Brainiac On Banjo #062: Rock Is Here To Stay After All

We can argue when rock ’n’ roll started. The term goes back at least 85 years, but the roots of rock go back to our ancestors pounding rocks together. Perhaps that’s the real origin of the term.

I grew up with rock playing in the apartment. That’s probably true for most people reading this, but I’m older than many of you. I’m older than shit, to be sure, and I’m not always thrilled with that. But my sister was almost seven years older than me, and she was seven when Jackie Brenston, Ike Turner, and Sam Phillips made “Rocket 88”, arguably the first rock record released commercially. I was one year old; so, I’m not able to say she was listening to rock way back then. But she was so into rock that I clearly remember her collection of singles and her choice of radio stations. There was no other form of music dominating within the confines of Sunnyside and Kimball apartment 3-A, in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood.

It had a major impact on me. I grew up a rocker. I love rock in all its forms, some more than others, but damn near everything that we refer to as American roots music (rock, blues, country, bluegrass, folk, rap, and even a bit of pop) remains close to my heart.

When I turned 11 years old, my sister gave me my very first record album, Runaround Sue by Dion DiMucci. Shortly thereafter, I scrapped together the $3.14 I needed to purchase Dion’s first solo album, Alone With Dion. I bought it at the old Harmony Hall record store in a strip mall that was founded the year “Rocket 88” was released.

Dion, you see, was my first favorite rock artist. I grew up listening to Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Eddie Cochran, and so many others (including Dion and the Belmonts), but Dion was my favorite. And you never forget your first.

I’m still around and, thankfully, so is Dion. Not that he’s that old – he’s merely 11 years older than me. He’s still recording, and he’s been doing some of the best stuff in his life. A couple of blues albums that revealed to those who missed the point that Dion always was a bluesman. His New York heart, his New York soul, is my idea of what New York City is all about. He differs from that other great chronicler of New York City, Damon Runyon, in that Dion’s New York city streets were and remain absolutely real.

So real, in fact, that a couple years ago he teamed up with youngster Paul Simon to record “New York Is My Home,” the title track to his 29th album. Here’s some rock ’n’ roll math for you: The Bronx (Dion) plus Queens (Simon) equals New York City. Listen to the track and try to tell me otherwise.

We hear all the time about those rockers who died young, but we rarely hear about those who were able to work forever. Bo Diddley lived until he was 80. Chuck Berry made it to 90 and, being Chuck Berry, he released his first all-new album in about a decade several months after his death. Fats Domino made it to 89 and he not only lived through Hurricane Katrina but he, along with thousands of others, was evacuated to the Louisiana Superdome.

The music of these classic rockers and those who tread the same path – that will live forever, as each generation discovers it and claims it as their own.

In 1958, Danny and the Juniors released a single called “Rock and Roll Is Here To Stay,” a defiant, high-energy response to the record burnings and babblings of those many, many atherosclerosis-riddled critics whose view of our culture was limited to Guy Lombardo, Kate Smith, and Al Jolson – but did not include Cab Calloway and King Oliver. Writer David White, who founded and performed with Danny and the Juniors and also wrote “At The Hop” and “You Don’t Own Me”, wrote the truth. And that’s what rock ’n’ roll is all about: the truth. And, well, about getting laid. But so is everything else.

The work of octogenarian Dion DiMucci is about to hit the stage, in another one of those historical recreation musicals. I’m not contemptuous of the form, but for me such a production must be a lot more than just a well-choreographed collection of greatest hits. With Dion involved, I have no worries on this front. It’s titled The Wanderer: The Life and Music of Dion, and it was written by fellow New Yorker Charles Messina.

The Wanderer opens May 28th at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey. With a bit of luck and good weather, it will cross the Hudson River and land where Dion always has been: in the New York streets.