Dion DiMucci is undoubtedly the first member of the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame to cite Pope John Paul II, Scott Hahn, and Christopher West as influences. The once-troubled singer-songwriter has returned to the blues on his last two albums, finding a place where his faith and music can coexist.
“I define the blues as the naked cry of the human heart longing to be in union with God. I know for me it was all-consuming. To be able to express my joys, sorrows, fears, and hope—a place where you can be totally honest on the journey home,” DiMucci recently told CWR from his home in Florida.
In the warped world of rock-and-roll, a few stars have lived long enough to come to their senses and sing the praises of sobriety and family. But what makes DiMucci unique even among this group is that he’s come all the way back to full communion with the Catholic Church, and he doesn’t keep it a secret.
For people who grew up in the 1960s, DiMucci needs no introduction. He’s simply Dion—no last name necessary. When the Beatles were choosing rock musicians for the cover of “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” they picked Bob Dylan and Dion.
For those born after 1960, Dion is just another guy on the oldies station. He sings “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer.” But even to the casual listener, his songs are more intense than the other teen idol songs from the late 1950s and early 1960s.
As one of the founders of rock-and-roll, DiMucci knows that he can get the attention of many people who wouldn’t ordinarily hear anything about Catholicism, and he doesn’t waste the opportunity. A few years ago when the former contributing editor of Rolling Stone magazine, Anthony DeCurtis, interviewed him for The New York Times,
DiMucci left a few books on the table during the interview—St. Augustine’s Confessions and the Navarre Bible: St. Matthew. DeCurtis took notice and mentioned the books in the story. DiMucci frequently tells the story of an exchange with a parish priest in his neighborhood, when he was 15, that has “always stayed” with him.
“It was right after the movie ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ with James Dean and Natalie Wood came out. I was walking down Crotona Avenue in the Bronx, thinking I was cool and Father Joe calls out to me, ‘Yo! Dion! Come over here. What’s this ‘rebel without a cause’? Listen to me: when you rebel for the truth, then you’ve really got something,’” DiMucci said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, thanks a lot, Father. But I gotta go meet Jo B.B. Eyes down here on the corner.’ That is something that has always stayed with me.”
FROM THE WANDERER TO THE THUNDERER
On his new album, Son of Skip James, he has a song about St. Jerome called “The Thunderer” that is based on the Phyllis McGinley poem of the same name. He also has a spoken word interlude on the album in which he quotes John Paul II talking about the Bob Dylan song “Blowing in the Wind” at a 1997 Eucharistic Conference.
On the album DiMucci says, “Check this out. When Dylan performed ‘Blowing in the Wind’ at the 1997 World Eucharistic Conference in Bologna, Italy, Pope John Paul, who I love, said, ‘You say the answer is blowing in the wind. And so it is. But it’s not the wind that blows things away. It’s the wind that is the breath and life of the Holy Spirit that calls and says come.’”
DiMucci isn’t afraid to point out the rot and contradictions in the culture of rock-and-roll. “Rock-and-rollers pride themselves on being truthful and free. But a lot of them die so broken they never come to the full knowledge of the truth. Or they never appropriate into their lives what they’re singing about. They don’t get their own message. They confuse freedom with license,” Di- Mucci said.
“Artists are in love with the search for truth—and you have to underline search—they’re in love with the search, but what happens if they come to it and it’s really presented to them? Do they embrace it? No,” DiMucci said.
The story of DiMucci’s rise, fall, conversion, and return to the Catholic Church is rare in American popular culture in that on the way back he didn’t stop at the celebrity church of tolerance.
“Some of these people worship at the altar of tolerance. They say that means you love people. But it’s not love. To me, the grown-ups tell you what’s wrong. Real grown-ups will disapprove of something their kid does but loves him totally,” DiMucci said.
DiMucci was baptized Catholic, but he didn’t go to Mass except when his aunts would take him to midnight Mass for Christmas. “I remember everyone singing together and praying together. There was a sense of harmony there that I didn’t have at home,” Di- Mucci said.
A turning point in DiMucci’s life came on April 1, 1968, after he asked God to free him from his addictions. DiMucci hasn’t touched drugs or alcohol since. In the years that followed he worked his way through various Protestant denominations. His wife, Susan, would dutifully tag along to various storefront churches and remark, “I wonder what this church is going to look like in two thousand years.”
After years of study, DiMucci rejoined the Church, going to confession at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel back in his old Bronx neighborhood in 1997.
BELOW THE RADAR OF POP CULTURE
If DiMucci has been overlooked by popular culture, it is not just because he’s Catholic and outspoken. There are other reasons. First, he never tried to cash in on the darkness in his life. He doesn’t take pride in it as have many rock stars who survived addiction. Nor does he argue that dissipation was somehow necessary to art or endemic to the times.
“It was living hell. I was unhappy and the people around me were unhappy,” DiMucci said.
Today, many people don’t realize that DiMucci has been making music for the past 50 years, and he’s still going strong. Last year his album Bronx in Blue was nominated for a Grammy in the blues category.
DiMucci began his career playing country music. At the age of 12, he would play Hank Williams songs around the Little Italy section of the Bronx where he grew up.
“I had no idea what Jambalaya was except that the words sounded good coming out of my mouth,” DiMucci said.
As a teenager he had his first doowop hit, “I Wonder Why,” with his group the Belmonts—a group of guys from his neighborhood who would replicate the horn lines they heard at the Apollo Theatre with their voices. “We were a poor man’s horn section,” Di-Mucci said.
At the age of 24, he was the first rock artist signed to Columbia records— ahead of Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. At 27, he was a drug addict waiting to end up on the obituary page. But at age 28, he was clean and back at the top of the charts with “Abraham, Martin, and John.”
In the 1970s, he worked with legendary producer Phil Spector. In the 1980s, he recorded a number of gospel albums for the Christian record label Dayspring. In 1989 DiMucci was admitted into the Rockand- Roll Hall of Fame —the same year as the Rolling Stones. He alsoreleased, Yo Frankie, which marked his return to secular music. In the last 20 years he’s recorded doo-wop, hard rock, and now, for his last two albums, acoustic blues. (Recently, at the request of Ave Maria University founder Tom Monaghan, DiMucci composed a song named for the Florida college—“The Chapels of Ave Maria.”)
Another reason DiMucci flies below the radar of pop culture is that even though he has one of the strongest voices in the history of rock-and-roll, his singing doesn’t have the stylistic quirks of an Elvis or Buddy Holly or the unique tone of Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash, which would make him instantly recognizable or easy to parody.
Further, his style has kept changing. Oldies stations play his last number- one hit “Abraham, Martin, and John,” but unless you were there, you would never associate the harps and strings in that song with the gritty singing and doo-wop accompaniment of “Runaround Sue.”
DiMucci says that as a musical form, the blues can be seen as a musical equivalent to St. Augustine’s often quoted line, “Love God and do as you wish,” in that the music’s boundaries actually give the musician greater freedom. Moreover, the simplicity of the blues makes them the first thing that all guitar players learn but then spend a lifetime trying to master. It’s notable that Di- Mucci gave up on the blues and then came back to them.
“After I first had a conversion experience back in the 1970s, I threw away about 300 blues albums by people like Robert Johnson, Skip James, Big Billy Broonzy, Fury Lewis, and Lightning Hopkins and started writing gospel songs,” DiMucci said. Compared to other music recorded in the 1980s, DiMucci’s gospel music holds up pretty well, but it still sounds like a forced combination of Christianity and popular music. With the blues, the fit with religious themes was more natural.
“At first I asked myself, what is a guy like me doing playing the blues? But Scott Hahn told me that another word for the Psalms are songs—and many of them would have to be considered blues,” DiMucci said.
“You don’t need to be from Mississippi in the 1920s to have the blues. John Paul II had Communists and Nazis in his neighborhood and his friends were dying. You could get the blues in Poland, the blues is the blues,” Di- Mucci said.
And in the person of Skip James, Di-Mucci has found a way to pull it all together. The title of his new album, Son of Skip James, is a tribute to the faith and music of the late bluesman.
“Skip James told me back in 1964 at the Newport Folk Festival that the truth isn’t a something, it’s a somebody, and his name is Jesus. Even though I wasn’t open to understanding it at the time, the thought has stayed with me,” DiMucci said.