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Published in The Miami Herald on February 7, 2001

Dion Dimucci

2 vintage CDs and it's Deja Nu for Dion all over again

Dion DiMucci — Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member, the guy who gave up his seat on the ill-fated Buddy Holly-Ritchie Valens flight, ex-addict and eternal rocker -- is still very much into the music. And two recent releases — Deja Nu, a collection of brand new vintage-sounding recordings, and King of New York Streets, a career-spanning compilation of his hits and more, firmly establish the longtime South Florida resident as a member of the rock-and-roll pantheon.

"There's a thread that runs through my songs'' he said, one afternoon in the front room of his Boca Raton home. "It's a constant thing; it's who I am and how I see the world and the people in it. I didn't realize until a little while ago, but it's the same guy -- I'm the same guy -- no matter what the song is!''

Most boomers remember the hits, Runaround Sue and The Wanderer, in particular, but thanks to the 3-CD King of New York Streets, many so-called "oldies'' one may have subconsciously attributed to now-extinct faceless, nameless one-hit wonders are identified as Dion's: I Wonder Why, A Teenager In Love, Ruby Baby, Lonely Teenager, Donna The Prima Donna, Drip Drop — and that's just from the first phase of his 40-year career.

Then, reinventing — not himself — but the public's perception, he recorded Abraham, Martin and John, a late-'60s meditation on civil rights, loss and spirituality. After a well-received series of similarly introspective recordings, the former rocker abandoned several self-destructive habits and embraced a newfound spirituality. It resulted in yet another path and a new career as an award-winning Contemporary Christian artist.

He also cut several tracks under the tight supervision of legendary producer Phil Spector in 1974. The planned album was never completed, though a single was released and a compilation of the Spector tracks (with a couple of other songs, including the incredibly self-revelatory Your Own Backyard, later covered by Mott The Hoople) finally surfaced in England in 1981.

"I think it goes back for me to when I was a kid in The Bronx and first heard Hank Williams singing Jambalaya,'' he recalled recently, sitting strumming an acoustic guitar, with his trademark cap and dark glasses.

"I didn't know what the heck Jambalya meant, but I learned about 70 Hank Williams songs by the time I was 15.

"Willie Green, the super in my apartment building in The Bronx introduced me to Sonny Boy Williamson and the blues. Black music filtered through an Italian neighborhood comes out with an attitude,'' he laughed. ``Country music and the blues coming together; that's rock and roll.''


Dion remained active, especially on stage and television. In 1988, he published a frank autobiography, The Wanderer, and later released a new album, Yo Frankie, that received airplay, including highly vocal support from South Florida's ``King of Talk Radio,'' Neil Rogers. He championed the album and presented an in-studio appearance by Dion.

A couple of years ago, actor/director Chazz Palminteri turned the autobiography into a screenplay. A movie hasn't been filmed yet, but Dion wrote incidental music for it anyway. The result is Deja Nu, an album of brand new "oldies'' that sound as if they were unearthed from a dusty studio vault.

The lead track, Shu Bop, garnered some radio play around the country. Another song, Hug My Radiator, was born in the frigid buses Dion rode with Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the rest during that ill-fated winter tour of the Midwest. Every Day (That I'm With You) is a heartfelt nod to Holly. Also featured are a couple of Bruce Springsteen songs sounding as if they were written with Dion in mind, as well as some collaborations with Scott Kempner, a solo artist and producer in his own right, and guitarist of the once-and-future power punks, The Dictators, and ahead-of-their-time rootsy rockers, The Del-Lords.


As cool as Deja Nu is, even more momentous is the release of the New York Streets anthology. Lovingly compiled and meticulously produced, the songs cover every phase of his remarkably diverse, yet consistent, career. Dion's primary instrument, his remarkable voice, started off high and a little wild, but matured into a lithe and evocative vehicle without losing a bit of its trademark edge and attitude. The early hits sound great, of course, and the '70s stuff, which maybe seemed a little light at the time, have aged nicely. The songs from Yo Frankie and beyond wear just as well. Terrific photos and notes by Springsteen, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Waylon Jennings (Buddy Holly's bassist on the final tour), and others are included.

Dion continues to tour (though he prefers not to fly in the winter, for obvious reasons) and plays material from all phases of his multifaceted past. He says that he loves the feedback and emotional response he receives from audiences of all ages. But he's not like some of the oldies acts on the circuit that sell prepackaged nostalgia. ``A lot of these guys don't really care; to them, it's a business. They show up, and they produce, but the music is over for them. They just redo their hits,'' he explained.

"Me, I'll always do the classic records. I love 'em, but the other part of me still wants to create new things.''