Dion, now 80, has just released Blues With Friends (5 June 2020; on Joe Bonamassa’s label KTBA). And it is good to know that the man who: had his first hit as a teenager; led the Belmonts; experienced heroin addiction, rejection and religion; and has played rock, doo-wop, R&B and straight blues; is still here and making great music, Fender Strat in hand, with a little help from his friends.
And it has to be said that Dion has some pretty good buddies, because Bruce Springsteen, Billy Gibbons, Paul Simon, Joe Bonamassa, Jeff Beck, Van Morrison, Samantha Fish, Steve Van Zandt, Sonny Landreth and Patti Scialfa, among others, have all been happy to lend him a hand on his latest album of original recordings (most co-written with Mike Aquilina).
And when you have played with Bob Dylan in the early Greenwich Village days, and joined him on the legendary front cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers, then you can also call on the folk troubadour to write some lines for your sleeve notes: “When you have a voice as deep and wide as Dion’s,” writes Dylan, “that voice can take you all the way around the world and then all the way back home to the blues.”
While Dion is known for playing many music styles, he is ‘coming home to the blues’ with this album, because as he notes himself, the genre has “been at the heart of my music since the early 1960s. I was covering Willie Dixon and Jimmy Reed in my early years at Columbia—much to the dismay of my corporate masters—and my own ‘The Wanderer’ is a twelve-bar blues song.”
With America currently rocked by riots because of racism, in terms of poignancy the standout song on the album has to be Song For Sam Cooke (Here in America). Dion played and toured with Cooke in 1962 and recalls that ‘the King of Soul’ was prevented from staying in hotels because of the policy of racial segregation, before he was shot and killed in circumstances that are still unclear. The song has a lovely lyric, is backed by Paul Simon and recalls Dion’s 1968 hit, Abraham, Martin & John (made famous by Marvin Gaye). “You were the star standing in the light,” Dion sings. “That won you nothing on a city street at night.”
The lead single from the album, however, is Blues Coming On, with Joe Bonamassa on slide guitar. And if you like blues lyrics then: “I’m at the station, you take a train, standing waiting in the rain” is not a bad place to start. This first single is an up-tempo number in which neither Bonamassa and Dion become dominant, allowing both to shine.
The train theme keeps rolling on with the cheery and gospel-tinged Uptown Number 7, which features rhythm and lead guitar by Brian Setzer of Stray Cats, while Can’t Start Over Again is more of a slow country track, with accompaniment by Jeff Beck. My Baby Loves to Boogie showcases John Hammond Jr on harmonica, while Van Morrison adds vocals to I Got Nothing. Supercool Billy Gibbons sports his supercool shades and plays his beloved Gibson SG on the video for Bam Bang Boom. Patti Scialfa sings backing vocals on the closing Hymn To Her, while her husband, Bruce Springsteen, contributes a lovely solo to the track.
Dion had 39 songs in the Top 40 in the late 1950s and early 1960s, with hits like Runaround Sue, Dream Lover and The Wanderer, and Blues With Friends is going to have people digging out his early chart successes both with the Belmonts and as a solo artist. However Dion says that this particular album represents the fulfillment of a lifelong vision: “I wanted an album of songs that were strong and memorable and told stories that were worth telling,” he says. And what better way to do it than with fourteen magic tracks… and a little help from your friends.