved. And we became friends. So I kind of used the title as a mission statement.

WERTHEIMER: Well, let's listen to one of his songs. It's the only one that is on this album and it's called "Devil Got My Woman."

(Soundbite of song, "Devil Got My Woman")

Mr. DiMUCCI: (Singing) I'd rather be the devil, rather be the devil, and be my woman man. You know nothing but the devil, know my baby's mind.

WERTHEIMER: Why did you want that one - of all the Skip James' songs that you might have chosen?

Mr. DiMUCCI: Well, it's one of his most popular songs. It fact, it was so popular that Robert Johnson - the American roots master that was inducted in for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame wrote a song called "Me and The Devil" because he was so taken with Skip James doing that song. It has great lines. He says, the woman I love took up with my best friend. But I got lucky, he stole her back again.

(Soundbite of song, "Devil Got My Woman")

Mr. SKIP JAMES (Blues Artist): (Singing) The woman I love, woman that I love, woman I love took up my best friend. But he got lucky. Stole her back again.

Mr. DiMUCCI: These guys were like back-road genius poets, you know? And my definition of a genius is maybe the distance between what they were doing and what everybody else is doing, you know?

WERTHEIMER: The Robert Johnson cut on that's on this one, let's just listen to a little bit of that one.

(Soundbite of song, "Preaching Blues")

Mr. DiMUCCI (Singer): (Singing) I'm gonna preach this news. I'm gonna take my seat and sat down. I'm gonna preach this blues. I'm gonna take my seat and sat down. I'm gonna be like a preaching man. I'm gonna ramble from town to town. I will be like a preacher's man. I'm gonna ramble from time to time.

WERTHEIMER: There's a lot of religion on this album. Robert Johnson - isn't he supposed to have made a deal with the devil with his gift of music?

Mr. DiMUCCI: Ah, let's see. I don't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DiMUCCI: Well, if you listen to his music, you know, that "Crossroads," and basically said, I'm going down to the crossroads to fall down on my knees, ask the Lord above have mercy, save poor Bob, if you please.

You know, my definition of the blues is the naked cry of the human heart longing to be in union with God. The form of the blues helps us express our joys, our fears, our - anything you want to express. And it helps you get it out instead of it spiraling inward and you're getting twisted up and exploding. So it's a bit of salvation.

WERTHEIMER: Your religion is important to you, I take it, from the speech.

Mr. DiMUCCI: Yeah. Absolutely. I have a few - like songs that kind of focus in on that. Like there's one called "The Thunderer."

WERTHEIMER: That just jumped out of the album at me.

(Soundbite of song, "The Thunderer")

Mr. DiMUCCI: (Singing) God's angry man, his crotchety scholar, was Saint Jerome, the great name-caller. Who cared not a dime for the laws of libel. And in his spare time, translated the Bible. Saint Jerome, the Thunderer.

WERTHEIMER: God's crotchety scholar. Why did you write about Saint Jerome?

Mr. DiMUCCI: Well, you know, I was talking to a theologian in Rome. He - I told him, I said, ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of God. That's a Saint Jerome quote. So he said to me, well, Saint Jerome, he gives ignorance new meaning because he translated the Bible twice. I said, he did? He said, yeah, he was born in what we now know as Croatia. And when he was 12 years old, they sent him to Rome and, you know, the pope just saw how bright he was. And when he got older, he had him translate the Bible from Greek to Latin.

Then he made friends with a rabbi. And the rabbi taught him Hebrew. And he translated it again. I got enthralled with the guy. I said, wow. You know, so I wrote lines like he didn't like Romans. He didn't like Greeks. He didn't like women's painted cheeks, you know? But he wasn't a plastic sort of saint, you know?

WERTHEIMER: I wanted to ask you about the dim distant past. When you were a kid and you were still rocking and rolling, you were almost on the plane that went down with Ritchie Valens and Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper. I mean, my high school, we lowered the flag to half-staff for that one. It was huge with us. Does that - does it stay with you?

Mr. DiMUCCI: I was - I just spiraled downward after that. I was just wondering what is life about. You know, I kind of started drinking, drugging, and I was hanging out with Frankie Lyman. And in 1968, Frankie Lyman died of an overdose. And it just rattled me again. And I said something's wrong. And I went to a little church. I got on my knees. I said a prayer. And I came out - I can't tell you. Linda, I was just changed. And I haven't had a drink or drugged for 40 years.

WERTHEIMER: Didn't "Abraham, Martin & John" come out of that moment of rebirth?

Mr. DiMUCCI: Yeah. I think three months after that prayer, I put that song together, and it was the first song, I think, I did from like a different vantage point, you know? From like a spiritual vantage point.

(Soundbite of song, "Abraham, Martin & John")

Mr. DiMUCCI: (Singing) Does anybody here seen my old friend Abraham? Can you tell me where he's gone? He freed a lot of people, but it seems the good they die young. Now just look around and he's gone.

WERTHEIMER: This is the second blues album?

Mr. DiMUCCI: Mm-hmm.

WERTHEIMER: Is there another one coming?

Mr. DiMUCCI: I have an idea for a new album but I'm not going to tell you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: It's okay.

Mr. DiMUCCI: I'm excited about it. I got - but, you know, it's all - I mean, the blues is the undercurrent. It's what motivates me. You know, I think it's at the center of my being, and everything else is kind of like the fruit of listening to Jimmy Reed and Hank Williams. And I really like communicating some of these lyrics that were written from these, you know, these American roots artists - the masters of the blues. They're just incredible.

Like who would think of starting a song like Bo Diddley.

(Soundbite of song, "Who Do You Love")

Mr. DiMUCCI: (Singing) I walk 47 miles of barbed wire. I use a cobra snake for a necktie. I got a brand new house on the roadside. I'm going down…

You know, who would think of starting a song with, I walk 47 miles of barbed wire. I use a cobra snake for a necktie. I got a brand new house on the roadside made from rattlesnake hide? I mean, I don't - it just blows my mind, you know?

WERTHEIMER: A lot of people, of course, have never heard it.

Mr. DiMUCCI: Well, listen to that. Like the "Son of Skip James" starts with the song, "Nadine." And when my wife heard it, she said, Dion, are those the words to "Nadine"? I said, yeah. She said, I never heard them, you know

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DiMUCCI: Being I was doing them like in this kind of mode, you know, this casual mode, you know, like…

(Singing) I saw her from the corner when she turned and doubled back. She started walkin' towards a coffee-colored Cadillac. I was pushin' through the crowd, trying to get to where she's at. Campaign shouting like a Southern diplomat. I said, Nadine…

Now, who would think of those words in the '50s. I mean, that was written in '55, you know?

WERTHEIMER: Yeah. And I'm not recognizing any of those words until you get to Nadine.

Mr. DiMUCCI: Yeah. Isn't that - you know, I saw her from the corner when she turned and doubled back. She started walking towards a coffee-colored Cadillac. I never saw one of those. but I could see it now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: Uh-huh. Uh-huh. But what I started to ask you is are you - do you feel like you're kind of leaning a little bit toward the rock and roll side for this one?

Mr. DiMUCCI: Well, you know, I always - I, you know, I'm a born rock and roll. Like I'm a blues rocker or whatever, you know? But I'll tell you one thing, Linda. I started singing with a guitar when I was a kid in junior high school and then high school. And you walk to the front of the stage and you have your little band, and you just walk to the mic and, you know…

(Singing) I got this all same feeling (unintelligible). I don't know what I'll become. I've got to tell you (unintelligible). I got a lonely mood.

You know? And I never changed. I still like walking to the front of the stage with my band rocking out. So I'm just a die-hard. By the way, I don't know what I was singing there, but…

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: Whatever it was.

Mr. DiMUCCI: I haven't the slightest idea. But you know what I'm talking about.

WERTHEIMER: I do. Dion DuMucci, joining us from member station WLRN.

It has just been fantastic to talk to you.

Mr. DiMUCCI: Thank you, Linda. Yo.

WERTHEIMER: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song, "Nadine")

Mr. DiMUCCI: (Singing) I saw her from the corner when she turned and doubled back…

WERTHEIMER: There is more Dion music at npr.org/music. This is WEEKEND EDITION. Scott Simon is back next week. I'm Liane Wertheimer.

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