I profiled Dion for The Wall Street Journal. It is in today’s paper (June 13, 2020) and available online here.
I honestly found him to be one of the most enlightened and enlightening person I’ve ever interviewed. As soon as I can clean it up a little I will post the entire interview here. The story is based around Dion’s fabulous new album Blues With Friends. It includes duets and guitar playing by Joe Bonamassa, Jeff Beck, Steve Van Zandt, Vn Morrison, John Hammond Jr., Brian Setzer… and Bruce Springsteen.
I thought it would be great to have a quote from one of the guests and I figured that I might as well start at the top – with the Boss. I emailed his manager Jon Landau, with whom I ‘ve had a friendly relationship since I interviewed him for One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band. He has an interesting history with the ABB, which goes back to Phil Walden’s management of Otis Redding. Read the book if you want to know more about that! Jon quickly replied that he thought Bruce might be interested, and within a day or two an interview was being set up. I used a couple of nice quotes in the story, and share the entire, barely edited interview here. You need to hear a little from Dion for a little bit of context.
Thanks for reading. Please check out my three books by clicking away: Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues, and Becoming a Star in Beijing; One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band; Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan
Dion’s description of how Bruce came to play on the song “Hymn To Him” from his excellent new album Blues With Friends:
“I had this song called ‘Hymn to Him’ I had written a long time ago, 1981 or 82 and I always thought it was strong. I thought it had heart, thought it was soulful. And I thought Patti Scialfa would sound great on this. She’s the Jersey soul girl, for sure. She’s gonna rumble doll, she’s gonna make this fly. So I sent it to her. She says ‘Dion, I love it. I wanna sing on it, I hear some stuff.’ Then she starts asking me what to do and I just let her go. She came up with a vocal arrangement that’s totally her own. She kept running these vocals, almost like Phil Spector. She laid about nine vocals on and it sounded like the wind of the holy spirit or something. It captures this whole beautiful, sublime sound.
“And Bruce loves the song from the very beginning. Patti told me that he came in with his guitar. He heard a solo, and she asked if I minded him playing it and I said, ‘Hey, if I don’t have to pay him, go ahead.’ So he does this solo and, you know, he has this gravitas, this big sound, and it was just so perfect for what she did. it was a great example of how these great artists expanded my limited vision and made the songs better beyond what I could have imagined. I gotta tell you, it was like a gift. I really asked Patti to do it, and he just gave me a gift. It was like a Christmas present.”
Interview with Bruce Springsteen, conducted on the phone June 2, 2020.
“Hey, Alan! It’s Bruce!”
Hi Bruce. Thank you so much for calling. Can you hold on one second while I begin recording?
[Gone about 10 seconds. Recording begins with mercifully no delays or glitches.]
Bruce, you there?
Thank you. It felt really weird to put Bruce Springsteen on hold.
[Bruce laughs a lot. Whew. My joke, which was actually a true statement, went over.]
I just hung up with Dion an hour ago and he said to tell you thank you again.
Oh, that’s great!
He told me his version of how you ended up on the song, but I’d like to hear it from you, so let’s start there and then talk about Dion.
It was really through Patti. Dion asked Patti to do something on the music and I was in the studio with her and she said, “Why don’t you put something on here if you have any ideas.” So I got to play a little guitar, which I like to do. Always like to do.
I love Dion and I have, gosh, since I heard ‘Teenager in Love’ on my mom’s radio as a small boy. That was the first thing I heard and you know we became friendly over the years and he’s just one of those guys whose artistic curiosity has never left him, which is very unusual for musicians. It usually fades, or they lose it somehow, but Dion has remained musically curious throughout his entire life and made all kinds of different kinds of records and has continued using what is probably one of the great white pop voices of all times in creative ways. That’s very inspiring.
To look to a musician who’s a generation older than you still recording vital music?
Yeah, actually older than me! [laughs] It’s fun to see people older than me now who are still artistically vibrant. [laughs] It truly is.
And the solo you played is cool and evocative, and it fits perfectly.
It was just fun! It was… Patti was really kind of producing the session, so she gave me a lot of direction as to where to go. She’s quite good at production.
Dion said that the layered vocals were completely her idea.
Yeah, totally. She went in and said, “I have this idea.” She had all these different vocal parts and it was just incredibly creative. It was really something… I didn’t know where she was going with it until she was finished and she spent quite a few hours just very carefully layering part after part after part until something really happened. It was a great day in the studio.
Was the approach you wanted to take on that solo clear to you? Did you try different approaches?
I don’t know. I picked up a Gretsch guitar, which has a tremolo bar on it. That’s what Duane Eddy played, so that defines a little bit the sound you’re going to get, where you’re going sonically, and Patti was assisting melodically and just telling me what she was hearing and I really was there supporting her. She made it easy and it was fun. It’s an incredible song and it’s really just very, very difficult to write well about that subject and not sound preachy. He just wrote a beautiful hymn.
You talked about hearing “Teenager in Love” and being so inspired as a kid. What came next? I think all of Dion’s stuff holds up incredibly well.
Oh! Yes! First of all, it all swung like crazy. You put on “Ruby Baby,” “The Wanderer, “Runaround Sue” … all of these things have a swing, you know? And then the other thing is the sax… the great great sax solos. The guy’s name is slipping my mind right now. Um…
What was his name?
Right! That affected me a lot, too, you know. Obviously when Clarence and I got together, and after Clarence passed away and Jake [Clemons] got in the band, I said, “These are some essential saxophone parts that you just need to know if you are going to work in our band.” The sax solos from the Dion records are certainly part of that.
I know that when you encountered Clarence, you just wanted him in the band, but do you think that’s part of you heard in your head?
Yeah, of course. You can go back in, if you look at your rock history, the use of the saxophone on the Dion records is very, very specific and incredibly well done. So when I contemplated sax on my records, yeah, I wanted those big, swinging sax solos. That sound! All of these solos.. you can hum them. They’re melodic and built from such concrete melodically. [Sings “The Wanderer” sax solo.] You can sing them and I wanted people to be able to sing Clarence’s solos. They’re formal. They are not improvisations. They’re actually quite formal. That just, I don’t know, it just ingested into my music somehow.
The guys on the Dion records are incredible – Bucky Pizarelli playing rhythm guitar and Mickey Baker, lead…
The rhythm section is Panama Francis and Milt Hinton, top-flight jazz guys.
Yeah, and you can tell. You can tell.
Thank you very much. May I ask you one other completely obscure question?
I wrote a biography of the Allman Brothers…
I’ve always heard that they were a big influence …
Oh yeah! When I had a band Steel Mill, they were a huge influence. Huge influence. The two guitars, and if you’re ever to go onto the internet and dig way, way down deep into the Steel Mill material you will eventually hear the kind of guitar playing that came out of the Allman Brothers. We had the two guitars, we did the third melodies… and actually yes I was a huge Allman Brothers fan when they hit and with the band I had at that time, which was 69-71. That was right in the wheelhouse and yeah they were a huge influence.
Thanks. That’s what I thought but I have never heard you discuss it.
Yeah. Not so much when I started making my own records, but right previously to that when I had a big, bluesy hard rock band, they were a huge influence.
Well, thanks Bruce. That was great and it will give the story a nice boost.
Of course. It was a pleasure. God bless.
Postscript: As soon as we hung up, I regretted not throwing in one more followup and asking about his experience opening for the Allman Brothers in 1971. A few days later I saw Steve Van Zandt praising Gregg on Twitter so I asked him about it, and he promptly replied, “They were great. And Duane complimented my slide playing.”