Dion (aka Dion DiMucci) has been a respected and acclaimed singer/songwriter for an amazing 60 plus years, and he’s still going strong. He’s been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and he’s known for his classic hits from the late ‘50s & early ‘60s: “The Wanderer,” “Runaround Sue,” “Ruby Baby” and “A Teenager In Love.”
Dion, who is 82, remains a very active artist who continues to release high-quality albums. He has just released his latest album called Stomping Ground, for which he co-wrote 13 of the 14 songs. And impressively, he has recruited many music legends to collaborate with him on the album. The list of All-Stars who contributed to the album includes Bruce Springsteen & Patti Scialfa, Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Billy Gibbons (of ZZ Top), Peter Frampton, Boz Scaggs, Joe Bonamassa and Rickie Lee Jones.
Over the years, Dion’s music has evolved from his early era, when he was a pioneer in rock & roll, to being the blues-rock artist that he is today. Stomping Ground is the second album of excellent blues-rock that he’s released in the past two years. In June 2020, he released his album, Blues With Friends, a solid collection that includes collaborations with Springsteen & Scialfa, Gibbons, Bonamassa, Paul Simon, Van Morrison, Jeff Beck, Brian Setzer and Stevie Van Zandt.
For his latest work, Stomping Ground, Dion wrote and recorded it during the pandemic. He wrote 13 new songs (mostly with Mike Aquilina), and then recorded the tracks with co-producer, Wayne Hood. Then he would send a specific track to the guest artist, who would mostly contribute guitar solos. For example, the song “Dancing Girl” features Knopfler, “If You Wanna Rock ‘n Roll” features Clapton, and the title cut “Stomping Ground” features Gibbons.
On other key songs, there are guest vocal performances. Patti Scialfa contributes lead vocals to “Angel In The Alleyways,” Rickie Lee Jones adds her vocals to “I’ve Been Watching,” and Boz Scaggs on “I’ve Got To Get To You.”
Here’s the video of Dion’s song, “Angel In The Alleyways,”
feat. Patti Scialfa & Bruce Springsteen.
Dion grew up in the Bronx, New York, and early on he developed a love for country music, particularly Hank Williams. He also loved early rock ‘n’ roll and doo-wop music. When he was 18, he signed his first label deal in 1957, and he teamed up with his music friends (Carlo Mastrangelo, Fred Milano & Angelo D’Aleo) to form the group, Dion and the Belmonts. The group had several pop hits, including the classics “A Teenager In Love” and “Where or When.”
Then in 1960, Dion decided to launch his solo career, and it wasn’t long before he had a long string of Top 10 hits. Besides his best-known solo hits “The Wanderer,” “Runaround Sue” and “Ruby Baby,” he had the hits “Lovers Who Wander,” “Little Diane,” “Love Come to Me,” “Donna the Prima Donna,” “Drip Drop” and “Abraham, Martin & John.”
Currently, in addition to his latest album Stomping Ground, Dion is looking forward to the opening of a Broadway musical called The Wanderer, which is based on his life and music. The musical will have its pre-Broadway premiere next March, at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Milburn, New Jersey. The Wanderer was written by playwright Charles Messina and stars Michael Wartella (of Wicked) as Dion, Christy Altomare as his wife, Susan, and Joey McIntyre (of New Kids On the Block) who plays Johnny, Dion’s best friend.
We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Dion. He talked about the making of his Stomping Ground album, and how he recruited his great list of collaborators. He also discusses his early years and his classic hit songs.
DK: You recently released your new album, Stomping Ground. Can you talk about the making of this album?
Dion: In a way, the shutdown miraculously worked for me, because it focused me. We were locked up to an extent. I was under the wellspring of creativity where my gifts really flourish, and I think I wrote some of the best songs of my life. I’ve always wanted to do that, because in the blues genre, it’s very guitar-driven which I love. But I wanted to raise the bar a little lyrically and story-wise, and tell some stories that people would want to hear and engage. I love taking people on a trip with the stories.
Here’s the video of Dion’s song “Dancing Girl,” feat. Mark Knopfler.
Then when you write a good song, I know how to express it. I’m not hearing anybody in my head except the story and the way I want to tell it to people. That’s what happens here, and I know how to make a record…I’ve been doing it a long time. I put a great track and song together, and then I’d think about adding some of the best guitarists on the planet. I was thinking…if I ask them, do you think they’ll help me?
So I write the best song I can write, and then I’m listening to it in my truck and I think…You know, it would be nice to hear Mark Knopfler on this song. He has that beautiful, romantic, distinctive guitar-playing sound. Then I asked him, and he was more than willing to play on this song. I was very grateful that he played on it.
DK: You have a lot of great artists on Stomping Ground, and on your previous album, Blues With Friends. Are they all friends of yours, or do you sometimes reach out to people that you don’t know?
Dion: Well it all depends. A lot of people I know…in some way or another we’ve connected through the years. But somebody like Rickie Lee Jones, I had never met her. A friend gave me her email, and I contacted her. She said, “Oh, I’m so happy that you connected with me. (Top producers) Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman told me about your last album, and you want me to sing with you on this album, of course I will. My mother and sister and I used to dance to ‘The Wanderer’ and ‘Runaround Sue’ in my kitchen.” And then we became friends. She’s lovely and sweet.
Another instance is Eric Clapton. I’d met Eric, but I never went out to lunch with him or anything. (Blues guitarist) Sonny Landreth gave me his email, and when I contacted him, he said, “Dion, you were part of my music wake up—Big Bill Broonzy, Robert Johnson and B.B. King. And now you’re asking me to play with you? I’ve gotta pinch myself” (laughs).
So we became friends, and there’s one other guy that I’d never talked to—Peter Frampton. And man, that’s one of the biggest surprises. Not only is he a great guitarist, but he’s a very special man. And it’s really a treasure to form a relationship with Peter and become friends. I think it’s priceless…it goes way beyond making an album.
Here’s the video of Dion’s song, “Take It Back,” feat.
DK: On your new album, you did a collaboration with Patti Scialfa & Bruce Springsteen on your song “Angels In The Alleyways.” Can you talk about writing this song, and working with Patti and Bruce on it?
Dion: This is an interesting story. I wrote the song and I sang it with my guitar, and that’s all I had. Just me and my guitar. It’s the only song that I sent out that wasn’t a finished, developed track. So I sent it to Bruce and Patti, and Patti called me back and said, “Do you have a bass and drum on this, or a piano? What else do you have on this track?”
I think Patti’s voice works perfectly with mine because she has this soulful vibrato. I call it a Jersey soul girl, and I think she sounds perfect with me. So when she asked me about the track, I said, “I wanted you to hear me loud and clear so you could match up the harmonies. So if you wanted to echo a line, sing with me or whatever, I’m sending it to you raw and stripped down, so you could hear every line clear.” So then she sends me back 64 tracks! 64 tracks—that’s more than my whole career! (laughs). So I’m looking at this stuff and I’m saying, What the hell? Then I went into the studio. I thought…Well, if you want to make a guy feel loved, you know they didn’t phone it in. So I called Bruce and said, “What’s going on? I love what you did, but there’s 64 tracks.” He said, “Dion, everything on that song is Patti’s production. She just loved the song and she had an idea of where she was taking it.” I said, “She’s doing something different on every verse. There’s five verses and they’re all different.” And he said, “That’s Patti. I just want you know, she told me where she wanted my guitar, my harmonica and vocal and that’s it. That’s what you got.”
DK: Perhaps my favorite song on your album is the title cut “Stomping Ground,” which is fun and has great energy. How did you write that song, and connect with Billy Gibbons to play guitar on it?
Dion: Billy Gibbons is a trip, man. I know Billy Gibbons, and he’s the most distinctive guy…not only his guitar playing but everything about him. The way he walks, the way he talks, the way he dresses, and even the way he writes an email. And the way he plays guitar. You know, his guitar has a lot of gravitas. So when I wrote the song, “stomping ground” is an expression that I’ve used all my life. And where I grew up in the Bronx, we called it my stomping ground. It was like home. So when I wrote the song, it was about scenes in my neighborhood and how I felt walking the streets and singing. And when I listened to it, I thought…this is a song for Billy Gibbons to play on. Then I sent it to him and he was like, “Yeah I get it,” and he got right into it.
Here’s a video of Dion performing his classic hit “The Wanderer”
in the early ’60s.
DK: I want to ask you about your classic days in the early ‘60s. You wrote “Runaround Sue” and other hits with songwriter Ernie Maresca (who wrote “The Wanderer”). What was it like during those days, writing your hits with Ernie Maresca?
Dion: Well, Ernie was a neighborhood guy…I loved him a lot. He was practically the first songwriter I ever hung out with. Ernie was a fun guy; he was the only guy I ever heard who sang with a Bronx accent. He was definitely an original. It was a lot of fun hanging with him. Most of these songs that I wrote with Ernie were created on the street, just jamming and banging on cardboard boxes and singing these riffs. We usually didn’t have any instruments. Sometimes I had a guitar, but most of the time I just would orchestrate a couple of guys to sing a riff. I’d give them some sounds and sing on it. It was very primitive; we weren’t trained musicians…it was all in our head. So that’s what we did.
DK: Currently I read that you’re working on Broadway musical called The Wanderer, which is based on your life and music. Can you talk about your new show?
Dion: I would hang out and talk with Charles Messina, who’s a playwright from New York and a friend. One day he comes to me with this story. He said, “This is from our conversations.” He wrote a play with great substance that’s very entertaining. It has rock & roll street history, it has action, it has romance, it has betrayal, it has a lot of laughs, and it has great music. And the cast—the kids that are in it are just superb. Joey McIntyre is from New Kids On The Block, and Christy Altomare played the lead in Anastasia when it was on Broadway, and Mike Wartella (who’s plays Dion and was in Wicked) is superb. And a lot of the kids are so talented. You walk into a room, and there’s 40 talented kids wanting to do their best. It’s so live-giving. If I knew Broadway was so much fun, I would have gotten involved with it much earlier.
DK: Dion, you’ve been an active artist for over 60 years. How have you stayed so active and creative for all these years?
Dion: I’ve gotta be honest with you. If I didn’t get in a 12-step recovery program in 1968, I don’t think I’d be here. Because I’ve been clean and sober for 54 years now. You can’t do it drugging and drinking…you cannot do it. So I mean, if you unzip the top of my head and look inside my brain, you’d see a very peaceful place, and a very orderly place. It’s not perfect (laughs), but you know what I’m saying. And I’ve been married for 58 years. I live very simply and good. I like good food and I like being alive, and I love my family. I’ve balanced it out—family, work, recreation, your inner light, your spirituality. You balance it out like four spokes on a wheel, so the wheel turns smoothly. It’s the only answer I can think of.