Box Set Celebrates Dion's Days As 'King'

"I've never seen a package put together like it. I'm from the '50s. We didn't even have the Grammys in the '50s. This is a nice career piece, like, if I didn't know me, I'd be impressed."

"I've never seen a package put together like it. I'm from the '50s. We didn't even have the Grammys in the '50s. This is a nice career piece, like, if I didn't know me, I'd be impressed."

Dion is reflecting on "King Of The New York Streets," the three-CD retrospective of his career just released by The Right Stuff/EMI. It is a career that has now spanned four decades and has seen the man born Dion DiMucci in 1939 undergo profound personal and professional changes but produce quality records at each juncture.

Dion developed his singing powers in one of the street corner vocal ensembles that were incongruously prevalent on New York's mean streets when he was a teenager. Were he and his chirping pals not considered sissy? "No, it's a funny thing. It had the opposite thing. The music that I was doing back then, it was considered like rap," he says. "It had attitude. In fact, the rougher the guys, they loved it, because it expressed what they were feeling but they were threatened talking about it. You could talk about it in a song."

A guitarist from an early age, Dion idolized Hank Williams but also had a penchant for John Lee Hooker. This, he explains, proved a winning brew for Laurie Records, with whom he secured an audition at age 18. "Country music and rhythm and blues: you put that together, you got rock and roll," he says. "When I sang a song that was like a country tune with attitude, man, they signed me right away."

On Laurie, Dion achieved, with his vocal backing group the Belmonts, seven top-40 pop hits from 1958 to 1960, including the doo-wop classics "I Wonder Why" and "A Teenager In Love." "I look at them as very simple songs but profound," he says of those hits. "The questions that are being asked in 'Teenager In Love' or 'I Wonder Why' are timeless. They're relevant even today."

Such chart success at such a tender age was naturally dizzying. But Dion quickly learned of the harsher realities of life while co-headlining a 1959 tour with Buddy Holly. He only missed being on the flight that killed Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper because he considered the plane fare too expensive. "We just seemed to be on top of the world the night before and then all of a sudden the rug was pulled out from under me," he reflects. "I didn't know life was so fragile; that it could take three guys that I was travelling with."

Disgruntled with the Belmonts' hankering for smooth, harmonized balladeering, Dion split from his workmates to go solo and to develop his songwriting. "I started writing about what I knew. People in my neighborhood, people that seemed bigger than life: Donna the Prima Donna, and Runaround Sue," he says.

"Runaround Sue" went to No. 1 on the Billboard pop singles chart in 1961 and was followed by "The Wanderer," which was not quite as successful (No. 2) but, like its predecessor, every inch a classic. Ostensibly a rebel anthem, "The Wanderer" is undermined by its narrator's admission: "With my two fists of iron, I'm going nowhere."

Dion reveals, "Bruce Springsteen was the first guy who came up to me and started talking to me about that. I was so surprised. He said, 'Man, if you take that couplet, that's like a men's seminar -- if you get that you come right through it'."

As the '60s progressed, the drugs that Dion had been dabbling with since his pre-recording contract days took over his life. "The mid-'60s was the bleakest period of my life. It was really like hell on earth," he admits. "You become very self-centered, very self-absorbed, and you just blame people for everything. It was very uncomfortable living in my own skin."

Renouncing heroin for God, Dion bounced back from this abyss, reinventing himself in 1968 as an artist for the modern age with the protest song "Abraham, Martin & John." Dion asserts that despite the composer credit to Dick Holler, he actually co-wrote the track. "I re-wrote the whole melody to it and the chord structure," he says.

Although the record was his last hit, Dion has always enjoyed a stature not necessarily reflected by chart action. He was one of the privileged few whose photograph appeared on the cover of the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album. He saw his heroin confessional "Your Own Back Yard" covered by Mott The Hoople, and his 1975 album "Born To Be With You" was produced by no less than Phil Spector, a longtime admirer.

The current box set covers all eras of Dion's career. Dion's songs being so personal, the set constitutes a narrative. "It's a good overview of the journey," he says. "The seeking, the search, the expression of somebody walking through this life, moving forward and upward and growing.