Dion – Complete Laurie Singles (review)

Dion – The Complete Laurie Singles (Real Gone / Capitol) review

Rock n’ Roll swagger began with Dion – and this collection shows just how he got there

Most early rock n’ rollers were from rural areas – Buddy Holly was from Lubbock, Texas, and Elvis Presley came from Tupelo, Mississippi.  But, Dion grew up on the streets of the Bronx, and his music has always contained a little of that street mentality.   The music collected on the Complete Laurie Singles represents a pivotal moment in his long career – it’s the first time he recorded as a solo artist, and these recordings chronicle his greatest commercial success.  This marks the first time all of his singles for the label and their respective b-sides have been collected on one set, in their original mono versions.

When Dion parted ways with the Belmonts in 1960, it was largely over his desire to record more rock-oriented material (and not the easy listening drivel they had just released).  However, Dion’s first single as a solo artist wasn’t much of an improvement:  “Lonely Teenager” begins with just Dion and his acoustic guitar, before giving way to the same sort of shuffle beat that propelled “Teenager in Love” a year earlier.  But, although the track features an emotive lead vocal, the cheesy female backing voices are too loud and add nothing to the song.  “Havin‘ Fun” returned Dion to the same songwriting team of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, who penned “Teenager.”  The track features an unique trombone solo, but never really takes off.

As his record label searched for a direction, Dion was handed sub-par material like “The Kissing Game,” which apes the arrangement of “Under the Boardwalk,” but with lackluster results.  The single’s flipside copied the Everly Brothers, from the tight harmonies, to the drum fills which recall the duo’s hit “Til I Kissed Her.”  Then, when that didn’t work, they returned once again to the “Teenager in Love” arrangement for “Somebody Nobody Wants.”  Dion turns in great performances, but the songs just aren’t that memorable.  Thankfully, the next single would be co-written by Dion, and bring him to superstardom.

For “Runaround Sue,” Dion returned to his roots – the street corner.  By recruiting the Del-Satins, he finally had a male vocal group that rivaled the Belmonts, which made a huge difference – their gritty backing helped push Dion’s lead vocal to heights he’d never been.  “Runaround Sue,” with the handclaps and drop outs in percussion, is a pure rock n’ roll masterpiece and still sounds fresh today.

Even as Dion was having his greatest success (“Runaround Sue” was his only #1 hit), his label still was trying to destroy his career.  As a followup, they insisted he record “The Majestic,” a goofy attempt to capitalize on a recent dance.  Problem is, we can’t find anyone that actually remembers this dance.  Luckily, the single’s b-side came to the rescue –  “The Wanderer” was the quintessential Dion track – full of grit, male bravado, and honesty.  He’s all full of swagger, but he knows it’s all for show: “with my two fists of iron / and I’m going nowhere.” The Del-Satins and honking sax help propel the song, which is played at a slinky tempo, which makes it an excellent late-evening party tune to this day.   Both “The Wanderer” and “Runaround Sue” sound fabulous in their original mono version, complete with slapback echo not present on the more-common stereo release.

“Lovers Who Wander” was an obvious rewrite of his previous hit, yet it still works on it’s own.  However, it was the single’s flip side which would give a window into the young singer’s soul.  “(I Was) Born to Cry” is one of the darkest, most impassioned songs of the pre-Beatles era.  The ominous chord changes and eerie backup vocals sounds like it came straight out of Hell.  Dion was beginning to battle demons that would stall his career just a few years later.  “Little Diane” was another dark number, complete with a kazoo solo by Dion himself, as was the b-side, “Lost For Sure,” which features a longing sax break.  “Love Came to Me” is a more positive track, but it also shows that Dion was growing as an artist.  The way he bends the notes and uses restraint instead of belting it out, would become signatures of his singing throughout his career.  Unfortunately, it would be the last single he would release while under contract to Laurie.  Dion soon became the first rock artist to sign with the prestigious Columbia records.

Of course, his previous record label had plenty of material to continue to release, and that makes up the bulk of disc two.  Unfortunately, the quality of these recordings just doesn’t stand up to disc one.  “Sandy” is an okay doo wop number, but the label kept pushing him to record “adult” music, so we get things like “Faith,” and “King Without a Queen,” which are just not his forte’.  There’s a pretty decent version of the Dell-Vikings’ “Come Go With Me” which sounds like it was recorded at the sessions for “The Wanderer,” while his rendition of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” is recorded at a break-neck pace. Somehow, Dion sounds like Fabian on his rendition of “Tag Along” (which isn’t a compliment!).  Laurie Records continued to release several of these singles, well after Dion had signed to Columbia.

Even though he would have good success with songs like “Ruby Baby,” and “Drip Drop,” his tenure with Columbia was also marked with frustration.  Dion was wanting to record blues numbers, while the label was content with his teen idol status.  For proof of his prowess at early folk and blues, check out The Road I’m On, a two-CD compilation of mostly unreleased tracks that show off an artist in transition. Eventually, Dion would leave Columbia, and return to Laurie and the top of the charts with the topical “Abraham, Martin and John,” concerning the recent assassinations.  The gentle reading perfectly captured the disbelief the nation was feeling at the unrest of the time.  “Daddy Rollin’ (In Your Arms)”  showed a darker, rocking side of Dion.  “Purple Haze” was a misguided attempt to re-interpret the Hendrix tune in the soft “Abraham” arrangement.  “He Looks a Lot Like Me” is one of the most blunt songs about war, that was penned by Dion.

The Complete Laurie Singles offers a clearer view of the peak (and some of the valleys)  of one of the most under-appreciated artists of our time.  It also marks the first time many of these classic tracks are returned to their original, far-superior mono versions.  Any fan of early rock n’ roll should dig into this one.  –Tony Peters