When I was just a little pup on the streets of the Bronx, not quite old enough to start school but old enough to live or die with the mighty New York Yankees, my Uncle Teddy was a hero of sorts to me. Not the most upstanding character, Teddy was more the type who would not only not die of old age but would never have made it through even the most forgiving airport metal detector (had he lived long enough to see them) if you catch my drift. Uncle Teddy was not only tough, violent and a little deranged, he was always packin'. All of his friends seemed to have only the most ironic of names. Believe me, Cookie, Pinky and Smiley did way more than not live up to their monikers.
Well, one day me and the big boys were hangin' on the stoop drinkin' beer (well they drank, I watched), talkin' about chicks, knives and stealing cars (they talked, I listened). After a few not wasted hours, the guys got bored and decided to take a walk. I was invited to continue tagging along. I guess I was somewhat of a mascot to them and besides they all knew how easy it was to impress me. We headed north along the Grand Concourse watching people get out of our way or even cross the street as we approached. At 182nd Street, we hung a Ralphie (that is, we made a right turn). Soon we were crossing Arthur Avenue and were deep into the Little Italy section of the Bronx. I loved it here. It was always noisy and busy and friendly and it smelled GREAT! Everywhere you could smell somebody's grandma's sauce simmering from an open window. The Holy Land of Marinara
As we approached Crotona Avenue we could hear the faint sounds of guys singing. And I mean singing. Harmonies soaring and twisting and words and non-words locking together in rhythm and melody. It was so alien to me, so strange, so good. We walked on slowly and the sounds started to come into focus. They sounded better and better the closer we came. Like angels, they were. Like Italian angels, like I died and woke up in Goombah heaven.
Suddenly one voice broke away from the others and the whole thing felt like it was going to lift off the ground. This voice was something else again. It was at once pure and dirty and it struck a nerve deep inside my little heart. Trancelike I continued walking toward the four singing teenagers and suddenly realised that I was alone. Looking back for my uncle, I found him twenty feet back frozen in his tracks. Teddy and his friends were just standing there with their mouths open, the oddest looks on their faces and little tears streaming gently down their hoodlum cheeks. I ran back to him and in a voice trembling with emotion, all he could say was "Scott, that's Dion and the Belmonts". To me, Uncle Teddy looked and sounded like Moses back from the mountain with the Ten Commandments. He was awe-struck and humbled and actually crying. I had never seen him any of these ways before. Who were these Belmonts and what the hell was this Dion?!
Forty years later that incident has stayed with me, etched indelibly in that part of my brain that seems to have been most responsible for me turning out to be the person I am. Dion went on to become an international superstar, member of the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame and one of the greatest and most enduring singers of rock'n'roll's dawn. But I'll tell ya' if you came from the Bronx, Dion was more special than any outsiders could ever really understand. He was our Elvis. He was of us and yet he elevated us. He showed us a way out of this place to a place where a little Jewboy's dreams could come true. Dion embodied the soul and spirit of that time, of that place and of us. Bronx Soul is what we chose to call it.
When I turned 18, I left home and school and set out in search of my own little piece of the rock'n'roll dream. For the past quarter century, I have been making rock'n'roll records and strapping on my guitar and taking it to the people every chance I get. All the while, a little piece of Dion and that fateful afternoon on a Bronx street corner go with me. In 1984, when I formed the Del-Lords and my first publishing company, I named it Prince of the Bronx Music, in honour of the guy. Believe me, I know that I am not the Prince of the Bronx! So imagine my surprise, when in 1994 I get a phone call from some guy named Dion. I figured that if there were 1000 guys named Dion, then I would be more likely to hear from all 999 of them before I would hear from Mr DiMucci. Long story short, it was indeed Francis and Pat's little boy and we have since gone on to become great friends, songwriting partners, co-conspirators and even a pretty rockin' guitar team. For me, one of the most inspirational things about Dion has been his continuing restless as an artist. In stark dramatic contrast to many of his peers from the first rock era, Dion has never allowed himself to become a one-trick pony, relying on one signature sound, riff or style. From Doo-Wop and R&B, to Folk and Blues, through modern Rock to Gospel, Dion has moved seamlessly through each of these forms and found a way in, and a voice that is uniquely his own. He has done this better than anyone else except, maybe, Elvis. This was to be the M.O. for our band Little Kings, we would open our hearts wide and look only forward. We would write about the things that mattered to us, we would keep it stripped down to two guitars, bass and drums and this would be anything but the Oldies show.
I then made two phone calls-.-first to my Del-Lord brother Frank Funaro, drummer extraodinaire and seasoned veteran of the Great Root-Rock Wars of the classic rock 80s. Next I called the heart, soul and signature instrumental sound of the great Smithereens, bass virtuoso and baseball fan supreme, Mike Mesaros. These were two guys whom I knew, whose rock'n'roll hearts beat in the same four-four time as Dion's and my own.
We called ourselves Little Kings, a name that fitted the three criteria for a band name. First it has to sound good (duh!), second it should work for a street gang (whaddya think Uncle Teddy?) and third, it should work for a bowling team (and it does!). We wrote, we rehearsed, we ate. We climbed into the van, we rocked and on the way home we usually ate again.
This recording is a document of one of those two meal nights in between which we took the time to rock our collective ass off. It was, fittingly, recorded in our hometown of New York City. We played songs that Dion and I wrote, we played Dion's tunes, my tunes, blues and even a punk rock classic. It is no frills, no bullshit, from the heart rock'n'roll. A totally kill rhythm section and two guitars, one of them played by the best rock'n'roll singer in the world. Dig!!
By Sott Kempner