Dion DiMucci explained what he was about to do, at his January 9th show at Joe’s Pub in New York, this way: “I’ve got some songs I sing in the house.” Those songs came from a world far away from the Bronx tenements that were his entire universe as a teenager in the 1950s: Howlin’ Wolf’s “How Many More Years,” Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me to Do,” Hank Williams’ “Honky Tonk Blues” and a fistful of Robert Johnson tunes, including “Walkin’ Blues” and “Travelin’ Riverside Blues.”
But the stories in those songs were not much different from the ones in Dion’s own hits, in the late Fifties with the Belmonts, and on his own starting in 1960: the leaving and loving, the doing and being done wrong. And when Dion hit the hooks and rolling strum in Johnson’s “Crossroads” or Willie Dixon’s “Built for Comfort,” it was impossible to miss the direct link to the subway-train rhythms and street-corner bravado in Dion’s greatest Bronx blues: “Runaround Sue,” “The Wanderer” (both 1962) and “Ruby Baby” (1963).
Dion’s appearance at Joe’s Pub was a coming-out party for his superb new record of blues and country covers, Bronx in Blue, released this week. He played most of the songs on the album the way he recorded them: just his voice — still high and strong, with no cracks or sags — and elementary, robust acoustic guitar (with additional slide work by Howard Emerson late in the set). And the few oldies in the set came with explicit roots: Dion introduced “The Wanderer” as his “white version” of Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy,” and he took a brief turn in the middle of his 1968 folk lament “Abraham Martin and John” (recast with droning blues-raga guitar) into the Carter Family hymn “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
He also had plenty of stories to tell about his love of these acoustic Mississippi and electric Chicago songs and his improbable encounters with the singers themselves: touring with Jimmy Reed; meeting the Wolf backstage at a show in Brooklyn; hanging out with Lightnin’ Hopkins in Greenwich Village. Dion recalled Columbia Records producer John Hammond playing him a pre-release acetate of the seminal Robert Johnson compilation King of the Delta Blues Singers in 1961, describing the blues as “the naked cry of the human heart apart from God.” Later, he tried to close that distance in “Crossroads,” following a verse about troubled love with a new one about Jesus and salvation.
There were also tales of Bronx teenage life, a short detour about sitting at a piano with Fats Domino (complete with a quick, sunny run through “My Blue Heaven”) and a detailed recounting of “the first song I ever heard, the first song I ever learned” — “Honky Tonk Blues.” When he sang Williams’ songs around the old neighborhood, Dion explained, his friends would ask him, “What’s a honky tonk?” “What’s jambalaya?” Dion laughed as he came to the punch line. “I said I didn’t know. But it felt good coming out of my mouth.”
It still does.