There's a picture in his autobiography The Wanderer of a young Dion hanging out in shades on the corner of Crotona and 183rd Street. It is captioned "Here I am looking cool..." and it serves as a reminder of the Bronx neighbourhood that formed the backdrop to his early success in 1958. It was an area of gangs and posing where image mattered, and it was hardly surprising that the sudden huge hit I Wonder Why took Dion & the Belmonts to fame and fortune way beyond what the 'hood could offer. Overnight the King of his own New York streets appeared to have a much larger kingdom. As it proved much, much more than one-shot success, Dion went on to solo stardom and tastes of the temptations of booze, drugs and adulation at an earlier age than was good for him. He succumbed to many of the pitfalls, but yet was able to maintain the love of his wife Susan whom he had married in March 1963.
Dion admits he had "no idea that drug and alcohol abuse was a progressive disease". The associated depression, even at the height of his second flush of 60s hits, helped to bring about a re-location to Miami for a fresh start. It was there that his father-in-law Jack helped put religion back on the agenda for the still young man, and a spiritually-based programme helped lift Dion back into a more reflective period of his career, exemplified by his huge multi-million seller Abraham, Martin And John. The 70s saw a progression of well received albums (available on a series of twofer reissues from Ace), including the ultimately frustrating recording project with Phil Spector.
All the while Dion was underpinned by the strength of his family's love, and although with Jack's help he had certainly been led to the water, he remained an erratic drinker of that water. When out jogging in December 1979 at a time when he had very mixed mid-life emotions, Dion experienced an intense revelation about how he saw his relationship with God. He simply wanted to be nearer, and this desire was soon to translate into a new series of albums for the Dayspring label. The two LPs on this CD were the outcome. Far removed from 'everyone join in clappiness' of some gospel recordings, Dion's songs are characterised by often stark honesty. He explains and thanks, rather than preaching, about his experiences. He's The One, Center Of My Life and The Truth Will Set You Free from INSIDE JOB all set out his stall effectively whilst retaining his cool rock edge with sparse but sharp instrumentation.
The fuller sounding ONLY JESUS continues the themes, but with the emphasis firmly on Dion's view of Jesus rather more than his own failings. With these gospel recordings, Dion did not reject his past, but instead utilised aspects of it to tell the story of his personal salvation. He maintains the love of those around him, and with his wider and maturer base has gone on to a wealth of later secular recording. This release documents one of his most successful gear changes, whilst still fitting neatly onto the musical road he has travelled.
By Kingsley Abbott