Jeff Meshel's World

082: Dion DiMucci, ‘Sit Down Old Friend’

Dion DiMucci was born in 1939 in the Bronx, where he grew up singing on street corners (literally) with his pimply Italian cronies. At 17 he signed a record contract, and as leader of Dion & the Belmonts had a string of major hits including Teenager in Love and I Wonder Why (trust me, you want to watch this clip). He was a big enough star to share the bill with Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper on their fateful winter tour of 1959. Living a life of stardom and dissolution at 20, Dion was already deep into heroin and alchohol addiction. The other three grabbed a ride on a plane to the next show in Iowa, but the $36 ticket cost as much as Dion’s parents’ monthly rent, so he chose to shlep on the bus. Shocked by their deaths, he tried rehab. He broke up the Belmonts, and his solo career continued to climb, with iconic hits such as Runaround Sue and The Wanderer, in which the lyrics were no longer the self-pity of a broken acned heart, but the racy bravado of an ego-driven superstar:

Oh well I’m the type of guy who will never settle down
Where pretty girls are well, you know that I’m around
I kiss ’em and I love’em ’cause to me they’re all the same
I hug ’em and I squeeze ’em they don’t even know my name
They call me the wanderer yeah the wanderer
I roam around around around…

That lyric was far from standard fare for 1960. He moved to a major label (Columbia), continued making hits such as Ruby Baby (in this clip from 1963 Dion is playing guitar, and is clearly an emerging artist, not just another Corner Boy punk). The song is written by Leiber and Stoller, see SoTW 042.

In the coming years he was influenced musically by such luminaries as producer Tom Wilson, executive John Hammond (the men behind Bob Dylan at the time) and keyboard legend Al Kooper, but his addictions led him astray, and he recorded nothing of significance. In 1968, clean of substances and a born-again evangelical, he returned to his original label. They insisted that he record Abraham, Martin and John (written Dick Holler, who also wrote The Royal Guardsmen’s ‘Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron’–I bet you didn’t know that!) He moved to Warner Brothers, the most successful label

of the late 1960s to record a series of singer-songwriter albums which were all commercial failures. We’ll come back to this period in a moment.

In 1975 he was joined up with Phil Spector for a project that was supposed to reboot the careers of both. Spector outdid himself in terms of grandiosity—more than 40 musicians, including a dozen guitarists, seven percussionists, and five pianists.

Only half a dozen tracks were recorded, dark, bizarre, even by Spector standards. Spector couldn’t get the resulting “Born to Be With You” released in the US. Dion disassociated himself from it. Its reputation today is mixed; some (including myself) dismiss it as a megalomaniacal bummer; others, including Stones mentor Andrew Loog Oldham and Who Pete Townshend, call it one of the finest albums ever made.

Over the past 35 years, Dion has continued recording, most frequently in an acoustic blues mode. He’s made many fine albums–modest, mature, honest, well-crafted, serious. In 1990, visiting the Bronx parish of his childhood, he experienced an epiphany and returned to Catholicism. He continues to record and perform, and works as a Renewal Ministry activist. Well, okay.

But let’s go back for a moment to 1969, to a wholly obscure Warner Brothers singer-songwriter effort, the album “Sit Down Old Friend”. I discovered the album back then when I was listening to every single major release, and quite a lot of minor ones. It’s easy to see how Dion’s album went unnoticed in that landmark year of singer-songwriter releases: Dylan’s “New Morning”, James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James”, Joni Mitchell’s “Ladies of the Canyon”, Neil Young’s “After the Goldrush”, Van Morrison’s “Moondance”, Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, Cat Stevens’ “Tea for the Tillerman”, and the first albums by Elton John, Stephen Stills, George Harrison and Paul McCartney.

But “Sit Down Old Friend” always shined for me, even in that heady company. It’s almost a demo—just Dion playing classical and steel-stringed guitar on a dozen gems, mostly self-penned. The lyrics of the title song, our Song of The Week, seem more than a bit callow. Unguardedly ingenuous, too good-hearted and sincere and embarrassingly loving. The way I’d probably feel at a spiritual retreat. But when I listen to the song, it becomes something else. Its utter sincerity overcomes all my cynicism. It forces me to remember that truisms are true. Really, what is there for us to do on this earth other than love our fellow man? So, Dion, thanks for ‘Runaround Sue’ and ‘Teenager in Love’. But ‘Sit Down Old Friend’ has never left me over the 40 years since I first made its acquaintance, and it has never failed to affect me. It’s been in my mind and my heart and my ears during not a few rough patches, and it’s lent me a steady and trustworthy arm to lean on. I’d like to give it my ultimate compliment—for me, this is life-changing music. It really does make me want to be a better person.

Sit down old friend, there’s something in my heart that I must tell you.

In the end, there is nothing but love.

Could the world be needing more than love that makes the world go round?

If everybody had it in their heart today, I’d say, to keep love in your heart you gotta give it away.

Then the world would be some great big beautiful loving smiling place,

Hey, love is really all you need to carry around.

To keep love in your heart you gotta spread it around.

I’m changing in myself and I’ve found that I don’t have to be so smart.

The last thing in the world I’d want to do is break somebody’s heart.

If it was up to me I’d gather everybody round and we’d all hold hands.

And we’d say a prayer just for today, we’d pray.

To keep love in our hearts and never let it stray, never let it slip away.

Don’t let it pass you by.

Could the world be needing more than love that makes the world go round?

Sit down old friend, there’s something in my heart that I must tell you.

In the end, there is nothing but love.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

SoTW 070, Buddy Holly, ‘That’ll Be the Day’

SoTW 076: Roy Orbison, ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’

SoTW 078, Paul Simon, ‘The Late, Great Johnny Ace’