By Tom Craig
OMX: Hey, is this Dion?
OMX: Hey Dion. It’s Tom Craig from OMX magazine. How are you today?
Dion: I’m well, Tom, how are you?
OMX: Very good. I thank you, sir, for your time today.
Dion: Yeah, my pleasure. Hey, yes, it’s all good. Got to work together on this.
OMX: You’ve got an incredible album. It’s really quite something. I can’t stop listening to it. I’ve read a couple of things about it. I read where Joe Bonamassa was the first one that you let listen to it and he wanted to come on and play. How did all the other guests that you had on come about?
Dion: Well, Roy Weisman. Joe’s, manager lives five houses away from me. We often walk around the lake together. I told him I had recorded these 14 songs and I said, “Joe played on one of them.” But he didn’t even know it. I guess sometimes artists do the creative stuff and they do the marketing stuff or production stuff with the managers, Joe just liked the song, but when you get a guy like Joe Bonamassa, who’s one of the greatest guitar players on the planet or the best you know, in my eyes, I think it helped, when I started talking to people. Well, I went to Billy Gibbons next, because what happened is I had these songs and after Joe played on one of them, I started hearing, because I listen a lot, I enjoy these other artists. They keep me young.
I was listening to the songs and I thought, it would be great if Billy Gibbons could play on this, this is his type of song. I called Billy and he loved it. He was like “Dion.” He said, “You’re amazing.” He says, “Every syllable you sing is in the right place, you got tremendous pitch.” He’s going on and on about how I sing. He did something. Then I had this ballad and I thought the only guy who could make me cry, plays guitar and makes me cry is Jeff Beck.
Dion: I thought, “Let me send it to him.” I called Jeff and when he heard the song, he said, “I’ll do it if you make me put it on my album, that’s coming out in January.” I said, “Of course you got it.” Once you get a guy like Jeff Beck, now that’s a whole other depth, Joe Bonamassa is a young guy.
Jeff Beck is like maybe the gold standard bearer, people pay attention when he’s doing something, he’s just a musician’s musician. I know Brian Setzer was really like “Wow, Jeff Beck’s doing it.” I think, and then a funny thing happened. I think people wanted to do their best because they didn’t want to just phone it in.
Because they wanted their thing to… even Paul Simon called me, he said, “You got a lot of great people on this thing I better get my …but he was joking. He says, “I want to do something good. I don’t want my track to be…nobody wanted their track to be…” Everybody, I think really did a wonderful job for me. It was crazy. I didn’t know Samantha Fish that well, I met her on the Blues cruise. She really knocked me out, that was like a real surprise. I knew she was great, but she just stepped it up a notch or two for me, man. I always told her, I said, “Samantha, the only thing I hate about that song is it ends.”
OMX: Yeah. It’s almost like it became a competition between these guys and girls.
Dion: Well, I hate to say that because that wouldn’t bring your best performance, that would bring-
OMX: Not in the strict sense of the word, but just that-
… I love Buddy Guy when he’s just Buddy Guy.
… when he’s trying to impress a whole bunch of white kids. It’s like, something happens that knocks it. That gets him out of the zone for me.
You know what I mean? That kind of when you’re trying to impress somebody, I don’t think they did that. I just think they gave me their best. I think the wonderful thing about it is, Sonny Landreth is a guy that I’ve been listening to for a while and he keeps improving. Every time like Samantha Fish, every time I hear her, she’s always learning something and knocking, taking it to a higher pitch, a higher reality you know she steps it up higher ground. I think that I was the beneficiary of these artists that, I got the best for some reason that the stars are in the right place, I got the best out of everybody Gee it was just incredible.
OMX: You sure did.
Dion: Hey Tom, I had such a good time, like with each song, it was like, “I never did this before.” It was amazing because, well, I’ve told a lot of people, I know how to make a record. I know how to write a song and know how to sing a song. I know how to get it made, but I found out how limited I am, in what I perceive that somebody should contribute. You get a great artist and you get all these different flavors. Well you know you’ve been listening to the album. They’re all so distinctive.
OMX: Yes. Your thoughts of how they did bring in this second set of ears or ideas about these songs that you presented them with, I think is spot on.
Dion: I would never guess that. Well, it started with the first song with Joe Bonamassa. I never thought he played slide on that song.
He wanted to play on it. I said, “Yeah.” I thought he was going to really boogie. I had no idea he was going to play slide. Then, he plays this incredible like there’s six solos on it. If I’m listening to it, I actually feel like I’m listening to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and these great horn players, King Curtis. I just hear everything on every solo. It just sounds like a sax section sometimes, like I’m listening to the Apollo sax section or horn section on, it’s crazy what he did. I have no idea what he did.
OMX: It really is. When I listened to it, I had to grab the cover and go, “It is him.”
Dion: Well, you want to know the thing that Joe is an ensemble player. I’m not, I play good guitar. I know how to play guitar to back up my vocals and write a song, but Joe’s an ensemble player, man. He could lead any band. He is like the heavyweight champion of the world of guitar players. But what’s amazing is he must be like Ted Williams, they said, “How do you hit a fast ball going a hundred miles an hour?” He says, “I see it in slow motion. I could read the letters on the ball.” I think that’s what Joe Bonamassa does. He hears the arrangement coming at him. I don’t know what that is. It’s certainly gifted, but I’ve been with him a few times and I’m telling you it’s off the charts.
OMX: Yeah. The first time I saw him, I photographed him at Cheers down in Fort Lauderdale. He was with Bloodline and it was all like Barry Oakley Jr, Miles Davis’ son, Robby Krieger’s son and Joe was with them and he couldn’t have been more than 12 or 13 at the time.
Dion: Talk about gifted, that’s gifted.
OMX: Absolutely. Well, it’s just a brilliant album. There’s a couple of songs that really stuck out at me. The first one I want to ask you about is Song for Sam Cook (Here in America.) You write about the fact that you had written that long ago. When did you first write that?
Dion: I don’t know how long ago it was but it was quite a while ago because I even mirrored it, echoed the song in my memoirs. I don’t know when that came out, there was a book called The Wanderer Talks Truth I did a section on. I talked about Sam Cook, but I wrote it, I think back in the ’70s and I put it in my drawer. I just never even looked at it. I just thought, “Nah, it’s too long, it’s too wordy, it’s too this, it’s too that. I’m not going to be able to do it on stage, yada, yada, yada.”
Dion: Then last year I saw Green Book and I said, “Wow, that reminds me of my song.” I was up at a friend’s place, his name is David Niles. He’s a great media artist. I sat in front of a camera and I said, “David, I’m going to do a song for you.” I put it on the stand and I just sang it once. And that’s what you hear on the album actually and I forgot about it. This was some months ago before I even went in to start this album, this song was not a part of the album but I just did it. When I had the 13 songs I asked my engineer, I said,” You want to hear a song?” I said, I have this song recorded. I actually recorded it looking right into a camera on film. I said, I have it and it came out well, it was like, I did a good reading of it. Because sometimes first takes are great for me. It has a lot of life. If you do it too many times, each time you do it, the life comes out of it for me.
OMX: I’ve watched that video. You did a phenomenal job.
Dion: Yeah. I thought it was anointed. I was in the moment. But the thing is, I thought Paul Simon could really give this song some personality. And I played it for Paul and he said, “Ho-hum it’s nothing new. It’s about racism, we all know about that.” I said, “Paul, sit back for a second. Just listen to it again.” I said, “It’s more than racism. It’s a song about brotherhood. It’s a song about friendship and understanding.” He’s understanding me. I said, “Sam Cook was a very refined, intelligent guy, he was a preacher’s kid.
I spent about six weeks on the road with him. We spent a lot of time together, with Little Willie John, Bobby Blue Bland was on the tour and Sam was a very statuesque kind of guy. Intelligent. I was from the Bronx. I was kind of raw.
Dion: I saw him in a lot of situations, very ugly situations. I’d say to him, “Why don’t you whack that guy, give that guy a right hook right in his face, hit him.” I said, “You should whack that guy, knock that guy out.” He basically said, “Dion, that’s a peculiar way to become a man.” He taught me something. I mentioned this to a few interviewers that if race matters to you, you’re a racist. That’s what a racist is. If race matters to you, to my friends it doesn’t matter. It’s like eye color or shoe color.
It doesn’t matter. When people get all up in arms about, when they keep that up on both sides, I don’t care what color you are. But I got to know Sam, I saw him up close for six weeks. I observed him. I saw the way he responded in a lot of different situations. Then one day I thought to myself, “I know why this guy is as calm as he is. He’s the brightest guy in the room.” He never gets ruffled. He wasn’t afraid to, he stayed in his lane, he was himself. He was understanding. He was living out the gospel, I think. When I say that, I think now that I’m older and I think back, his father must’ve been preaching, love your neighbor as yourself love your enemies-
Dion: It’s easy to love friends, like to lay your life down and to love your neighbor as yourself, and If your ideology basically, I look around today and if your ideology has to separate you from your parents and other people, something’s wrong with you.
Dion: I mean, you’re in a cult. That’s what cults do. They separate you from people. I think I’m getting off on this because I’ve been watching TV lately, not too much of it. But you know what I’m talking about.
OMX: Absolutely. I think it’s such a powerful song. When I read that you had written it so long ago, I thought to myself, I think there’s a reason that it’s coming out now, just like the reason you released Abraham, Martin and John, when you did, do you feel that way?
Dion: It’s really a crazy thing with this album because I just sat back one day and I said, this thing has been a gift to me. I couldn’t plan it if I tried. I can’t tell you when I finished it, I told my wife. I said, “I ought to get somebody who’s a blues guy to write something about this, because this is a pretty good album. I don’t think there’s any filler on it. I think somebody who really knows how to write.” I was going to get Dave Marsh. And then I said, “Dylan is a great Blues singer. Nobody says that, but he is.” He’s a great blues singer. I said, I’m going to ask Bob. She goes, “Nah he doesn’t write liner notes.” I said, “Well, I’m going to ask him.” He wrote liner notes.
OMX: He sure did.
Dion: The funny thing about Dylan, is every time he writes something or writes a song, I learn something that I didn’t know. It’s really crazy. That guy is really who we think he is.
OMX: Yes he is.
Dion: I always define a genius… My perception of a genius as somebody who in their fields, there’s a distance between what they’re doing and everybody else’s doing.
Dion: There’s definitely a distance between Bob Dylan and everybody else.
OMX: Yes. Absolutely. Would you say the stars just kind of aligned on this thing for you?
Dion: That’s a good way to put it. I don’t know any other way to put it. It’s like I’m telling you it was crazy. It was such an enjoyable thing to be a part of it. And to have these people give me an example, Van Morrison, my wife loves Van Morrison I mean, she’s a freaking Van Morrison junky. She loves, Van Morrison is the guy. And I got to sing a song with Van Morrison. I got in the car and said, “Hey Sue I want you to hear something. I did a song with Van. Me and Van. I always told you we were soul brothers.” Wow. I was in for at least a week.
OMX: Got, a few brownie points for a week.
Dion: Yeah, absolutely. You say the stars aligned in a place, it’s so crazy because like Patti Scialfa, I thought I had this gospel tune, that I sang on the Blues cruise and I thought this will work. I want Patti to sing she’s the Jersey soul girl. She’s going to echo some lines. She’s going to sing some harmony with me. And no. God knows what these people have on their mind. She starts stacking her voice 12 times and creates this wind and universal spirit, there’s the Holy Spirit floating around. It’s just unreal. I would say that Bruce Springsteen was extra. I asked her to be on the album I didn’t ask Bruce.
Dion: But he walked in the room and he loved the song. He asked, “Could I put a solo on it?” I said, “Yeah, do I have to pay you?” It was really crazy. It was exciting for me because – I never did something like this.
OMX: You can hear it in the music. I see it in the notes that you wrote about each of these songs.
Dion: The thing is I have a Christmas song coming out tomorrow. It’s called, You Know It’s Christmas and Joe Bonamassa played on it.
Because I played it for him again, he said, “Dion, you’re so prolific.” He said, “This thing is great.” So he played on it. It’s kind of like The Wanderer. It’s a Christmas song though. It’ll come out about 12:30 tomorrow.
OMX: Tomorrow? I was going to ask you about that because you have that one with Joe and then you have Hello Christmas with Amy Grant.
Dion: Right? Yeah. I’ve known Amy Grant since she was 19.
OMX: Really? Wow.
Dion: Yeah. I did some concerts with a her back because I did make a couple of gospel albums. We did some
shows together. She was very gracious to do that for me and she sings right in my register.
OMX: She’s a great vocalist, no doubt. I’ve enjoyed her gospel albums as well. You’ve got so many great guitarists on this album. I’ve got to say something. To me, you are probably the most underappreciated guitarist of the last 60 years.
Dion: I don’t know. I just played it back myself up, but I could play guitar.
OMX: But I’ve heard some of your stuff and you’re an amazing guitar player that doesn’t get nearly enough credit.
Dion: Well, thank you. All right. I don’t know. I don’t play like these guys. But I can hold on my own.
OMX: You certainly do. The other song I wanted to ask you about on the album was Kicking Child you got to rerecord that more, the way you wanted it because of everything that went on with that album, not getting released back in ’65 and all that. What was that like for you to redo that?
Dion: It just sounded a little spastic to me, the way I did it. I mean, it’s not bad. It’s really expressive, but I wanted it to lay down, like I wanted it to live in a groove.
Dion: I did this thing and I had a few people, I’m not going to mention their names. I had a few people that said yes to me and played on it. I don’t know if it’s right to mention their names, but I had to actually say, “Nah, that’s not it I’m looking for something else.” My friend, Joe Menza who’s a great guitarist.
But nobody knows nobody. I mean, he flew under the radar, he’s one of those guys. So he says, “let me try it.” He takes out his computer and he lays down a rhythm track and then he plays a lead over it. I said, “Joe, I love it.” I said, “I love that.” I said, “That’s perfect.” He says, “Okay, I’ll take it into the studio and get it right.” I said, “No No that’s perfect.” That’s it? I said, “Could you give me that?” So he said, “The quality of the sound is the same on garage band than it would be in a studio. That’s what you’re listening to.
Dion: It was just one take on the rhythm. One take on the lead and he was loose as a goose. He was just showing me what it should sound, what he was hearing. It was great. That’s what happened to me on Lou Reed’s dirty Boulevard. He asked me, “Could you do a little Dion singing on the end?” I said, “Like this?” And I did something. He goes, “Yeah, like that.” I go, “Okay, run it.” He goes, “No, you did it that’s fine.”
OMX: How long did it take from start to finish for this one? For you?
Dion: Not long. It didn’t seem long. I’m not sure I could have started it in September and like late September and then went through September, October, November. I was in New York doing the play. It was like time in between that I didn’t even work on it. Then I came home in January and started asking people to do stuff on it. Oh. When I was in New York, I did get John Hammond to come into the studio.
Dion: Yeah. Because John, I go out to dinner with him. I love John. We go back a long time. I got him to play on it while I was in New York. I got a little Stevie, I got Stevie Van Zandt to play on it.
OMX: While you were up there?
While I was in New York. Yeah. It was like that. And while I was there, I remember Billy Gibbons flying his part in and he sent it to me. He said, “Listen, I did a take on it. If you don’t like it, I’ll go back in and fire it up.” I said, “No no, that’s great that’s great enough for me. It’s okay. Send up a smoke signal when you’re going to put it out.” Billy that guy, that guys incredible. I tell you Tom, I just had such a good time doing it, it was just so much fun.
OMX: Yeah. It’s obvious. It really is. When did you record the two Christmas songs?
Dion: I think in the last month and a half, I wrote them and went in and cut them. I created a monster, now I’m like, who could I get to sing on this Christmas song? Who could I get to play on this Christmas song? I created this thing. I don’t want to stop because it’s so much fun to hear. Well, look, I sent the thing to Amy Grant and she comes back with this thing. Who would have thought I could never tell anybody to do a part like that.
Dion: Wait till you hear Bonamassa’s thing on The Wanderer, on this Christmas song. It sounds like The Wanderer on steroids.
OMX: I can’t wait to hear both.
Dion: Yeah. It’s crazy. I created this thing now so I’m talking to Roy the other day and he says, “Hey, you got any songs lying around? Maybe you could go in and cut the ones that are lying around.” I said, “Roy, I got a lot of good songs hanging around.” Why don’t you just do a Dion album, but at this point, I don’t know if I could, it’s too much fun.
OMX: Well, you’ve been doing blues for about the last 10 years.
Dion: Yeah. There’s something about the blues. That’s so honest and you don’t have to think, You jump in it, it’s just your on board. It expresses everything you want to express, whether it’s your loneliness, your joy or you want to brag about something. You could brag about something.
Dion: In fact, the Christmas song is a bragging Christmas song. It’s about this guy who bought a present for his girl. He bought the perfect present and he can’t wait for her to open up the box. He can’t wait for her to unwrap the present. He’s like jonesing. He has no patience. He just can’t wait to see her face. That’s what it’s about. It’s about this guy.
OMX: Right. I was fortunate enough to meet you quite a while ago. When I was working for another magazine, I was with a writer down at VISION records. We were doing an interview with Steve Alaimo and Ron and Howard Albert. You happened to be there that day. You were kind enough that you gave me a copy of your book and autographed it for me. Somewhere in my archives, I have a photograph that I shot that day of the four of you, but it was 1991. Have you been a full-time Florida resident since back in the late ’60s?
Dion: Yes, I have.
OMX: I thought so because the other time that you won’t remember, but in the ’90s, I also managed the Wolf Camera at town center and you came in my store a couple of times. I believe to get some pictures developed or something. But that was the other time we met, but, I thought you had been a South Florida resident for a while.
Dion: I moved to North Miami in 1968 and three months later, I recorded Abraham Martin and John, you remember Steve Alaimo and he was with-
OMX: Henry Stone.
… yeah. Henry Stone. Steve didn’t break out on his own yet. I remember playing Abraham, Martin and John for them in his office. I had no idea that was going to be a hit, it was just a song that I wanted to record, but who knew it would.
OMX: Do what I did?
Dion: Yeah. I had no idea. It was so different. Jimi Hendrix was popular and Cream, And here I do this song. It’s crazy.
Dion: Bruce Springsteen was doing a thing for a documentary that somebody was doing. This guy, David Leaf was doing documentary about my life. He interviewed Springsteen and Springsteen said, “David Leaf asked me, Dion has sung this kind of music and Folk music and Blues, and he’s been here and he does this and he does that.” And Springsteen said, “An artist has no choice.” I never thought of that.
OMX: He’s right.
Dion: He says, “You don’t have a choice.” I told him, What do you mean you don’t have a choice? And then I started thinking about it and I’m thinking, yeah, it’s like you walk in a room and this song drops in your head, what the hell kind of choice is that? It’s almost like it had nothing to do with it, you know?
Dion: My artistic curiosity has never kind of dwindled. I love creating.
OMX: What do you think the secret is to your productivity and decade after decade of this. What do you think your secret’s been?
Dion: I truly think that it’s been a spiritual thing for me because what happened is I was in the ’60s like anybody else, using drugs and drinking, I was lost totally. I didn’t know how to do life. I was successful, but success and fulfillment are two different things. I was living in North Miami and in 1968, I went to an AA meeting. I don’t want to get into the particulars, but I went into a meeting, I guess you got to keep that anonymous. I went to a 12 step-spiritual base recovery meeting and I’ve never been the same. I met people there that, basically what I learned was that without God, however you perceive what I’m saying it’s not like do as me, think as me, believe as me, but without God, you have to fill yourself up with something for significance and value and worth. People try to fill themselves up with four typical addictions or temptations, or typical areas, there’s four areas, wealth, pleasure, power and honor. Honor would be to be right, to win, to be better than. Don’t you know who I am? And that’s what you see on all these series. I’ve been watching these Netflix series and the whole thing. One after another it’s the same thing, everybody trying to fill themselves up on wealth, pleasure, power, and honor.
When you don’t have God in your life, you’re doing it. Not that these things are bad, we’re not Puritans, but when you’re connected or you find the center however you want to say that with me, I call it God. Like I plugged in. When you have God in your life, he shapes your desire for those things. Not me. I’m not the one thinking if I get enough of this, I’m going to be all right. That’s what you see on all these series, whether it’s a Queen of the South or Mad Men, go on and on. Breaking Bad, Yellowstone, all these shows. You see it, that’s what they write about.
Dion: One after another. I think that’s a long way to answer it, but I think being plugged in. I’ve been in recovery for over 52 years, I haven’t drank and I don’t smoke. I think that’s why I’m still singing well. I still have my voice. If I was smoking and drinking, I don’t think I’d be sounding like this.
But I don’t so much think it’s something I’m not doing, well it has to do with not doing something and doing other things. I learned that life was not about me, I kind of fell in love with people. So I’m like kind of interested in ,I like being around people now, and it motivates me to wanting to give something, give the best of myself.
OMX: Right. Well, you’ve certainly been phenomenal in the amount of work you’ve put out and to me it seems it gets better and better. This latest release is fantastic. Do you think that once we get on the other side of this pandemic, you might want to do a show here or there maybe somewhere like The Biscuit? I know that you were doing smaller places before do you think that’s something you might entertain?
Dion: You know I’d love to do like The Funky Biscuit. I go see Albert Castiglia there and Debbie Davies, Samantha Fish and I love it. But I was thinking at my age now sounds like a good idea of talking to Roy about this, getting a residency at the Hard Rock, with a great band, playing great Rock and Roll and Blues. You know?
OMX: Mm-hmm (affirmative).This year there’s been a couple of artists one is Cat Stevens came out with a brand new re-imagined Tea for the Tillerman. Dave Mason is getting ready to release Alone Together again, re-imagined, is there an album from your past that you could ever see yourself doing that with?
Dion: When you say he did that, did he do all the songs on it?
OMX: Yeah, they completely re-did it. The Cat Stevens’ one came out in September and I think Dave’s comes out maybe tomorrow or next Friday. His is coming out real soon now, unfortunately, in Dave’s case those tapes they were part of the ones burned up in that fire, was it Universal’s storage out in LA? The originals don’t even exist anymore.
Dion: Wow. I don’t even know. I used to record for Warner Brothers.
OMX: There was, and I may be wrong on that. But there was a large fire in the vault and a lot of masters were lost. It didn’t come to light right away. It didn’t get a lot of notification, but apparently Alone Together was one of them. Now in Cat Stevens’ case, he just decided after all these years to redo Tea for the Tillerman from start to finish and release it. And it’s brilliant. I thought about these two artists and having the conversation with you, if something like that would ever-
Dion: the only difference is that, Cat Stevens came on the scene when albums were popular. I was on scene when singles were popular.
Dion: I never even made albums. I really didn’t. We’d go in and in two days we’d knocked out all covers and all kinds of crap just to get an album out. Because I had a hit single?
Dion: And sometimes you get another single in it, because you went in with a couple of originals, that’s how I got The Wanderer, for Runaround Sue. I don’t think I would go in and cut. I never had like a Tapestry or an album like Cat Stevens’. That’s a great album.
Dion: Or James Taylor’s first album. Like an album like that.
OMX: What made me think of it was you re-recording Kicking Child.
Dion: I took a bunch of songs and went in and redid them.
OMX: Re-imagining the singles?
Dion: Yeah. That’s an idea. Wow, to do Runaround Sue all over like, to get something going on that I’d be crazy.
OMX: If you get a chance. You might want to check out that Cat Stevens and listen to the difference between the two. I find it interesting the way he rethought it.
Dion: Well, it’s like Michelangelo doing the Pieta when he was 22 and then when he’s 80.
OMX: Dion, thank you so much for your time. It was wonderful for you to take the time for us to talk.
Dion: Thanks man, stay well.