Wednesday, September 28, 2011
DION and THE WANDERERS - TWO TON FEATHER
One of the great pitfalls of being an artist in the music industry (particularly the American music industry) is that you may get pigeonholed into a certain genre of music. No matter how great or how varied an artist is, that artist is going to be known by one or two of his or her biggest hits. For me, there are two great artists whose later work gets cruelly ignored, while their early records get spun over and over again. They are The Everly Brothers and Dion, and one of the (many) things they have in common is that, unlike a lot of similar 1950s hitmakers, Dion and the Everlys actually made a conscious attempt to keep up with the changing times without losing their sense of self - and often the results were breathtaking.
Example: in most rock and roll accounts, The Everlys were a hit-making machine on a small label (Cadence), and were pretty much unstoppable. Then Warner Brothers came calling. They had a few hits for Warners in the early 60s, then those damn Beatles came along and they (and their matching pompadours) were knocked out of the box for 10 years, broke up in 1973, and made a huge comeback in 1984. That's it. Well, the truth isn't that simple. A closer look at the Everlys' output for Warners from 1964-1970 reveals, among other things, that the brothers worked with The Hollies (on the LP "Two Yanks In England"), Ron Elliot of The Beau Brummels, and pretty much invented the late-60s revolution called country-rock (dig up their 1968 LP "Roots" to hear the brothers show the world how it's supposed to be done). They also wrote many songs covered by others during this period ("Man With Money", done by A Wild Uncertainty and The Who; "It's All Over", a hit for The Casinos and later recorded by artiste Scott Walker) and put out killer singles, like 1965's "The Price Of Love" (one of the loudest, most rocking singles of the 60s - no wonder it hit #1 in England) and "You're My Girl". They also did the garagiest (is that even a word??) version ever of Little Richard's "The Girl Can't Help It" (from their 1966 LP "Beat & Soul"). Not to mention that Don Everly used to like to get high with Jimi Hendrix and trade guitar licks. In other words, the music was up to par, and the Everlys were still revered all over the world. The only ingredient that was missing? They couldn't get a hit in their home country, mainly because folks dismissed the Everlys as "that 50s group" without even listening to the music!
The same exact thing happened to Dion DiMucci. Born in the Bronx on July 18, 1939, he grew up on the mean streets of New York, joining a gang (the Fordham Baldies), and immersing himself in a world of fights, street drugs (becoming addicted to heroin by the time he was 18) and, luckily, music. Basically, Dion was Lou Reed ten years before Lou was. Except for the homosexual part.
Dion's dad was a vaudeville entertainer, so music was a big part of his upbringing, and Dion liked all kinds of music - especially country and western and blues. But the music of the Bronx streets was a capella, aka "group harmony" or "doo-wop" (though nobody used that term in the 50s), and Dion fell right in, singing with his buddies Carlo Mastrangelo, Angelo D'Aleo and Fred Milano (good Irish Catholics all) on street corners. He and the boys auditioned for two neighborhood guys, Bob and Gene Schwartz, who had a small label called Mohawk Records. They signed Dion but not the group, and put Dion together with a vocal group called The Timberlanes (these were NOT the Belmonts; according to Dion, he never even met the Timberlanes). They put out one single, "The Chosen Few"/"Out In Colorado", with arrangements by Hugo Montenegro (!!!). The single was later leased to the larger Jubilee label, and promptly flopped. Dion then convinced the Schwartz brothers to record him with his group, named The Belmonts (after Belmont Ave. in the Bronx). Since the streetcorner sound was becoming big business at this time (1958), the Schwartz brothers agreed, and released the first Dion and The Belmonts single - "We Went Away"/"Tag Along" - on Mohawk. This also flopped. Since Mohawk was becoming a "bad luck" label for them, the Schwartzes decided to form a new label, called Laurie. The first 45 on the label was Dion and The Belmonts' follow-up to "We Went Away", called "I Wonder Why". The record started to sell big-time in New York, Alan Freed got wind of it, and the rest is history. Dion was now a star.
By 1960, Dion and The Belmonts had a half-dozen hits under their belts, and Dion had already made his first trip to rehab for his addiction. The money was tight, and Dion was always the focus anyway, and so in late 1960 Dion went solo. He had some huge hits for Laurie ("Runaround Sue", "The Wanderer", "Lovers Who Wander", "Little Diane", "Love Came To Me", "Sandy"), then moved to the major Columbia in late 1962, where the hits continued ("Ruby Baby", "Donna The Prima Donna") all the way up to early 1964, when Dion's remake of the Drifters' "Drip Drop" hit Top Ten.
But at that point, several forces combined to knock Dion out of the spotlight. First, of course, was The Beatles, who totally dominated the charts during the early months of 1964. But Dion probably could have weathered the storm like many other American artists (Gene Pitney, The Beach Boys, Del Shannon, Bobby Vinton). However, it was at that time that Dion (encouraged by Columbia's legendary A&R man John Hammond) decided to take his passion for the blues to the forefront, and his next few singles for Columbia were pure blues - "I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man", a bluesy version of Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" (backed with Dion's version of "Chicago Blues"), and "Spoonful". It was also around this time that Dion's heroin addiction began to rear its ugly head again, and Dion took another couple of months off in late '64 to try and shake it.
When he came back in mid-'65, Dion had a band. Featuring John Falbo on guitar, Pete Baron on bass, and former Belmont Carlo Mastrangelo on drums, they called themselves Dion and The Wanderers, and put out several singles on Columbia under that name, and the above record is the best of them by far. Released in June of 1966, "Two Ton Feather" is what it would sound like if Bob Dylan inhabited Dion's body for three minutes. Clangy guitars, foot-stomping percussion, Dion's tough-guy vocals and somewhat abstract lyrics (though nowhere near the abstractiveness of Dylan's) make this a lost masterpiece.
Unfortunately, the single died on the vine (like all of Dion's Columbia singles after "Johnny B. Goode"), and was the last 45 he ever put out for Columbia (though CBS rummaged through some old tapes after Dion had the comeback hit "Abraham, Martin And John" on Laurie and put out "I Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound" as a 45 in mid-1968). The contract with Columbia ran out in late '66, and Dion reunited with the Belmonts for an LP and two singles for ABC in '67 (one of the LP cuts was a rewrite of "Two Ton Feather" called "Jump Back Baby"), re-signed with Laurie Records in early '68 (after finally kicking his heroin addiction) and hit big with "Abraham, Martin And John". After another year at Laurie, he signed with Warner Bros. in 1970 and spent most of the early 70s as a sensitive singer-songwriter. He later worked with Phil Spector on the LP "Born To Be With You" and then became a born-again Christian, recording religious music for several years.
But everybody wanted the old Dion back. The Wanderer. Bragging about the women he'd bagged. It's still that way, unfortunately. Dion continues to record interesting music (his two semi-recent blues CDs - "Bronx In Blue" and "Son Of Skip James" are definitely worth searching out), but most people want the early 60s Dion back, and consider his fine mid-60s work an aberration, his "weird period". I suggest you go out and find the 2-CD set "The Road I'm On" from 1997, or, if you don't want to break your pockets, try "Bronx Blues: The Columbia Recordings (1962-1965)".
If I ever get Dion in my radio studio for an interview, we definitely would need to talk about his love of the blues. Then I could die a happy man.
Dion and The Wanderers - Two Ton Feather (Columbia 4-43692) - 1966