A long-lost album by Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Dion DiMucci will finally come to light when Kickin' Child: The Lost Album 1965 is released by Norton Records on May 12.
The 15 songs on the album were recorded during Dion's time at Columbia Records in sessions that started in spring of 1965 and intensified during September and October with a group called The Wanderers, which included The Belmonts' Carlo Mastrangelo of drums. Columbia didn't release the full album but put out a few songs, including the title track, as singles.
Dion, 77, tells Billboard that hearing the full album again recently erased a lot of negative feelings about it being passed over by the label.
"I just forgot about this album," Dion says. "There were a lot of bad relationships that got very convoluted up at Columbia with me, what they expected from me."
The frustration led him to leave the label. "I left Columbia in the mid '60s. I had a guaranteed contract for like $100,000 a year. And I just let it go. And I wasn't a rich man," he says. "There were a lot of bad vibes around the whole thing."
Fast forward to 2017. Dion is listening to a finished copy of the album and says hearing it again made all the bad feelings go away. "I'm coming across Alligator Alley about three, four weeks ago. And Rob Santos [VP of A&R for Sony Music and Legacy Recordings] sent me a mastered copy of the album and I'm listening to it on my way home. And it just seemed to lift. The cloud lifted and I heard the music," he said.
"I wasn't really able to hear it. I had [previously] heard it as a very negative thing. I put it in kind of a box." But all that changed. "I'll be honest with you. I was really appreciating it. The cloud lifted like vapor. It just lifted right out of my head. And I heard the music loud and clear like it was present to me. It wasn't a novelty. It was rich. It wasn't artistic, it was heartfelt. It was live. It was the real deal. And I said, 'Man, this stuff is good.' And I was proud of it."
The 15 tracks include 10 originals, two of which were written with Mastrangelo and one with Buddy Lucas. But the covers on the album also deserve special attention. One is by Mort Shuman (co-writer with Doc Pomus of Dion and the Belmont's "A Teenager in Love"), another is by Tom Paxton and three by Bob Dylan. Dion and Dylan were recording for the same label at the time, but the two men were familiar with each other from years before.
"He came out to see Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens and myself out in the Midwest when we were touring in 1959. He was playing in Bobby Vee's band on piano and vocals. But when he came to Columbia, musically I just loved what he was doing. It was like they let him out of a cage. It was just free abandon and it was really different. Something was going on in there. I loved just hanging out in the studio listening to some of those sessions, like 'Highway 61' sessions, or 'Bringing It All Back Home.'"
The Wanderers, the group with Dion on Kickin' Child, are drummer Mastrangelo, lead guitarist John Falbo and bass player Pete Falsciglia. And a de facto member of the group is Al Kooper, fresh from his work with Bob Dylan. The title track -- co-written with Buddy Lucas -- that leads off the album with a vocal and lyric heavily influenced by Dylan. "She's the kind of friend she don't ask me where I'm going, she don't ask me where I've been," the song begins. The album was recorded in Columbia's Studio A, where Dylan had recorded.
The second track, "Now," co-written with Mastrangelo, is an impassioned vocal backed up by the band with Al Kooper. "Al Kooper was a friend long before all of that," he says. "He was over in the Brill Building. Columbia was catty corner to the Brill Building. So I'd be over there sitting on a stool with Carole King while she wrote me a song like 'This Little Girl' or going in and out of the offices. And Al Kooper hung out there writing and playing. We were all young and passionate."
The album, produced by Tom Wilson, who also helmed records by Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, the Animals, and others, is really quite a fantastic group of songs. "My Love" is Dion removed from the teenage aura of "The Wanderer." "Wake Up Baby," another Dion original, has a country flavor. "Knowing I Won't Go Back There" is a tender ballad. The production on the album is simple, and also very nostalgic.
Dion says there wasn't a lot of contemplation about using the three Dylan covers "Baby, I'm in the Mood For You," "Farewell" and "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue."
"I just liked them. I didn't give it much thought. It's hard to explain music when it goes in your gut and makes left and right and turns and moves you and resonates with you. I guess there's something inside me. You either like something or you don't," says Dion, who was present when Dylan recorded "It's All Over Baby Blue" in the studio.
The original songs came out of an awareness of what was happening in the country at the time. "It was the mid '60s. They were confusing for me. The country was in a lot of turmoil. My mind was in a lot of turmoil," he said.
He says the deaths of his friends Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens had a huge effect on him.
"I lost three friends, great songwriters, great guys. I was on tour with them for two weeks. And when that plane went down, killing all three of those guys, I was wondering who am I? Where am I? What's life all about? Where am I going? Why am I here? And so this kind of confusion. Plus you're at Columbia making records like 'Ruby Baby' and 'Drip Drop' -- I'm doing really well up there. I always had a lot of questions on my mind where I belonged and how I fit into all of this, what my life was all about being newly married, how to be a husband, how this rock star world worked in the midst of all that and the creative world. I had this drive to create," he says
The liner notes by Scott Kempner call the Kickin' Child album a link to "Abraham, Martin and John," a Billboard Top 10 hit for Dion in October, 1968. This lost release is also called the first serious album Dion ever made. And indeed, the lyrics are not about '50s teenage love. "Rockin' Child" is more than a rescue from the vaults, though. It's an authentic and wonderful trip back in time.
The release of Kickin' Child may not be the last vintage reissue to come from Dion. Santos confirmed with Billboard that a box set of Dion's complete Columbia Records recordings is being considered, though there's no timetable for its release.
"There's a lot of unreleased blues stuff I did with the Apollo Theater musicians and there was of experimenting going on for me in the mid-'60s in that studio, which I think frustrated Columbia," he says. "(Rob Santos) wanted to put out this album first before he put out the box set and I thank him for that."
Dion says he looks back with fondness on the Laurie Records songs, like "A Teenager in Love," "The Wanderer" and "Runaround Sue." "Those were fun making and they're still fun to listen to. I think they're great records, I really do. They're perfect records, in spite of all the flaws," he says.
"I can't tell you the first time we put that together acapella, a rendition of it. It was like heaven. It was like four guys singing four different things. And it was like a carousel in heaven. It was unbelievable. It was a defining moment in my life. I was 17 years old. It was incredible. So I have very fond memories. That's all good. I love that people received it, appreciated it and enjoy it till this day. I'm happy about all that. I'm a blessed man. Singing is like praying twice."
And he's very glad the public will now get to hear Kickin' Child. "I'm just happy that they decided to release it in its original form. It just kind of slipped through the tracks and was sitting there. I'm just grateful to Sony and Norton for rediscovering it and putting it out as is. It was like a piece of me that was lost back there in a way. And it kind of puts the diary in place. It fills in the movie, the story," he says.