Box Set Shows Many Sides Of Dion

King of the New York Streets features doo-wop, folk, blues, gospel, rock.

Guys who sing, Dion says in the liner notes to his new box set King of the New York Streets, confess to all kinds of things in music they'd never mention to their tough guy friends.

But what about Dion himself, the original Wanderer, the Bronx bad one — did he ever cop to his feelings when he stepped from behind the mic?

The singer, speaking from his Florida home recently, dropped his voice down low on the telephone, as if trying to pull you close to say something out of the corner of his mouth.

"I would always seek guys out" to talk, the 61-year-old singer said.

You can see Dion DiMucci the searcher walking throughout King of the New York Streets: from his "Teenager in Love" doo-wop work with the Belmonts in the '50s, to his folk years singing "Abraham, Martin & John"; from such blues recordings as "Spoonful" (RealAudio excerpt), to his gospel period, to his '90s rock run with the Little Kings.

Along the way there are thoughtful ducks into songs by Jimi Hendrix (a folk cover of "Purple Haze"), Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and, most recently, Bruce Springsteen. The Boss, in fact, reworked his own "If I Should Fall Behind" (RealAudio excerpt of Dion version) in concert after hearing Dion's doo-wop take.

The three-disc, 65-song set hitting stores Tuesday (December 5) makes a compelling case that Dion stands alone — save only perhaps Johnny Cash — as the early rock and roller who has best tried to quench a never-ending creative thirst, rather than falling back on youthful glories.

When he was a teenager in the Bronx, Dion said, there was one guy in particular he used to seek out, a social worker named Dan Morrow. "He was like my spiritual uncle."

The singer hadn't yet turned 20 when the plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper — which Dion would have boarded had the $36 ticket not seemed extravagant to a street kid — crashed, killing everyone onboard.

He would talk to Morrow about the guilt he felt about not being on the plane, about belonging to the Fordham Baldies street gang, about whether there was life outside his neighborhood.

"I took my first plane ride to meet Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens in Chicago, where the tour started out," Dion said. "When the plane flew over my neighborhood from LaGuardia, I knew there was a bigger world. I said, 'Wow.' I could never go back. Not that I don't love my neighborhood and I don't go back to my neighborhood. But in my head, I could never go back to that kind of thinking."

Dion's work with the Belmonts opened the door for white doo-wop groups like the Mystics and the Tokens, according to Anthony Gribin, co-author of "The Complete Book of Doo-Wop."

And while he's best known for the swaggering rock classics "Runaround Sue" (RealAudio excerpt) and "The Wanderer," he released some of his grittiest tales in the late '60s and early '70s, including such songs as "Daddy Rollin' " (RealAudio excerpt) and "Your Own Backyard."

Dion's head-over-heels love affair with music has never waned, said Dictators and former Del-Lords guitarist Scott Kempner, who formed the straight-shooting rock outfit the Little Kings with Dion in 1996. Although the band's studio album has never been released, live cuts of "You Move Me" and "King of Hearts" (RealAudio excerpt) turn up on King of the New York Streets.

Kempner recalls Dion turning down $50,000 showcase concerts to play $90 bar gigs with the Little Kings.

"There's a certain New York thing that he has even more than Lou [Reed] has," Kempner said. While Reed sings about the Manhattan underbelly's transvestites, junkies and art dealers, Dion sang of common kids' spiritually foundering in "(I Was) Born To Cry" (RealAudio excerpt).

"His songs are more everyday," Kempner said. "Everybody can relate to them."

Without the Big Apple, King of the New York Streets makes clear, Dion's career would look mighty different. As it was, he said, he spent time huddling around a radio blasting Hank Williams songs from Newark, New Jersey; hanging out on stoops creating doo-wop arrangements; and heading over to Harlem to listen to the Rev. Gary Davis play gospel blues on the street corner.

"All that stuff, I digested all of it. And a lot more," Dion said.