Musical Performance: ****
Sound Quality: ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment: ****
In 1965, Dion DiMucci had been with Columbia Records for three years and had scored some hits for the label, including “Ruby Baby” and “Donna the Prima Donna.” He was already an established rock’n’roll star when Columbia signed him, but the label’s long-term plan was to move him away from rock and into a career as a crooner. As Scott Kempner points out in his excellent liner note for Kickin’ Child: The Lost Album 1965, a collection of 15 previously unreleased Dion tracks, record executives in the early ’60s still thought rock’n’roll was something that would soon fade away.
By the time Dion went into the studio to record the songs on Kickin’ Child, he’d put together a nightclub act that got good notices and made his label happy, but he wasn’t satisfied. At heart, he was a rocker. Bob Mersey, his producer at Columbia, worked on three tracks of Kickin’ Child, but Tom Wilson produced the rest. At the time, Wilson was working with Bob Dylan and, according to Kempner, had taken Dion’s suggestion that Dylan would benefit from playing with a rock’n’roll band behind him.
Although most of the songs on Kickin’ Child have not been issued before, Columbia halfheartedly released the title track as a single in April 1965. Mersey was the producer, but the song has some of the vibe that Wilson was bringing to Dylan’s recordings. Johnny Falbo’s stinging blues riffs fire the tune, and Carlo Mastrangelo’s unfussy, hard-hitting drums drive it. Dion’s impassioned vocal shows some of Dylan’s influence in both his singing and the lyrics, but he has his own deep understanding of the blues, and unique phrasing.
“Now” harks back to Dion’s earlier work, but the more modern (for the mid-’60s) backing could have made it a solid AM hit. The same is true of “My Love,” which has a memorable guitar line from Falbo, great piano from Al Kooper -- who played on Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” which Wilson produced that year -- and strong harmony vocals. Dion wrote or co-wrote ten of these 15 tracks, and he has a great ear for melody and how to craft a hook. Had Columbia’s executives been less tin-eared and bothered to promote some of these songs, some could have been hits.
Dion’s take on Tom Paxton’s “I Can’t Help but Wonder Where I’m Bound” has the kind of folk-rock vibe that the Byrds would soon take up the charts. Dion gives Dylan’s “Baby, I’m in the Mood for You” a snarling reading, Mastrangelo hitting the drums hard and Falbo playing a terrific, burning solo. Kooper’s harpsicord in “Farewell,” another Dylan track, emphasizes the recording’s mid-’60s aesthetic, and Dion’s heartfelt vocal is moving. Dion had been a guest in the studio in January 1965 when Dylan recorded “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” and here he turns in his own strong interpretation of the song.
Dion’s opening on acoustic blues guitar in his own “Two Ton Feather” reminds us that he’s a formidable player -- he plays rhythm guitar throughout the album -- and the song is his most overt tribute to Dylan. Mort Shuman’s “All I Want to Do Is Live My Life” is both a statement of purpose and a confirmation of Dion’s power as a blues singer. Throughout Kickin’ Child, Dion demonstrates that he could remain relevant to the changes taking place in rock in 1965, while at the same time reminding people of his place in the music’s development.
Bassist Pete Falsciglia plays solidly throughout -- in many of the tracks, I wish he’d been bumped up a little in the mix. That’s my only reservation about Kickin’ Child.
Kickin’ Child is a labor of love for Norton Records, a small Brooklyn label founded by Billy Miller and his wife, Miriam Linna. Miller died just before the album was released. He and Linna released a lot of great rockabilly, old rock’n’roll, and punk over the years, and I hope she keeps Norton going. The vinyl of this pressing was quiet and flat, and the archival photos of Dion in the studio are a nice bonus.
Three years later, in 1968, Dion hit the charts with “Abraham, Martin and John.” He could have gotten there a couple years earlier, had Columbia’s executives been more attentive and promoted the music on Kickin’ Child.
. . . Joseph Taylor