Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Dion is happy to have the blues and even more happy to share them.
He does exactly that on his new album, "Blues With Friends," which teams him with such longtime Dion fans — and fellow Rock Hall inductees — as Van Morrison, Paul Simon, Jeff Beck, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Scialfa and Billy Gibbons.
"I could make a good record on my own, but — with these guys — it's sublime," Dion said, speaking by phone from his Florida home in Fort Lauderdale. "What these guys do is mesmerizing and masterful."
Not surprisingly, "these guys" all jumped at the opportunity to collaborate with the Bronx native born 80 years ago as Dion Francis DiMucci and long known as, simply, Dion. His name has long been synonymous with such classic doo-wop and rock songs as "A Teenager in Love," "The Wanderer," "Runaround Sue" and the inspirational 1968 ballad, "Abraham, Martin & John," which he wrote about the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln.
"When the opportunity to collaborate with Dion presented itself, I was truly excited to accept the offer," ZZ Top leader Gibbons told the Union-Tribune recently, via email. "At heart, he's a great blues man and his singing prowess is truly stellar. While the term 'legendary' has, perhaps, been overused, it definitely applies to Mr. DiMucci."
Those sentiments are amplified by another longtime admirer, Bob Dylan, who wrote the liner notes for Dion's new album and has been a musical pal for more than 50 years.
"Dion learned early on that the way to be heard and reach hearts was to sing in his own rhythmic voice," Dylan writes. "And when you have a voice as deep and wide as Dion's, that voice can take you all the way around the world and then all the way back home to the blues
"Dion knows how to sing, and he knows just the right way to craft these songs, these blues songs. He's got some friends here to help him out, some true luminaries. But in the end, it's Dion by himself alone and that masterful voice of his that will keep you returning to share these blues songs with him."
'This guy's incredible!'Dion and Dylan quickly bonded when they first met, not long after Dylan was signed by Columbia Records in late 1961.
Dylan was 21. Dion was nearly two years older but had been a national star since his late teens. Dylan had attended a 1959 concert in the Midwest that featured Dion, Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens, the latter two of whom died in a plane crash.
"Everything you need to know about love is in 'A Teenager in Love'," Dylan once said of Dion's 1959 hit, which was later covered by everyone from Bob Marley & The Wailers to the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Dion, in turn, recorded three Dylan songs — "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," "Farewell" and "Baby, I'm in the Mood For You" — in 1965, although they were not heard by the public until the 2017 release of Dion's "Kickin' Child: The Lost Album 1965." His 1992 album, "Dream on Fire," features a stirring version of Dylan's "One Too Many Mornings." Dylan, meanwhile, lovingly covered Dion's "Abraham, Martin & John" in the 1970s.
"I was the first rock 'n' roller signed to Columbia Records and Bob came up following that," recalled Dion, who recorded "The Lost Album 1965" with Dylan producer Tom Wilson and such noted Dylan collaborators as Al Kooper.
"I was at a lot of Bob's early recording sessions, and they were incredible. A lot of people don't know this, because he is the greatest songwriter of the 20th century and beyond, but he's also a great blues singer. I heard him sing 'Maggie's Farm' a long time ago, and I thought: 'This guy's incredible!'
"So when I was thinking of somebody to write something for (the liner notes) about the music on this album, I thought: 'Let me go to somebody who knows how to put words to music and knows what he's talking about.' I called Bob and he really liked the album."
Dion was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame by Lou Reed in 1989, the same year that Stevie Wonder, the Rolling Stones, Otis Redding, The Temptations and blues vocal pioneer Bessie Smith were also inducted.
By coincidence, Smith's final recording sessions before she died in 1937 were overseen by Columbia Records' honcho John Hammond Sr., the man who signed Dion, Dylan and other then-budding legends to Columbia.
'Singing with Aretha Franklin'
"My first epiphany with the blues was when I was 12 and heard Hank Williams sing 'Honky Tonk Blues'," Dion recalled.
"My second was after I'd recorded (1961's) 'Runaround Sue.' I was at Columbia Records, sitting on a piano stool in a producer's office, singing with Aretha Franklin. John Hammond's office was across the hall and he called me in. He said: 'Dion, you have a flair for the blues.'
"He played me Robert Johnson's (1927 recording of) 'Preachin' Blues' and then some records by Mississippi Fred McDowell, Leroy Carr and Lightnin' Hopkins. I just went crazy! I got very excited and resentful at same time. I was like: 'Who's been hiding all this from me? How come I never heard this before?' Then I started collecting records by Big Joe Williams and all those guys who were coming out of that blues tradition, which is a living tradition that is passed along. It's been a part of me since back then. People who hear my new record may think that I've changed, but I really haven't."
Indeed, he hasn't.
Dion's vocal delivery on his 1962 hit "Ruby Baby" was inspired by blues giant John Lee Hooker's 1952 song "Walking Boogie." And the bluesy ache in Dion's singing is palpable on his chart-topping 1961 hit, "Runaround Sue." It was around then that he did a concert tour of the south with such blues mainstays as Bobby "Blue" Bland and Little Willie John.
"The blues is such a wonderful gift," Dion said. "Because it's simple and you can express any emotion with it — joy, fear, betrayal, excitement. It's like B.B. King once said: 'I never knew singing about something so bad could make you feel so good!' The blues is a beautiful form of music that God gave to us."
Accordingly, all but one of the five small-label albums Dion has released since 2006's enchanting "Bronx in Blue" have focused entirely on blues. That makes the new "Blues With Friends," which features 14 songs co-written by Dion, the latest recorded testament to the earthy music he has happily embraced for decades. Because of his famous musical guests, however, his latest album could take his blues passion to a broader audience.
"Blues with Friend's" highlights include "I Got Nothin'," a tart, 12-bar blues that features Van Morrison and ace guitarist Joe Louis Walker; the slow-boiling "I Got the Cure," which showcases the superb Louisiana bottleneck guitarist Sonny Landreth; and the understated charm of "Told You Once in August," a country-blues circle dance with John Hammond Jr. and Rory Block. Equally notable is "Song for Sam Cooke," a heartfelt duet with Paul Simon, a ballad Springsteen would surely be happy to claim as his own.
"I wrote the song about Sam a long time ago," Dion said. "It was never recorded, because I just thought it was too long, too personal. Then, last year, I saw the movie 'Green Book,' and I loved it. I knew (the film's producer and co-writer) Nick Vallelonga, and his father, Tony Lip, who was on 'The Sopranos.' So I took the song about Sam out of the drawer, and we recorded it with Paul.
"You might think the song is about racism in America, which Paul and I are both very aware of. But this is more a song of brotherhood and about Sam Cooke's understanding and compassion for me when we did that tour in 1962 with Bobby 'Blue' Bland and Little Willie John. Sam took me to see James Brown perform in Memphis and people were getting on my case (for being white).
"Sam was a very tall, refined gentleman, and I was from the Bronx and rough around the edges. He protected me. He understood me. And he was always the brightest guy in the room. It was very segregated down there in the South, which — coming from New York — was new to me. Sam understood the deal, and he was kind of above the circumstances. I never saw him lose his temper or get squirrely about stuff. He was remarkable."
Dion is already thinking about his next album. And, he proudly noted, Gibbons and Morrison have both expressed interest in performing the songs from "Blues with Friends" in concert with him, once the coronavirus pandemic has diminished and concerts return.
"I haven't had a drug or a drink in over 52 years," Dion said. "I got involved in this spiritually based 12-step program, which is cool because you get to know what motivates you. I think that's what kept me writing new songs and kept me relevant — to some degree — over the years."
He laughed with delight.
"Music opened up my whole world. When I was young, I was trying to do something really great. I'm still like that! The road is still evolving, and it's a good feeling."