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THE WANDER YEARS : Musically, Dion's the Type of Guy Who'll Never Settle Down

October 03, 1991|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition.

They call me the Wanderer, yeah the Wanderer.

I roam around, around, around, around.

Dion DiMucci has been the Wanderer in a more telling way than rock 'n' roll fans could have imagined 30 years ago, when he first grabbed them with that brash, swaggering refrain.

"The Wanderer," a huge hit in 1961, was about loving 'em and leaving 'em--a commonplace Casanova fantasy that a young star like Dion probably could have achieved without undue effort. But in retrospect, it's clear that Dion's most impressive wanderings were musical. For more than three decades, he has explored a wide array of rich, roots-oriented styles that make him one of the most diverse, adaptable performers to have emerged from rock's first wave.

Doo-wop harmony and good-time rock 'n' roll were the basis for the streak of early hits Dion scored from 1958 to 1963, first with Dion & the Belmonts, and then as a solo performer. The list includes such oldies-radio staples as "The Wanderer," "Runaround Sue," "I Wonder Why" and "A Teenager in Love."

The British Invasion of 1964-65 ended the parade for most of Dion's peers, who were left to await resurrection by nostalgia. But Dion was able to absorb new influences and find a new style as a folk-rocker in the late '60s and '70s.

A recently released compilation album, "Bronx Blues: The Columbia Recordings (1962-1965)," offers new revelations about just how far Dion's stylistic reach extends. Its most fascinating tracks are a series of straight, raw, Chicago-style blues songs that either were never released or fell quickly into oblivion. Such historic acts as the Rolling Stones, the Animals, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band get most of the credit for first bringing pure blues to a new audience of young white rock fans. As it turns out, Dion was on the same track at the same time.

Speaking over the phone recently from his home in Boca Raton, Fla., Dion, now 52, recalled that his handlers at Columbia were bent on transforming him from a teen idol to a crooner of smooth, sophisticated songs for the adult market. They proceeded on the prevailing wisdom of the time, that rock 'n' roll was a passing fad.

When Dion started stomping out heavy beats and banging tough blues progressions on his guitar, they were horrified.

"The producers walked out of the room. They didn't want any part of it," Dion said, his voice grainy but bright, and heavy with a Bronx accent.

Dion went ahead on his own, and the results stand up well today alongside some of the better-known blues excursions by young white rockers of the period. "Sweet, Sweet Baby," a Dion original from mid-1963, fuses the blues with the zesty harmonies of his earlier work. "Troubled Mind" is a frayed, plaintive dirge that prefigures the Animals' "House of the Rising Sun." Dion's composition, "Kickin' Child," from 1965, owes a debt to Bob Dylan's bluesy side, while gutsy covers of such blues standards as Willie Dixon's "Spoonful" and "Seventh Son" make one wish that the Yardbirds could have recruited him.

Dion said he owed his blues introduction to a guitar-playing black man he recalls only as Willie, who worked as a building superintendent in the Italian-American neighborhood where Dion grew up in the Bronx.

"He'd play out on the stoops on those hot August nights," Dion recalled, his tone softening to burnish the memory. "We'd have the fire hydrants open, having a party in the street. He'd be on the stoop playing the guitar, and I'd be right next to him. It just thrilled me, but I didn't know what (Willie's music) was connected to."

After he signed with Columbia in 1962, Dion got to know John Hammond Sr., the famous talent scout and producer who worked for the label.

"His little ministry, his cubbyhole at Columbia, was all these black artists. It was like an obscure thing, in this one room," Dion said. Hearing the R&B influences already evident in Dion's rock 'n' roll recordings, Hammond introduced him to traditional blues records like the first Robert Johnson "King of the Delta Blues Singers" collection.

"It was the stuff Willie was doing," Dion recalled. "It was the first time I made the connection, that he was attached to a musical community that I knew nothing about--the rural blues."

Considering what was happening in his personal life during the early- to mid-'60s, it is not surprising that Dion was able to sing some expressive blues. In his 1988 autobiography (written with Davin Seay), he paints those years as a desperate, chaotic time. Dion casts himself as a man out of control, driven by longstanding insecurities stemming from a turbulent home life as a child, and by a heroin addiction that began in his mid-teens.

"I was an egomaniac with an inferiority complex. One terrific guy," Dion remarks dryly in his book.

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