Well, no doubt the all-time authority on the subject was my old friend Clifton Music’s Ronnie Italiano. Sadly, Ronnie has passed away, so I can no longer call him to get his answer for you. I’m in no way looking to cover for Ronnie, but I will tell you that the original Dion and the Belmonts was part of the royalty of the era.
The Wall Street Journal: You came up when rock ‘n’ roll was still dawning on America, after Elvis and before the Beatles. You rocked the “The Ed Sullivan Show” in a tuxedo. Did you feel torn between two worlds?
Dion: I was the first rock ‘n’ roller signed by Columbia Records. Aretha Franklin was starting there at the same time. They were giving Aretha and me Al Jolson tunes; I was singing “Mammy;” she did “Rock-a-bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody”—they didn’t know what we were about. From the beginning, before I recruited the Belmonts to record with me, [managers] told me to put the guitar down—leaders of groups don’t play guitar. They wanted to give me a nightclub act and book me in the Copacabana. They wanted to put me with corny backing singers—Broadway-trained guys who were great singing “Oklahoma!” but didn’t know from rock and roll. The show business era was — “Hey! How’s everybody doin’ tonight? Hope everybody’s fine!” The rock and roll attitude was —we don’t care how you feel about it; we’re taking you on a trip. “Let’s go!”
[The Wall Street Journal] Your new album, “Tank Full of Blues,” showcases your love for that music. When did you start filling your tank?
Way back at Columbia, John Hammond [the legendary producer who helped launch the careers of greats from Billie Holiday and Count Basie to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen] pulled me into his office. He had this big grin and said “Dion, you seem to have a flair for the blues.” I left there with an armload of albums by Furry Lewis, Leroy Carr, Fred McDowell—and Robert Johnson. I never wanted to imitate those guys like Mick Jagger did—”I followed her to da stay-shun.” I thought if I did that I’d get killed at the Brooklyn Fox where Howlin’ Wolf and all the greats used to play. I met Bo Diddley at the Fox. He scowled at me and said “Where’d you learn to play blues like that?” I thought he was going to kill me. I said, “I listen to records.” He said, “Me, too.”
Finish reading the Q&A with Dion by clicking here.
After discussing with Debbie, Dion’s mention of Muddy Waters, she proudly noted, “I never saw Dion in person, but I did get to see Muddy, Chuck, Bo, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee.” Great remembrances for sure. Enjoy!