He wasn't kidding when he called himself the Wanderer. Like no other '50s rocker, Dion DiMucci has worn many stylistic hats, and worn them with grace and style. He first charted with the vocal group Dion and the Belmonts and "I Wonder Why" in 1958, making the lead singer, along with Ricky Nelson, arguably the first non-Southern white rock star. In 1960, he quit doo-wopping to create such hard-rocking, R&B-based solo hits as "The Wanderer" and "Runaround Sue." After virtually disappearing for about five years in the mid '60s before he finally kicked a heroin (reinforced by alcohol) habit he'd carried since he was a teenager, he returned in 1968 with the folk-rockish "Abraham, Martin and John" and then such confessional singer-songwriter gems as "Your Own Back Yard." In the mid '70s he was produced by Phil Spector for one patchy (but fascinating) album. Following a profound religious awakening late in 1979, he cut five inspirational albums; he then returned to rock in 1989 with Yo! Frankie, a contemporary update of his classic sound produced by Dave Edmunds and featuring guest shots by Paul Simon and Lou Reed, among others. And now, after a relatively quiet 15 or so years, he comes forward with the acoustic blues set Bronx in Blue.
In his brief notes, Dion says that while growing up in the Bronx in the pre-rock era, he listened mainly to blues and country, and his favorites were Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker and Hank Williams; there's no reason to doubt him because he's been saying that for decades. He first recorded Reed's "Baby, What You Want Me to Do," this album's playful closer, while still with the Belmonts. But his taste for blues seems to have been reinforced when he joined Columbia Records in 1963, and legendary A&R man John Hammond, Sr. introduced him to the music of Robert Johnson. He includes no less than four Johnson songs on this album. Dion didn't record country blues while at Columbia, but he did begin peppering his albums with his interpretations of postwar blues standards like Sonny Boy Williamson II's "Don't Start Me Talkin'," Wolf's "Spoonful" and Muddy's "Seventh Son." The flip of the soft, sentimental "Abraham, Martin and John" single was a raunchy, raging — and wholly original — blues called "Daddy Rollin'."
That scarifying record could only have been written and recorded by somebody who knew the blues in many manifestations but who still had to do things his way. And though there's no track here comparable in sound or stance, Bronx in Blue is as much a Dion album as a country blues album; he does not lose himself in the form, but uses it to illuminate another dimension of his life. Being a '50s music-bizzer, Dion is a song guy, and the songs he's chosen here are nearly all unimpeachable blues standards (plus Hank Williams '"Honky Tonk Blues," the sole country selection). They're so widely known that just making them fresh again is a major accomplishment. The main exception is his delightful reading of the more obscure "I Let My Baby Do That," originally recorded in 1934 as "I Let My Daddy Do That" by Hattie Hart. (Despite solo work like this, she's best known for her vocals fronting the Memphis Jug Band.) Dion slips into the song's languid sexiness effortlessly, even adds some lyrics of his own, but never succumbs to the blackface persona of so many well-meaning white-boy adventurists in the blues. Even when he's substituting "duh" for "the," the most common such affectation, he sounds as natural as he did on "The Wanderer" (this doubtless has to do with the swaggering street cred he established with early hits like that one). His pained vocals on "Crossroads" will probably remind you less of Robert Johnson than of Dion's own spiritual bent and the hard choices he had to make over the years. Meanwhile, his guitar work is full and bluesy without embracing purism; the album opens with Johnson's "Walkin 'Blues," where Dion establishes a bright, relaxed groove before picking a stunning outro. But on Wolf's "Built for Comfort" and Lightnin Hopkins '"You Better Watch Yourself" his rhythmic guitar pounds and bruises.
In the end, it's a moving representation of how this black music is felt by a white man who's been around the block a few times. For a guy whose name is virtually synonymous with "Bronx Italian-American," it's also proof positive that even Wanderers can ultimately steer themselves into just the right place.