Thursday, July 10, 2014

King of the New York Streets

That was the name of a single released by Dion DeMucci, who turns 75 next Thursday. But he earned his spot in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame with stuff like this:

When he was in his 20s, few people thought Dion would get to 45, let alone 75. He was a heroin addict whose early successes had been many but brief, and he'd tapped out by the mid-1960s. Then he cleaned himself up and cut "Abraham, Martin and John," a soulful tribute to three slain civil rights figures, which sold more than a million records in 1968 and revived his career. Here's a version with Aaron Neville from the show "Nashville Now:"

I pay tribute to Dion partly because he was a key figure in doo-wop music, a genre I have always loved, and partly because he's a seminal guy in rock history: Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen and Lou Reed have acknowledged him as an influence on their careers.

But I also salute him because of his quintessentially American ability to reinvent himself. First he led a doo-wop quartet, the Belmonts. Then he took off as a solo singer with the likes of "Runaround Sue" and "The Wanderer." He disappeared, then came back as a folk singer. After his escape from addiction, he became a born-again Christian and won a Dove Award for his 1984 album "I Put Away My Idols."

He took secular music up again, returned to the faith he'd practiced in his Bronx boyhood and became a Roman Catholic. He served for a while on the American board of directors for Renewal Ministries and, according to Wikipedia, took up prison ministry -- and, in 2012, released an album called "Tank Full of Blues."

Three years ago, he was collaborating with playwright Charles Messina on a musical titled "The Wanderer: The Life and Music of Dion." He described it to a New York Times writer as "a rock 'n' roll redemption story." Against many odds, the tale of Dion DiMucci had a happy ending, after all.