Dion is still a New York guy at heart

July 26, 2016 GMT

Dion DiMucci’s image of America does not include fruited plains or amber waves of grain. “For me God’s country is sirens and subways and all kinds of ethnic groups trying to cross the street all at once,” said the Bronx native and legendary singer known by his first name. “There’s something about the city that gets in your bones.”

Dion’s aptly titled new disc, “New York Is My Home,” was released in February. He will perform new songs as well as all-time hits like “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer” on Thursday in Morristown.

He said the title track of his latest album, which features Paul Simon, was inspired by “Remember,” a documentary about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “I cried uncontrollably after watching that,” Dion said. “That’s how deep my love of the city goes.

“I started this song and when I finished I called [fellow New Yorker] Paul Simon,” said Dion, 77. “We’ve been friends for a long time. He really liked it and put his touches on it and did some harmony.”


In addition to the folk-rock title song, “New York Is My Home” is also home to the blues, which might come as a surprise to those who know him only for his doo-wop and rhythm-and-blues hits with Dion and the Belmonts and as a solo artist.

“I cut my teeth on Jimmy Reid and John Lee Hooker, Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis,” Dion said. Album highlights include the rollicking “Ride With You” and “The Apollo King,” a tribute to the famed Harlem venue.

The song “Visionary Heart” takes a different tack. It’s an imagined conversation between Dion and Buddy Holly. The two became friends while performing together on the ill-fated Winter Dance Party tour in 1959.

After a show in Iowa, Dion had a chance to travel on a small plane to the next concert, but opted to take a tour bus and gave Holly his seat.

The plane crashed, killing Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. “Buddy Holly was a visionary and had great dreams for the future,” Dion said. “He was fearless and just gave it his all. I still miss all of those guys. They were wonderful, top-shelf human beings.”

Dion’s modest New York upbringing directly influenced his life-saving decision. “The flight was $36,” he recalled. “My parents paid $36 in rent and always argued about it. My mind couldn’t see spending on one plane ride what my parents spent for a month’s rent.”

Dion was a teenager in the 1950s when he began singing a cappella with friends on neighborhood corners and under streetlamps. Each teenager tried to emulate a different rhythmic or percussive sound, creating a cappella riffs, he recalled. Dion and the Belmonts formed in 1957.

“We invented things as we went. I sang lead and tried to sing like a saxophone,” Dion said. “Then you had another guy doing the ‘ooh wah ooh.’ ”


The group’s early hits included “I Wonder Why” and the doo-wop classic “A Teenager in Love.” In 1960, Dion left the group to pursue a solo career that yielded the No. 1 and No. 2 hits “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer,” respectively.

He showed his versatility by moving toward blues in the mid to late 1960s. In 1968 he released the folk-rock hit “Abraham, Martin & John,” in memory of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy.

He later embraced his religion in song, releasing a number of contemporary Christian albums. His 2006 effort, “Bronx in Blue,” a collection of blues and country standards, was nominated for a Grammy award.

Today, Dion splits his time between Manhattan and Florida. He also has a New Jersey connection: He once lived in Bergenfield and bought his parents a house in Maywood.

He described his life as having a “Sopranos” beginning and a Rocky Balboa ending. “I grew up with the gangs and at a time was with the Fordham Baldies,” Dion said. “You learn things and you change. I started with music, I got a hit record, and it changed my whole direction.

“I’m a totally grateful human being and I thank God I have this gift to express myself. Life is full of awe and grace and truth, mystery and wonder. I live in that atmosphere.”