Before he interviewed Rock and Roll Hall of Fame singer Dion at the 92nd Street Y in New York on February 19th, Steven Van Zandt, the E Street Band guitarist and garage-rock impressario, told a story about one of his early-Seventies gigs, as a backing musician in an oldies revue. When the tour got to the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, Van Zandt went up to the lighting booth while one of the acts was soundchecking – alone on stage, playing a Robert Johnson song. It was, to Van Zandt’s astonishment, Dion: a guy from the Bronx who as a teenager in 1958 cut the street-corner-harmony classic “I Wonder Why” with the Belmonts and scored as a solo star in 1961 with “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer.”
Dion, who is 72 and has issued a new album with the self-explanatory title, Tank Full of Blues (Blue Horizon), later revealed that country icon Hank Williams and bluesman Jimmy Reed came first in his music lessons, then demonstrated it with an acoustic guitar. He sang Williams’ “Honky Tonk Blues” with the same rhythmic chop of “Runaround Sue” and, after playing a chunk of his 1962 hit “Ruby Baby,” said that single was “my idea of being John Lee Hooker.”
King of the Fordham Road Blues Singers
Dion told Van Zandt – and a rapt, full house – stories about beating drug addiction, attending Bob Dylan sessions in the early Sixties and how he narrowly escaped the 1959 plane crash that claimed the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. (Dion, also on that tour, gave up his seat, opting for the bus ride to the next show.) He recalled, too, a gift from Columbia A&R legend John Hammond: a copy of the Robert Johnson anthology, King of the Delta Blues Singers, shortly after its release in 1961. By 1963 and 1964, Dion was covering Willie Dixon, Lonnie Johnson and Big Joe Williams songs for Columbia. His folk-rock version of Lightinin’ Hopkins’ “Katie Mae” went unreleased until the 1997 compilation, The Road I’m On (Columbia/Legacy). At the 92nd Street Y, Dion played it solo, along with Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues,” with the same Bronx pepper that astounded Van Zandt that afternoon in Vegas.
Unlike the previous installments in Dion’s blues trilogy, Bronx in Blue (2006) and Son of Skip James (2007), Tank Full of Blues is mostly new originals. Dion adds a local tang to the electric-Mississippi glide “Holly Brown” – when he’s riding the rails, it’s the uptown D train – and his tremolo-guitar nod to my line of work, “I Read It (in the Rolling Stone),” includes the knockout line, “Sometimes I have to ask myself/What would my man Robert Plant do?”
“I was under the spout where glory comes out,” Dion said to Van Zandt about making Tank Full of Blues. It’s also where the Delta meets Fordham Road and the kid who sang “The Wanderer” still sounds most at home.