Thursday, October 2, 2008


On his new album Dion remembers his musical heroes
* By Leslie Gray Streeter
Palm Beach Post

September 26, 2008

There are no Gene Simmons songs on Dion DiMucci's new album. But he did influence it, kind of.

"I was talking to a friend of mine, a record collector, and I asked "Do you know who Gene Vincent is?'" recalls the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, doo-wop legend and Boca Raton legend. "He said 'Did he sing with KISS?'"
The fact that anyone would confuse Gene Vincent, the rock pioneer of Be-Bop-A-Lula fame and Gene Simmons, of demonic face paint fame, was enough to send DiMucci on a crusade to turn the spotlight on the long-neglected architects of early rock - his contemporaries.
"I got the feeling that people were looking at the '50s like this (creatively) light era," says Dion, whose newest album, Heroes: Giants of Early Guitar Rock (Saguaro Road Records) comes out Tuesday. It finds him putting his own spin on the music of Vincent, Ricky Nelson, Chuck Berry, Elvis, Roy Orbison and others.

"Les Paul guitars were invented in the '50s. Fender guitars were invented in the '50s. Grunge was invented in the '50s, really, with Link Wray," he says. "And then there were all these great guitar players that flew under the radar. I thought 'Let me put it together under one umbrella.' It was definitely a labor of love."
The Bronx native and long-time Palm Beach County resident recently expounded on his musical crusade. And how not taking that fateful flight almost 50 years ago, the one that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper and was immortalized as "the day the music died" on Don McLean's American Pie, helped shaped his faith.

Question: The thing that strikes me is that while many artists do tribute albums, it is interesting to see it done by a contemporary of those artists.
Answer: A lot of those songs, I heard four times a day. I did shows with these people, like with Buddy Holly and the Winter Dance Party (tour), I heard Rave On all the time. I lived with those songs, in a sense. It's been 50 years, coming up, that Buddy and Ritchie (Valens) died in that plane crash in 1959. That must be working up something in my system. Most of the guys (whose songs are covered) on the album are gone. The only ones that are left are the Everly Brothers and Chuck Berry.
Q: And you want people to know how beautiful it was, musically.
A: I see the '50s jammed, choked, with important artists. It's the only (era) that giants walked the earth, between the '50s and early '60s. The first thing was Chuck Berry, and the second thing was the Beatles. Then everything is kind of a spin-off, if you know what I mean, as far as rock and roll goes.
Q: What kind of response have you gotten from this project?
A: Yesterday, I spent a half-hour with Conan O'Brien - a friend of mine knows him. I didn't know how into the music he was. He was very aware of Eddie Cochran, and the sense of humor that he had - "I'm gonna take two weeks, gonna have a fun vacation/Gonna take my problem to the U-nited Nations/ Well, I called my congressman and he said 'Quote: I'd like to help you, son, but you're too young to vote.'" (Laughs) That's pretty cool for the '50s.
You know, Conan has a lot of beautiful guitars. He's a collector. He knows Rave On inside and out. He opens his show with it.
Q: He does?
A: Before the taping starts, he goes out there with guitars and plays all this stuff. I didn't know it, either. He's very bright about all that music.
Q: In some cases, you picked songs other than the ones the artists are primarily known for, like with Chuck Berry and Del Shannon.
A: There are some songs I loved so much that I just couldn't stay away from them, like (Johnny Cash's) I Walk The Line. That song's so different. It changes key five times. For Del Shannon, I was gonna do Hats Off To Larry, but with Runaway, I thought there might be somebody who hasn't heard it. Everybody in the world has done that song, but in the end it was hard not to do it. I traveled with Del, and that's such a great song.
And I was gonna do (Ritchie Valens') La Bamba, but I thought "I'm gonna ruin the Spanish," so I did Come On, Let's Go instead. And that Ricky Nelson song, Believe What You Say, is a great song. It was originally done by the Johnny Burnette Trio. Johnny died in a boating accident in 1964. But with him and his guitar player, Paul Burlinson, you can hear the beginning of rock and roll. They wrote that song and sent it to Ricky, and with (guitarist) James Burton behind him, you got a classic. There was so much history in one song, I couldn't stay away.
Q: So this is a musical history lesson.
A: Rolling Stone magazine started in 1967, and they sometimes seem to think that rock started with the Beatles. And it started to get on my nerves, to be honest. That's why I called the last album Son Of Skip James, because (the early Delta blues guitarist) was the father of it all. At my age, I wanna champion the cause and get those names out there. Even black people today, they think B.B. King is singing white music. They don't know the roots of a lot of stuff.
Q: On the DVD (that comes with the CD), when you're explaining the stories behind the songs, you seem to be having a ball.
A: Man, we rocked out!
Q: You told two very personal stories, about your relationship with Roy Orbison and about how you were nearly on the plane crash in 1959 that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper.
A: Roy had that very soft-spoken way about him. He was a very tall, very easy guy to be around. He was a Southerner... he wasn't a New Yorker! (Laughs) Sometimes we can be kind of energetic. But Roy had that warmth - Europeans are like that, too. I don't know the word... kind of laid back? Not pushing or pulling. He was a very warm gentleman. Carl Perkins was like that, too, an easy guy to be around, and very generous. He would show you chords on the guitar, and was so open, a very front porch kind of a guy.
Q: Do you mind talking about the plane crash? (DiMucci, who was on the Winter Dance Party, opted not to pay for a seat on the rented plane that was taking Holly and others from Clear Lake, Iowa, to Fargo, N.D., because they'd tired of the freezing tour bus.)
A: No. You know, at 19, I was baffled. I was shocked. My wife was standing right there (when the news came), because she was my girl at the time. When I got back to the Bronx, she said I was in shock for three weeks. You think about what happened to me.
Q: So what do you do with that at 19?
A: It made me go deeper about what life is about, who I am, what it's all about - all those questions. Here I am, 19 years old, feeling like I'm on a field trip with all these guys. I'm on the bus and we're just playing. It was just wonderful for two weeks. I wish I'd had a tape recorder going on that bus. And when it's ripped out from under you, all of a sudden you're alone. Waylon Jennings and I became lifelong friends after that. He was the bass player. He was supposed to be on the plane.
Q: You're very open about your faith. Did having that experience have any influence on that quest for meaning and, ultimately, your faith?
A: I think it did. It made me ask questions I probably wouldn't have asked. If you don't ask questions, you don't get answers. You get stuck. People just get stuck in life, living with these false belief systems. I could see it, everything that your mind is thinking that isn't true. It can tell you all of this (stuff) - "I'm ugly. I'm not good enough."
Q: So ultimately, you want to make sure that these guys, and this era, aren't forgotten. Does it ever make you angry to think that it could be?
A: It's a funny thing. I'm one of the only guys - and I don't even know how, to this day - but I'm not angry. I don't feel self-righteous. That blinds you from seeing stuff more accurately, if you're seeing them through a net of resentment. A lot of the early rockers have a lot of resentment, with (losing out) on publishing royalties and things like that. In my case, I kind of put everything to rest. I don't know... I see the era as a beautiful time for me.

Dion, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member, talks about the songs on his new album, Heroes: Giants of Early Guitar Rock.

1. "Summertime Blues", Eddie Cochran: "It's got a real sophisticated sense of humor, that one."
2. "Come On, Let's Go," Ritchie Valens: "It's got just a kind of 17-year-old, total passion about it, a Latin passion."
3. "Rave On," Buddy Holly: "Just the title! Come on! 'Rave On!' It's awesome!"
4. "Believe What You Say," Ricky Nelson: "That's me. That's my story. It's what I believe."
5. "Bye Bye Love," The Everly Brothers: "It's a happy sad song. Or a sad happy song. I don't know which... How would you put that?"
6. "Be-Bop-A-Lula," Gene Vincent: "Oh...(Chuckles) Was that one written about a hooker? (Cracks up) I don't know. But I wore that record out."
7. "Runaway," Del Shannon: "It's a classic. I love that song because of the changes. It goes from minor to major, and there were few songs in the '50s that did that. It's beautiful, with four movements to it, four distinct parts - the verse, the lead up to the falsetto, the falsetto and the instrumental."
8. "Jailhouse Rock," Elvis Presley: "It's a classic rock song, and the words are awesome. Who wrote that? Leiber and Stoller, right? Come on! In the verses , I almost feel like a rapper. It's in the rhythm."
9. "I Walk The Line," Johnny Cash: "It's about leaning into your relationship, not leaning out of it. This is such a different song."
10. "Blue Suede Shoes," Carl Perkins: "That's another song I wore out. It's the total feel of it. When I was a kid and heard that song, dime after dime went into the jukebox. God knows what I spent on that."
11. "Who Do You Love," Bo Diddley: "He was a genius, a back road country poet. He was actually fashioning his own guitars, electronically. The guy was way, way ahead of his time. He was such a beast! He just embraced the rawest and most futuristic sound I ever heard. He was another beautiful guy, very easy to get along with. He was sweet, like 'Come on in, I'll cook you something!'"
12. "Sweet Little Rock and Roller," Chuck Berry: "Chuck is a dynamo. He could get in your face. But I love him. I just go, 'Go, Chuck!' I think this song is not the most done of the Chuck Berry songs, so I went a little outside on that (choice). It's pure Chuck Berry."
13. "Dream Baby," Roy Orbison: "It's one of my favorite Roy Orbison songs. I added a bridge to it, that had never been done. It really is on the border between fantasy and reality, like a dreamy quality."14. "Shake, Rattle and Roll," Big Joe Turner/Bill Haley and The Comets: "There are two versions, and the one I liked was Big Joe Turner, because it was the first one I heard. I never really cared for the Bill Haley version, to be honest with you. It's a little rinky-dink compared."
15. "The Wanderer," Dion: "It's there because of my wife. She said 'If you don't put one of your songs on there, I'm gonna kick your a—.' I said 'No, it's about my heroes, not about me,' but she said 'You really belong there.' It's my signature song. I think I did a good version of it, after all these years."
- Leslie Gray Streeter
(*Thank you so much, Barb!)