RAMBLIN' ROUND: Nothin' like 'Blues With Friends'

Dion: "Blues With Friends"

Riddle me this. What singer:

• Was born and grew up in the Bronx?

• Learned to perform as a child singing Hank Williams songs?

• Had his first big hit leading a doo-wop group in 1959 with a song about a teenager's romantics woes?

• Recorded three more huge hits in the pre-Beatles early 1960s, including two with the names of girls in the title?

• Had another huge hit in 1968, which some think helped the nation enter a healing phase following the assassinations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy?

• Beginning in 1979, recorded several contemporary Christian music albums?

• Was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989 by Lou Reed?

• Saw plans for a Broadway musical about his life apparently put on hold after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the Great White Way earlier this year?

• Has continued to record acclaimed solo albums, including his new release "Blues With Friends"?

• Whose friends joining him on the album include Van Morrison, Jeff Beck, Joe Louis Walker, Billy Gibbons, Paul Simon, Joe Bonamassa, John Hammond Jr., Rory Block and Brian Setzer, among others?

• Whose musical guests on the album Includes a musical couple, Patti Scialfa and her husband, some guy named Bruce Springtseen?

• Had a longtime friend of his, the 2016 Nobel Laureate in Literature, write the liner notes for his new album?

The answer my friend is Dion DiMucci, better known by his first name only, Dion.

I'll admit I felt a little skeptical when I saw that Dion had written or co-written all 14 tracks on his new blues album. With so many timeless blues songs already in existence, could a brand new album of blues songs sustain an entire album?

The answer in this case is a resounding "Yes!" All of the songs aren't strictly 12-bar blues songs per se, including "Can't Start Over Again," "Song for Sam Cooke (Here in America)" and "Hymn to Him" — but they all help sustain the album's mood.

One of the things that most surprised me was to learn that Dion has released his great new album at the ago of 80! Not that I put any limit on age when it comes to great musicians. I once watched as bluegrass legend Bill Monore performed an exquisite set — and even did an impromptu clog dance — at the Sanders Family Bluegrass Festival in McAlester.

I just didn't realize so many years had passed since Dion had recorded those early 1960s hits such as "Runaround Sue," "Ruby Baby" and "The Wanderer" — which, come to think of it, has the same chord progression as many standard blues songs.

The other factor: Dion not only looks years younger on the album cover, he also moves like a man several decades younger than his current four-score years.

All of which would mean nothing if his new album was not filled with great music — and it certainly is.

I would have searched it out and listened to it if for no other reason than to hear the tracks with Van Morrison and Jeff Beck. I liked them so much I decided to check out more of the album. I'm so glad I did.

Having a group of fantastic fellow musicians on a album in itself is not a guarantee of a great musical experience — even with some superstars in the mix. Sometimes, for whatever reason, the music simply does not gel.

No worries about that aspect regarding "Blues With Friends."

One of my favorite tracks is "I Got Nothin' " which features smooth blues vocals from Dion and Van Morrison, accompanied by stinging guitar riffs from Joe Louis Walker. It's been released with a video shot in black and white. It's in a minor key, reminiscent of the B.B. King classic, "The Thrill Is Gone."

Another favorite is the country-flavored "Can't Start Over Again," featuring tasty licks from Beck on his Fender Telecaster. It's also been released with an accompanying black and white video — and even if the footage of Beck was obviously lifted from another performance, it's still fun. (Yes, the blues can be fun. Just ask anybody who's attended the "Dusk 'Til Dawn Blues Festival in Rentiesville).

Dion is too cool, leaning against a wall in a Western-styled hat and shades, hitting the perfect tone with his voice, while Beck does the same with his finger-picked guitar riffs.

Billy Gibbons, taking a break from ZZ Top, rips into his churning riffs on the mid-tempo blues cooker, "Bam Bang Boom." Brian Setzer, who first shot to fame as a member of the Stray Cats before forming the Brian Setzer Orchestra, makes taking a ride on the "Uptown Number 7" a rocking experience.

Paul Simon joins Dion for a personal song Dion wrote about one of his friends and a musical legend in his own right on "Song for Sam Cooke (Here in America)." It's not a blues song per se, but it fits perfectly.

"Hymn to Him" features Scialfa and Springsteen. They're both back in the mix, with Dion taking the lead on the spiritual song — another album highlight.

I did an earlier "Ramblin' Round" featuring Dion, with that column celebrating his 1968 recording of "Abraham, Martin and John." I had no idea at the time that he would release a brand new album that would become one of my favorite releases of 2020.

When Bob Dylan, awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature for "having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition," sat down to write the liner notes for "Blues With Friends," he aimed straight for the heart.

"Dion learned early on that the way to be heard and reach hearts was to sing in his own rhythmic voice," Dylan writes in the liner notes. "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 all the way back home to the blues."

So the Nobel laurette thinks Dion's new recording is bringing it all back home?

Hey! That would make a great album title!

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com.

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