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Columns > Mike Gruenberg - In My Life

Published: 2008/11/23
by Mike Gruenberg

Dion Son of Skip James

In My Life
Style vs. substance, fiction vs. reality and glitz vs. significance, Check your movie theaters, TV shows, and dont forget the tabloids at the checkout counter at the supermarket. Heres where we see the latest fad, the prettiest lady or the man voted most handsome. All of the people singled on the various entertainment outlets signify todays latest trend and usually end up as tomorrows forgotten heroes. We see it in the entertainment business all the time and most recently weve seen this phenomenon in the political arena. After all, politics has become another vehicle that delivers entertainment.
The shooting star of the Republican party, their Vice Presidential nominee seemed to be the next great politician who would save the G.O. P. She had more style than substance, more glitz than significance and most assuredly did not convince the majority of the American public to vote for her ticket .Haleys Comet comes to mind when describing the ascent to popularity of Governor Palin as she blazed a path across the sky only to unceremoniously crash back to earth. We didnt know her, we got to know her and then she was gone in about two months.
We are besieged with one hit wonders all the time. Some of the people, who look good today, seem to fade from view as the years go by. They may be able to walk the walk today or even talk the talk tomorrow but can they walk the walk and talk the talk twenty or thirty years from today? In most cases, I think not. In the business world, its relatively easy to get the first sale. The more difficult part of the process is satisfying the customer and keeping the sale year after year after year.
Even before I started collecting music, young Dion DiMucci from the Bronx, New York was making records. He teamed up with two other young men and Dion & the Belmonts were born. In the late 50s, the doo-wop sounds of Dion & the Belmonts was unmistakable as they churned out hit after hit. Dion went solo in 1960 and he is still going strong today almost 50 years later. Not all the years have been good to Dion. In the course of any career in any industry, there are the ups and downs. But in spite of it all he continues to survive and make great music.
Recently, I found an album Dion made late last year called Son of Skip James on the Verve/Forecast label. Skip James was a Delta Blues musician in the 20s and 30s. He was rediscovered in the 60s. It is widely believed that it was the reemergence of the music of Skip James and other bluesmen that began a blues revival in this country. Skip James appeared at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 and recorded a number of albums until his death in 1969.

Knowing a bit about Skip James and a whole lot more about Dion, I took a chance and bought the album. In addition to recording tunes by Skip James, Dion has also included songs by blues legends Willie Dixon, Sleepy John Estes, Junior Wells and Robert Johnson. Also included on the album are tunes by modern day legends Bob Dylan and Chuck Berry, in addition to two originals by Dion.
There are two aspects of this album that immediately struck me. One was that there are very few musicians playing on this record. Dion handles vocals, guitar and harmonica. Rick Krive is the piano man and Bob Guertin handles percussion and organ. Bob was also the engineer and Dion produced the album. In other words, the album is no frills and straight to the point. Secondly, Dions vocals are strong. His voice, his trademark has never sounded better to me, which is quite an accomplishment for a person who has performed all these many years.
The opening cut on the album is the Chuck Berry classic, Nadine. This version sounds a bit different from Chucks original offering, although there is a similarity in the Dion interpretation that is as upbeat as the original. The excellent piano stylings from Rick Krive set this version apart. On My Babe the Willie Dixon classic, Dion and the piano player continue in the same vein as Nadine and present a modern day version of this tune.
Of particular interest is Dions interpretation of the Bob Dylan tune, Baby Im In the Mood for You. This showcases Dions vocals in addition to his guitar picking style. As I listened to this song and the other selections, I couldnt help but think of how well Dion has bridged the gap from all those blues legends to update and bring their songs to life.
Perhaps announcing oneself as the son of a blues legend is somewhat pretentious, but in the case of Dion, I take no offense. After all, Dion is in his right is a legend and a bona fide member of the RocknRoll Hall of Fame. He deserves a whole lot of latitude. I guess a better title might have been Mississippi Delta Blues Takes a Ride to the Bronx (On the D Train). Maybe not.
There is an intimacy to this album thats apparent on every song. You get the feeling that Dion and his musicians are sitting in a small club or even your living room and performing just for you. His unmistakable voice and guitar work make this a must listen to album.

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