By 1962, when Dion became the first rock artist ever signed to Columbia Records, he already had quite a resume. On the Laurie label, he had scored seven Top 40 hits with the Belmonts, including classics like “I Wonder Why” and “A Teenager in Love,” and another seven as a solo artist, among them the chart-topping “Runaround Sue” and such other greats as “Lonely Teenager” and “The Wanderer.” And the winning streak didn’t stop with the label change: in 1963 alone, Dion racked up five hits on Columbia, including “Ruby Baby” and “Donna the Prima Donna.”
You’d think the record company would have been delighted. However, according to the fascinating liner notes for the newly released Kickin’ Child: The Lost Album 1965, Columbia wanted to steer Dion away from rock, toward the sort of Vegas-ready mainstream stuff that Bobby Darin seemed to be headed toward over at the Atlantic label. Columbia had Dion record songs like “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You” and even Al Jolson’s “My Mammy.”
Dion wasn’t happy. What he clearly wanted to do was stick with rock but add folk elements and update his lyrics and sound for the mid 1960s. Corporate desires notwithstanding, he did just that in 1965, when he entered a studio with Tom Wilson, who had previously produced part of Bob Dylan’s Freewheelin’ album as well as all of The Times They Are a-Changin’ and Another Side of Bob Dylan and the electric performances on Bringing It All Back Home.
Wilson—whose other 1965 accomplishments included producing “Like a Rolling Stone” and adding the rock elements that would help propel Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence” to the top of the charts—was exactly the right man for the job. He and Dion employed a terrific backup crew dubbed the Wanderers (including Belmonts bass singer Carlo Mastrangelo and, on at least one track, Dylan sideman Al Kooper) and recorded a dozen top-notch performances. Veteran Columbia producer Bob Mersey worked with Dion on another three.
The resulting 15-song program incorporated 10 numbers written or co-written by Dion that showed him to be almost as good a composer as he was a singer. Also on the menu were five superlative covers: Tom Paxton’s classic “I Can’t Help but Wonder Where I’m Bound,” Mort Shuman’s “All I Want to Do Is Live My Life,” and three from Dylan: “Baby, I’m in the Mood for You,” “Farewell,” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” (Dion had learned the latter on a visit to the sessions for Bringing It All Back Home.)
The album—the first by Dion to be conceived and sequenced for LP release—would have been one of the best folk/rock entries of the mid 1960s, thanks to strong, highly accessible material, ear-candy backup harmonies, and Dion’s peerless vocals. Inexplicably, though, Columbia didn’t know what to do with it. The record sat in the vaults until 1968, when Dion, having returned to Laurie Records, scored a Top 10 hit with “Abraham, Martin, and John.” In an apparent effort to cash in on that success, Columbia released several of the 1965 songs as 45s, including the Paxton track, to which it added strings without Dion’s permission. But the label never issued the material as the album it was supposed to be.
Today, more than half a century after Dion recorded the material, it is being released with the tracks mixed and sequenced just as Dion originally intended. Better late than never. If you look at his discography, you might think he disappeared following his string of 1963 hits and didn’t resurface until “Abraham, Martin, and John,” five years later. In fact, Dion made at least one great album during that period. We just never got to hear it until now.
Chris Bell, Looking Forward: The Roots of Big Star. The name most people associate first with the early-1970s power-pop band Big Star is Alex Chilton, perhaps partly because he had earlier achieved fame as the teenaged lead vocalist for the hit-making Box Tops. But guitarist, singer, and songwriter Chris Bell, who led the highly influential Big Star along with Chilton, also played a large role in its development. Indeed, it was Bell whose earlier groups evolved into Big Star. This excellent 22-track package, which contains material from those predecessor outfits, lives up to its title with adventurous performances (six of them previously unreleased) that point the way to the celebrated group. Versions of a few of the numbers (“My Life Is Right” and “Try Again”) wound up on Big Star’s debut, and drummer Jody Stephens, the only surviving member of its original lineup, plays on many of the tracks. (Chilton is not here, though he shows up in the songwriting credits.) Big Star fans will not be disappointed by such selections as the Beatlesque “All I See Is You.”
Guitar Slim Jr., The Story of My Life. Despite a long musical career, Guitar Slim Jr. has never quite achieved the level of fame enjoyed by his father, whose million-selling “The Things That I Used to Do” has been cited as an influence on early rockers. But that doesn’t mean Jr. wasn’t just as talented a performer as the old man. Witness this newly reissued 1987 recording, which garnered a well-deserved Grammy nomination the next year for best traditional blues album. Guitar Slim Jr. supplies all the superlative guitar and vocals for the program, which includes seven songs by his father, plus versions of three soul hits that rival the originals: Tyrone Davis’s “Turn Back the Hands of Time” and “Can I Change My Mind,” and Clarence Carter’s “Too Weak to Fight.”
Rachel Baiman, Shame. This is the solo debut from 27-year-old fiddler, vocalist, and songwriter Rachel Baiman, who has been performing for several years as half of the folk duo 10 String Symphony. Like labelmate Dori Freeman, whom she sometimes recalls, Baiman radiates authenticity with an unvarnished sound that is rooted in traditional country but incorporates contemporary pop and folk elements. She wrote eight of the CD’s 10 songs, whose topics range from politics (the title track addresses abortion) to romance (the lovely, evocative “Thinking on You”). Not every song is a winner, but there’s more than enough on Shame to make me eager to hear what Baiman does next.
Jeff Burger’s books include Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters, and Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters. His website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades' worth of music reviews and commentary.