Early Rock Veteran Still Has The Blues
I picked up The Best of Laurie Volume 1 (LES-4003) at a garage sale the other week and it includes “He’s So Fine” by The Chiffons, “A Little Bit O’ Soul” by The Music Explosion, “A Little Bit of Soap” by the Jarmels and “Hushabye” by The Mystics, among other tunes.
If you’re of a certain age, snippets of these songs will load and play on your mental jukebox in all of their AM radio glory and images of where you were when you last remember hearing them will flash on your internal big-screen before you finish reading this sentence. That’s the magic of music.
The album also contains “The Wanderer,” “I Wonder Why,” “Runaround Sue” and “A Teenager In Love” Doo Wop songs sung by Dion, some with the Belmonts, some without. Again if you’re of a certain age these too will register instantly. I remember drunken group fraternity sing-alongs where we’d sing “Runaround Sue” changing one line from “She goes out with other guys to “She goes down on other guys.” Oooooh. We were so naughty in 1965 singing a song from 1961.
Listening to these Dion vocals now you can really appreciate what a great, committed singer he was right from the beginning on 1958’s “I Wonder Why.” The group scored an enduring classic with the oft-covered Pomus/Shuman teen lament “A Teenager In Love” (Bob Marley and The Wailers even covered it!). But Dion’s resigned, mournful version reigns supreme.
When the teenage “thing” ended, ushering in the politicized protest rock of the ‘60s, Dion managed the shift with “Abraham, Martin and John,” as well as did Bobby Darin, another Bronx-born, street-smart (and Bronx High School of Science smart as well!) singer of Italian heritage. But the under-appreciated Darin is a story for some other time.
Perhaps Dion’s tenacity, like that of the late Waylon Jennings, was in part influenced by his almost being on the plane that crashed in February of 1950 killing Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper, among others.
Dion’s career and personal life has had its ups and way downs since then, including a heroin addiction he acquired while still a teenager that he eventually kicked (after a few unsuccessful attempts), but clearly one of the “ups” was his 1962 solo hit “The Wanderer,” which it could be argued, with its boastful, swaggering theme that Dion delivered powerfully and convincingly, presaged rap by decades.
His “wandering” between then and now could fill a book and he’s written it. In 2007 he released Bronx In Blue (see review: http://musicangle.com/album.php?id=426 an album of classic blues and country songs and now at age 72 he’s released this new album of blues originals, which I’ll get to in a minute, but it’s the final track, “Bronx Poem” that stands out as the set’s stunner.
It’s a poem, a rap, an affirmation of life, an admission of fallibility and a belief in redemption. It’s a declaration of love for his wife as well as testament to his religious faith that manages to move this agnostic as greatly as Tim Tebow’s public declarations of faith repel him.
Dion pulls it off with breathtaking depth and a level of sincerity I often find missing from Springsteen’s raps. He even manages to utter a few “yo’s” and get away with them. It takes genuine street smarts to sound genuine doing so and Dion obviously has them.
As for the blues section of the program, if you don’t like blues you’re obviously not going to like this but again, while guys like Rod Stewart and even Paul McCartney take refuge in “the great American songbook,” Dion pulls off with gusto the “street American songbook,” turning out some neat lyrics like “I got a woman who really wants me, I got a woman who wants me gone.”
The playing—Dion on guitar backed by drums and bass— is crisp when it needs to be and shimmering when that’s appropriate but all of the tunes are marked by muscular forward propulsion.
A tribute to Robert Johnson “Ride’s Blues (For Robert Johnson)” takes a now overdone subject and turns it into one of the album’s highlights. Despite his age, Dion manages menace as well as any blues veteran and he remains a great, in-the pocket singer with impeccable phrasing and an ability to perfectly manage dynamic contrasts. Dion’s singing is so strong it’s easy to bypass his playing so after a few passes listening to the singing, try another few concentrating on the playing.
The recording is as honest as the musical program. Dynamics are intact, processing is minimum and there are no gimmicks. When you’ve got a performer of this caliber you won’t be thinking about sound.
Rave on, the kid from the Bronx!