By Don Wilcock
“Sometimes white guys are trying to get inside the blues. Blues guys are trying to get out.”
Dion Di Mucci makes profound statements like that in a Bronx accent that he delivers in a drawl that is the vocal equivalent of a mixed metaphor. It’s as though he were a Bronx borough kid who has spent the summers visiting his grandmother in Arkansas to get away from the street gangs and has become a bit of a hybrid.
He made the above quote to me in 2007 when he’d just released Son of Skip James, the second CD of the three in his blues trilogy. The first was Bronx in Blue. He releases the third, Tank Full of Blues, on January 24th. In the four and a half years since Son of Skip James, Dion has spent significantly more time working on that drawl which now plays a much bigger part in his persona, and he’s not sure he still believes blues guys are trying to get out of the blues.
“I might redefine it because I always said you don’t have to be a young, black guy to have the blues in the ’30s walking to the crossroads because John Paul II had them,” Dion says today. “(John Paul) was born in Poland under the Nazis, under Communism. His friends were dying on the streets so the guy had the blues. Maybe he didn’t define it like we’re talking. He didn’t have the form, the three cords, but he had it. You know what I mean?”
Dion is a complex person. The masses see him as the ultimate Bronx hipster whose late ’50s rock and roll hits “The Wanderer,” “Runaround Sue” and “Ruby Baby” made him one of the first rock and roll stars with all the baggage that went with it, drugs, sex and an attitude with a capital A. That said, he’s still married today at age 72 to Susan, whom he’s been with since he was 15.
Last year he published Dion The Wanderer Talks Truth co-written with religious writer Mike Aquilina. Dion is a life-long practicing Catholic who quotes scripture and is inspired by Psalms that he reminds me are songs in scripture.
To some in the blues community he is an interloper, a Johnny Come Lately switching musical styles late in life. Tank Full of Blues is going to change all that. While most of the songs on the first two blues albums were homages to the classics, this release is mostly originals by a “rhythm singer” as he calls himself who plays guitar with the kind of raw honesty that reminds me of Jimmy Reed.
Not so much that he sounds like Jimmy Reed, but more in that his fingers short circuit the brain and connect directly to his heart like Jimmy did. One cut in particular, “Bronx Poem,” tells his life story that is to blues what Gil Scott-Heron was to rap: fundamental, honest and true to the genre without mimicking its progenitors.
“I’ve never felt more relevant,” he says, “and that’s a wonderful thing. I’m very blessed in that respect because – at my age – I feel a lot of gratitude for that because I have a good mind. I have a good perspective, a good bird’s eye view of where I came from and the music, and how it evolved and the friends I have. I’m just very grateful because this music opened my whole life to travel, to meeting people and everything we think.”
Don Wilcock for Blues 411: You and I did two interviews, one in 2006 and one in 2007. At that time you used the term “cartoon” saying that so many people from that era are viewed as cartoons, and when I do these interviews, Gene Pitney was another one. They’re so real that many people our age have taken what you did and what I listened to in the ’50s and it’s become a lifestyle that’s very meaningful and is much more than a cartoon.
Dion Di Mucci: Well, the thing is probably after that interview I made an album that was kind of an offshoot. It was called Heroes, guitar greats of early rock and roll, and you know when you get guys like Cliff Gallup who played with Gene Vincent and you listen to these guys, they were all into T-Bone Walker, and when you listen to even Chuck Berry’s riffs they come right out of T-Bone Walker riffs. All that Chuck Berry stuff he was playing. So you get guys who just flew under the radar.
DD: Like Paul Burlison who played for Johnny Burnett. When you listen to those guys, and they all were aware of the guys we’re talking about – as far as blues roots, they all had them. I didn’t even know how much I loved them until I recorded Bronx In Blue.
I wouldn’t even think of trying to sing like that at the Brooklyn Fox when guys like Bo Diddley and Little Richard, Chuck Berry and maybe Howlin’ Wolf were backstage. I wouldn’t even think of doing what the Rolling Stones did, like actually mimicking black people. It would have been like absurd. It would have been like what are you doing? What are you trying to do? What, are you kidding me? Why are you singing like that? You don’t talk like that, that kind of thing. So, who would even think of it?
So I guess recording stuff like “The Wanderer,” “Ruby Baby” and “Drip Drop,” they were all like blues songs, but what we did was go into a major key, and that’s rock and roll. That was rock and roll back then. You just turn blues into a major key, and you had rock and roll. And you put a little lift into the music. It was a little happier.
Even though “The Wanderer” is a dark song because the guy’s saying, “I roam from town to town. I go through life without a care. I’m as happy as a clown with my two fists of iron, but I’m going nowhere.” It’s really a dark, but we put such a spin on it. These were like cleverly disguised blues songs. So, some of those artists, like Cliff Gallop to me, people are very unaware of him. But he changed things. I think he infiltrated the culture of music, but he never wanted to leave Norfolk. He was a janitor in a school or something. He didn’t want to leave. He loved his wife, and he stayed there. He didn’t want to go on the road.
B411: I think you’ve transcended that chasm between people like your early self and Rolling Stones and the other side of the coin like Chuck Berry and the people at the Brooklyn Fox, particularly on “Bronx Poem.”
DD: Oh, you heard that?
B411: Oh, my God. You’ve found a voice there that’s authentic and not derivative of anyone. It’s so you.
DD: I always say I don’t sing black, and I don’t sing white. I sing Bronx. [Chuckle]
B411: In this particular song you’ve blown through to the other side.
DD: Wow. Thank you for that. I don’t know anyone who’s listened to that. You’re the first guy I’m talking to about it. But thank you ’cause it was totally free abandon stream of consciousness. There’s no melody. There’s no particular formula to the music. I just was playing and talking.
B411: So, that wasn’t written down in advance?
DD: Well, some of I was. Some of it was. Kind of what I do is with that I had some thoughts, and I fill it in. You know, it’s like I put some points, just to keep me in the continuity of it.
B411: Have you ever heard Gil Scott-Heron’s stuff?
B411: He came before the rappers, and he was the jazz guy. What you’re doing here reminds me so much of him. Knowing you as well as I do, it blew my mind. I heard it for the first time yesterday, and I think it’s the best thing you’ve ever don by a long shot. It’s marvelous.
DD: Well, you know, its’ funny. (Blue Horizon label head) Richard Gottehrer heard it and said, “You know, we should put that first.”
DD: I said, “It’s gonna throw people off.”
DD: I said, “That’s not a blues song.” I thought they’re gonna have the wrong idea about what the album’s about. It was kind of an afterthought, a meditation thing. It’s a funny thing. I was running it by my daughter. I said, “I want to do this.” She said, “Just make it three minutes. People get bored.”
B411: God, no.
DD: So, I don’t know how long it is, but I just kept going. Now that I listen to it, the weird thing about it is I could fill in, fill in, fill in, fill in. You know what I mean?
DD: I could keep going. Good thing I just left it, but I tell you, even the guitar work on it has no rhyme or reason. Well, it does have a rhyme or reason, kinda punctuating the words, but it was just one time right through, and I left it.
I have two of the reasons I did this album. I have artist friends that I talk to, and it started with Jay Sieleman from the Blues Foundation. He’s not an artist, but he loves the blues.
B411: Yeah, I know Jay very well.
DD: Jay said to me, he said, “You know, Dion, what’s wrong? Today, blues is guitar driven. Only guitar. Everybody leans on guitar,” and we both agreed that’s what it should be. It’s blues. We’re going, “Yeah, okay. What else?” He says, “Back in the day, Robert Johnson had a story. There was some kind of narrative and some kind of genius about his writing,” and I said, “You know, I tell ya, Jay. I’m gonna lean in on the stories.” Maybe I made it too much of a narrative, but even “Tank Full of Blues.” “I got a woman who wants me and another who wants me gone.”
B411: Great line, a great line.
DD: When I wrote that line I said, “How come nobody ever wrote this?” There’s two women in my life, and I’ve finally had it.” That kind of thing. So a woman who wants me, and a woman who wants me gone. When I wrote the line I said, “How come nobody ever wrote this line?” You even get a line like that? What the hell?
Anyway, but then I had this vision in “Ride’s Blues” of me driving Robert Johnson to the crossroads. I figure the song is all about him being at the crossroads and trying to flag a ride from the crossroads, but he was in town. He asked me for a lift. So I drove him there, and I had this conversation with him and then I put that song together. I said, “I got some stories here.”
So, I started leaning towards stories and really drawing pictures. I love drawing pictures with words. Like even in “Holly Brown” it says, “I’m trying to get next to you any way I can. You’re like a soft wind summer breeze. When God made you he was really pleased.” It’s just a beautiful line to me that like, wow, okay, I got something now. “When God made you, he was showing off.”
Anyway, so I kept it up, and I thought I‘m gonna write these blues songs. I’m gonna lean on the narrative, the story, or the words. Blues is not a thinking man’s thing. I would never do a thing that’s contrived, ’cause I thought it came off really natural, so that was one of the things Jay told me. He said, “You should lean on the words a little ’cause people kind of toss them off. Jay was saying the words are the least important. It’s very guitar oriented. It’s very guitar driven which it should be.
I don’t know. I don’t listen to that much of new blues. So Jay was saying they kind of toss the words off. There’s certain things you hang your hat on that’s gotten me through the 72 years, out of the drugs, kept me married, kept me sane. That’s the other thing. One was the words. Jay was saying. “I don’t hear enough good story telling.”
This was a conversation I heard. Maybe he didn’t even say it the way I’m saying it. It was just a passing thing, but what I came out of the conversation with was why don’t you push the envelope a little with the writing of the words. So, anyway, I tried to lean on the story. That was one thing.
The other thing is in “The Bronx Poem” I do mention a lot about God. At 72 years old, I kid you not, I feel more relevant than I did when I was in my 20s making hit records, and you can hear it, and the reason is it’s like I’m connected a little. I open my heart to my creator, and however I choose to word that.
B411: How did you feel when (noted music journalist) Dave Marsh told you you were the most relevant pop star from your era?
DD: Okay, that’s the second thing. Jay told me about the story in the blues, and Dave Marsh told me about being the most creative and relevant over all these decades. He said, “You’re truly an artist for the ages.” I wanted to start arguing with him. I really did. It really encouraged me, and then what those two things did for me, Jay and Dave Marsh, was I wanted to start expressing who I was in this genre.
If you look at Tony Bennett, he does it great whatever he does, but he expresses it, or he interprets classics, and I thought that’s what I wanted to do on Bronx in Blue, and what I wanted to do on Son of Skip James. There are so many good songs out there. Let me go back and get some of these chestnuts. New people should hear these things.
Then, after those two remarks from Jay and Dave Marsh I thought, you know, let me express who I am within this genre. Let me start expressing who I am and what I can do in this musical form ’cause I loved the blues. I never realized how it was everything to me until I did Bronx in Blue. When I went in I cut that album in two days. I thought, “This is really what’s the center of my being.” I never knew it. I kind of overlooked it because of the era I came from.
That was the conversation we had a little while ago when I said the Rolling Stones did this and that, so I thought maybe it was a part of me, but I didn’t realize if it was another time, and I was born in another place. Man, that’s all I would’ve been doing, but it comes out on this latest album.
B411: Boy, does it!
DD: That’s only me on guitar. I’m the only guitar player. That’s me, and I thought, “I don’t know how to play a lot, but I’m in the groove. I like to play in the groove.
B411: Charles Messina is collaborating with you on a play called The Wanderer, The Life.
DD: Well, he’s writing it. I’m just giving him information. You know, I guess in a way we’re collaborating. Yeah, we are, but he’s a playwright. He’s a young guy. He’s almost 40, and he was born in the Village, and I relate to him because he’s a rhythm writer. I’m a rhythm singer.
B411: Can you define that?
DD: A rhythm singer?
B411: I know what rhythm singer means. What does rhythm writer mean to you?
DD: Well, he has kind of a pace that he – I don’t know. I just feel it. I was having lunch with David Gonzales whose writing a Times piece, and he was telling me his son put together a little essay, but he was trying to explain to his son you got all the facts right. You Google-ed, everything is in there, but now you gotta make people feel, and you gotta give it a rhythm,” and that’s what made me think, “Oh, really?” It’s a rhythm that takes you along, that connects everything, and it’s the rhythm of the streets and the rhythm of the city.
But I know when I’m reading it or seeing it, I know when I don’t have it. I always thought Bobby Darin was a rhythm singer. I go see Kevin Spacey doing his life story, drove me nuts ’cause Kevin Spacey is not a rhythm singer. He hijacked his songs. Yeah, he killed ’em. He destroyed the whole thing to me.
That’s why I think anybody could sing rock and roll, but I don’t think anybody could sing the blues. You need something in the blues. You need that feeling. There’s something about it. You need to be connected to it. I don’t think you can learn it.
B411: Do you think Mike Aquilina is a rhythm writer? [Author of the as-told-to autobiography Dion The Wanderer Talks Truth]
DD: I like him. Yes, I do. In a way he has his own – do you? You read some of his stuff. Do you like it?
DD: You don’t like the way he writes?
B411: No, I was disappointed in the book to be candid about it. I wanted more. You and I are always honest with one another, so I’m being honest.
DD: No, you’re honest. I’ll think about that next time because he is a religious writer. He was trying to get my rhythm. He’s a very heady guy. I was hesitant about answering that because I think he’s more of an intellectual, more of an academic writer.
To be continued
photos of Mr. Di Mucci provided courtesy of Joseph A. Rosen http://www.josepharosen.com/
other photos courtesy of artist
We would also like to extend thanks to Mr. Joseph Rosen for his soul capturing photos
of Mr. Di Mucci.
Love, Peace & Chicken Grease