“My buddy came to see me to give me a tip-tip-tip
I said now listen here friend I tell you I‘m hip-hip-hip
Why don‘t you mind your own business close your lip-lip-lip
I know when my girl give me the slip-slip-slip”
Those two New Yorkers, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote that song, as well as “Hound Dog” and about a million other great tunes. Leiber and Stoller are the kind of clever funny I‘ve always wanted to be, and along with Dylan, Lennon and McCartney, and Hal David and Burt Bacharach, they are at the top of the songwriting heap. But this isn‘t really about the writers. Writers always come last you see. This is about the singer and what he did with these words. The singer is Dion, and by that I mean the real Dion, not the Celine who has smeared the name for all time with her robotic, histrionic caterwauling. I‘m talking about Dion DiMucci, an Italian from the Bronx.
Dion started out singing sappy love tunes for preteens with a doo-wop group he assembled and named the Belmonts, after Belmont Street in the Bronx. He graduated to a solo career with “Runaround Sue”, and then came up with a real gem “The Wanderer”. This tune, written by Dion and his buddy Ernie Maresca, perfectly portrayed a good-looking ladies man who couldn‘t be tied down. The song displayed an attitude that I think reflected Dion‘s actual life experience at the time. He was young, rich and famous, and a big pop star. Naturally the girls flocked to him. Then he took to heroin and his life changed.
He came out with a song called “Born to Cry” which is one of the few early tunes he still does in concert to this day. All of a sudden neither fame nor fortune satisfied him. What then does he choose to record? “Drip Drop” – a strange choice for a rich young kid. It had been a hit for the Coasters, who had treated it as an amusing ditty, no more.
Rumour has it that Dion was at the peak of his drug-using years (his early twenties) when he released his version of “Drip Drop”. The tune cruised to the top of the charts and Dion was rolling in dough once again. Within a couple of years, though, his hits had ceased and his habit was in full force.
What makes this song so great is the attitude that he brings to it. His baby’s gone and he‘s hurting real bad, but his pride won‘t allow him to admit it, other than to himself. The lyrics remind me somewhat of a Carole King composition that the Everly Brothers performed, one called “Crying in the Rain”, but instead of the plaintive and downcast emotion of the Everlys, Dion seems to celebrate the depth of his heartbreak with a cock-of-the-walk confession that says to me “hey, even the Wanderer gets hurt now and then.”
Listen to him sing “The roof is leaking and the rain‘s falling in my shoes” in the third verse where he seems to turn the word “roof” into “raif”. It‘s street talk, the way guys talk when they‘re jiving themselves or each other, and it is delicious to hear him sing it. He never sang in such an uninhibited fashion again for years.
That said, I love hearing him sing “Ruby Baby”, “Little Diane”, and “Abraham, Martin and John”, as well as the entire album he recorded with Phil Spector as producer (Born to Be With You).The Spector album went nowhere when it was released in the late 70s, but it is now receiving some much deserved attention as a minor classic. The title tune is a slow, simmering song of dedication; the entire album was probably Spector‘s finest production of the Seventies.
Dion has had an unfortunate liability of slipping the phrase “little girl” in too many of his songs. He was still doing it in the otherwise great album of blues stuff he recorded in 2007 called “Bronx in Blue”. Someone should have told him long ago the phrase is demeaning to women. When you‘re 17, you can sing about little girls named Sue and Diane and Donna The Prima Donna. When you‘re closing on 76, it‘s time to give it up. I tell the man this because I truly love his music, and I love his latest stuff. On his 2007 release he plays some spectacular acoustic blues guitar. Listen to “You‘re The One” and then to a standout track “ I Let My Baby Do That”, one of the best songs ever written on the subject of “getting your ashes hauled” and see if you don‘t agree.
He‘s still one of my favourite singers, despite his occasional failing. Taste, though, is too refined if there‘s not also some great fault associated with it. I think of a flaw in one‘s character as the scar on the outrageously beautiful Padma Lakshmi‘s arm, or the “high cost of living” tracks on Keith Richards’ face. Dion is a singer with few faults and many virtues. He has survived, and he‘s still making exciting music after nearly 60 years in the business. Not many former teen idols can say as much.
Watch: ‘Drip Drop’ 1963
Watch: “I Let My Baby Do That”