A great voice is never out of date. Songs come and go, and backing bands change, but a good pop record demands a voice with character. All a record producer has to do is hook up that voice with the right material, and get out of the way. Dion DiMicci, one of the finest vocalists around, has been making records since the '50s, with intermittent success on the pop and R&B charts. Yet he remains at the mercy of his producer.
Dion's "Return of the Wanderer" (Lifesong JZ 35356) is a debut for a new label, and a significant career step as well - his attempt at a third major comeback.
Twenty years ago, a teen-aged Dion DiMucci sang lead for Dion and the Belmonts, a vocal quartet, like hundreds of others, that practiced their harmonies on Bronx streetcorners. Dion's doo-wop style unfashionable, an endearingly callow whine or a rich tenor, and it made his group stand out. They were lucky enough to reach the charts in May 1958, with their first single "I Wonder Why," beginning a string of hits that included "Where or When" and the redoubtable "A Teenager in Love." After the Belmonts disbanded in 1960, Dion went solo with songs like "Runaround Sue," "The Wanderer," "Come Go With Me" and "Drip Drop."
The 1964 British Invasion made Dion's doo-vop style unfashionable, and he dropped out of sight until 1968. With "Abraham, Martin and John," he re-emerged in the guise of a balladeer, acoustic guitar and all, but failed to make much commercial headway after his initial hit.
"I was lost musically for a while," he now confesses. Eventually, he decided to court the rock audience once again. He toured with '50s' oldies revues, reconstituted the Belmonts for a live album ("Reunion"), and went into the stuido with Phil "Wall of Sound" Spector, producer of some classic early-'60s pop: "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," "Da Doo Ron Ron" and many others. Unfortunately, that collaboration resulted in a turgid album never released in the U.S. "Streetheart," the follow-up produced by TV soundtrack writers Steve Barri and Michael Omartian, turned out to be disposable disco-pop.
"Return of the Wanderer" is only a slight improvement. Dion, who once characterized himself as "the original Fonz," tries to express nostalgia for the '50s in music of the '70s, but falls short on both counts. It's partially his own fault - he has co-authored embarrassing songs that seem to have gleaned '50s lore from "Grease," not real life. The worst is "(I Used to Be a) Brooklyn Dodger," in which Bronxbred Dion eulogizes the wrong borough.
Most of the blame, however, goes to producers Terry Cashman and Tommy West, best known for their work with the late Jim Croce. Their settings don't give Dion enough power to rock or enough warmth to relax. Songs merely plug along steadily when they ought to build.
Although Dion's voice once carried a whole group unaccompanied, Cashman and West seem compelled to keep adding extra players. When Dion tries to sing out on TOm Waits' "Heart of Saturday Night," he runs into inane backing vocals. When he seeks the mysterious fire of Bob Dylan's "Spanish Harlem Incident," he has to fight the band's tired rhythm. Only Cashman and West could render "Do You Believe in Magic," John Sebastian's paean to rock and roll, so woodenly unconvincing. Dion's voice is young and strong - and, when he breaks through the band (as in "Midtown American Main Street Gang"), quite distinctive. But he still needs a producer who will let him set that voice loose.
Bonnie Bramlett has similar problems on "Memories" (Capricorn CPN 0199), her new LP. Just as Dion drew on the inflections of '50s black vocal groups, Bramlett steeped herself in the moans, grunts and gospel of '60s Memphis soul music. Before Bonnie and husband Delaney Bramlett (whom she later divorced) became the first white act signed to the Stax-Volt label, she had done backing vocals on Stax sessions and toured as a singing, dancing Ikette in the Ike and Tina Turner Revue.
Delaney & Bonnie's career as a duo peaked in 1969 with the wildely energetic "On Tour" album, using a backup band that later evolved into Eric Clapton's Derek & the Dominoes, followed by the hit single "Never Ending Song of Love" on the album "To Bonnie From Delaney."
Later Delaney & Bonnie albums and postdivorce solo efforts never recaptured the joyous rock-and-soul blend of "On Tour." Bonnie Bramlett's voice rarely faltered - in fact, she has gained depth and power over the years - but she remained unable to make the crucial connection with prim material and arrangements. "Lady's Choice," recorded in 1976, made a valiant effort to resurrect overworked soul classics, but both its tunes and backup were too predictable. With "Memories," she has switched producers, but the efforts of new overseer Deke Richards are misguided and sometimes treacherous.
The arrangement of a Lennon-McCartney gem, "I've Just Seen a Face," is symptomatic. Richards refuses to settle on the song's pace, allowing hard-rock guitar chords, honky-tonk piano, gospelly choruses and galloping drums to pull in different directions. It's a hodgepodge, not a hybrid. Steve Winwood's "Can't Find My Way Home," a song that aches for a tender reinterpretation, is cranked up to a bluegrassy businessman's bounce that completely defeats the lyrics.
Like Dion, Bramlett has to contend with all sorts of superflous backup. Richards should have clarified the rhythm in "Writing on the Wall"; instead, he heaps on Gene Page's overbearing strings, hoping they'll camouflage the mess below. In his own "Can't Stay' - a song with considerable potential - Richards forcibly prevents Bramlett from building drama by keeping the backup at one level throughout the track. Only 'Lies," co-written by Bramlett, is reasonably coherent and uncluttered, although it, too, would benefit from more dynamic contrast.
Bramlett resolutely ignores the production and sings with her usual sultry power. But it's frustrating to hear her - or Dion - in no-win situations like "Memories" and "Return of the Wanderer." Next time they record, these two singers deserve something more than a stalemate with their production.