Perennial Underdogs, Dion and Norton Prove a Perfect Pairing

by John Paul

28 July 2017

Norton Records co-founder Miriam Linna talks with PopMatters about the origins of their new, until-now unreleased lost Dion album recorded in 1965, which shows Dion to have been at the vanguard of the forthcoming folk rock boom.
Photo: Allison Michael Orenstein 
cover art

Dion

Kickin' Child: 1965 Columbia Recordings

(Norton)

By the mid-‘60s, Dion DiMucci had found himself at both a personal and musical crossroads. Privately struggling with a heroin addiction that would later (temporarily) sideline his career, his professional endeavors were being stifled by his new label Columbia who were more interested in creating their own Bobby Darin than allowing some kid from the Bronx to follow his creative muse.

With both music and culture in the early stages of undergoing a radical shift, it was clear that a change was in the air. The suit-and-tie set, while still largely in control of the labels, were about to be pushed aside by a younger, hipper generation raised on rock and roll and socially-conscious folk music. And while it is Bob Dylan (also on Columbia) who largely gets the credit for remarking upon and fomenting these changes, the release of Dion’s 1965 sessions offers an alternate take on the history of popular music. 

Recorded in 1965, the album now released in 2017 by Norton Records under the title Kickin’ Child: The Lost 1965 Album, shows Dion to have been at the vanguard of the forthcoming folk rock boom. In fact, it was Dion who, along with producer Tom Wilson, managed to convince erstwhile folk singer Dylan to plug in for his next recording session. Having already done so himself with Wilson, his urging prompted Dylan to embark on an unprecedented run of albums from Highway 61 Revisited to Bringing It All Back Home and Blonde on Blonde.

With the release and success of this trio of albums, history, always written by the winners, would indicate Dylan as the progenitor of folk rock. Had Columbia issued Dion’s original album at the time it was recorded, the conversation surrounding the music of the mid-‘60s may well have ended up decidedly different. Not only that, but the life and career of Dion would have taken on greater cultural significance, elevating his status to that of one of rock’s great founders. But that’s just not how these things go down. Dion may have been there first, the proof being in these recordings, but there have been more than 50 years of public perception shaped by the culturally agreed upon narrative surrounding the Dylan-lead mythos of rock that won’t be undone anytime soon.

It’s within these sorts of alternative historical narratives that Norton Records operates, championing the forgotten, overlooked, or otherwise wholly ignored, affording pop cultural footnotes the chance to reach a built-in audience or listeners and devotees of the label. Established in the mid-1980s by husband-and-wife/popular cultural repositories Billy Miller and Miriam Linna, Norton has built a reputation on providing just this sort of alternate history of rock and roll. What if West Virginia wild man Hasil Adkins had taken the burgeoning teen market by storm instead of Elvis? What if it were Little Richard who was as unknown as Esquerita, from whom the former filched his act, lock, coif and smoking piano keys? Or Charlie Feathers was the biggest name in rockabilly? Given their history of championing the underappreciated, Norton seems the ideal fit for Dion, the perennial underdog.

But it’s never as simple and straight forward as that. Unless of course, you’ve got a series of serendipitous events leading you ever onward, often impossibly, towards that endgame. It’s times like these that you can’t help but believe in fate and all it has to offer if you’re willing to take a second and listen to what it has to say. “It happened by some kind of divine plan,” says Linna. “I really don’t know how everything timed itself out in such a spectacular and amazing manner.” Timing is everything, and everything happens for a reason.

For nearly half a century, Dion refused to even acknowledge the existence of these recordings. In fact, they were barely granted a single sentence in his 1989 autobiography, The Wanderer: Dion’s Story. Knowing the frustration surrounding those years, both personally and professionally with Columbia, it’s easy to see how a hard-headed, stubborn Italian kid might not be so keen on reliving the past. Fast forward half a century, and suddenly he’s got a change of heart. But on one condition: that Sony (who now owns Columbia) relinquish the masters to Norton. For Dion, it was Norton or nobody when it came to releasing this stuff.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, jumping to the end to provide a neatly delivered happy ending to a far more complex story. Let’s start with Norton Records and the people behind the label. Miller and Linna, themselves both musicians, spent 39 years together. Theirs is a love story for the ages, one built on a mutual love of pop cultural ephemera (read: trash culture) and a deep-seeded respect for one another. “There was constant actual conversation day and night because we worked together, we played together, we lived together,” says Linna. “You have a couple of parrots in a cage talking to each other all the time. We would talk all the time.” That talk ranged from the merits of early rock ‘n’ roll wild men to pulp fiction to B-movies and beyond. Within the last three years, however, their talk focused more and more on Miller’s deteriorating health.

It was during this period of emotional ups and downs as Miller’s health waxed and waned that the inseparable pair landed on what would become their last great collaboration. It was through Phil Milstein, founder of the Velvet Underground Appreciation Society and fellow curator of pop cultural detritus, that this project initially took shape. A fervent devotee of the mixtape mentality, Milstein would put together collections of some of the best and wildest unheard, underappreciated, and otherwise ignored music and pass it along to friends. It just so happened that one mix, in particular, would kick start the last great Miller/Linna collaboration.

As Miller’s health and spirits took a turn for the worse, the pair turned once more to music to change the topic of conversation from doctors and hospitals to their stock and trade. It just so happened that, on the latest Milstein mix, was a little number called “Now” by Dion.  “It seemed to be exactly written, almost specifically, for our situation,” Linna marvels. “It was astonishing.” The power of the music once more drove the couple to find out all the could about the song, whether there were any other recordings from that same period and why the hell no one seemed to know about any of this.

Finding himself having grown out of the streetwise doo wop of his early years with the Belmonts and discontent with the direction in which he saw his career heading, Dion strove to find a new sound, one that resonated with his growing interest in blues and folk music yet with an edge that appealed to the rock and roll crowd. Together with producer Wilson—himself an underappreciated genius behind some of the biggest moments in rock and roll history—Dion began exploring a gorgeous mix of folk, rock, and blues, one perfectly suited to his effortlessly powerful vocals. The results would’ve changed history. Instead, they ended up languishing on the shelf in the Columbia archives, occasionally piecemealed out via assorted collections and as bonus tracks. But as an album, it remained an elusive mystery lost in the changing tides of pop music.

With the album shelved and his heroin problem spiraling out of control, it wouldn’t be long before Dion and Columbia parted ways. Given the tenuous nature of the partnership and its less than satisfying outcome, it’s easy to see why Dion would rather forget it ever happened than dwell on what could’ve been. Little did he know that, 50 years later, what could’ve been would become the driving force behind a creative collaboration bringing together one of the world’s largest record labels, a Dictator, a former Misfit and a shared passion for simply great music. 

“I went to a friend of ours who works at Sony and asked him about [the recordings], and he said, ‘Oh my god, that stuff is so great, but we can’t put it out’,” recalls Linna. Asking why she was informed that Dion did not want Sony to put it out. Understandable. A short while later, Linna and Miller were discussing the recordings with Scott Kempner. The Dictators’ rhythm guitarist just so happened to know Dion, having played together in the short-lived group, Little Kings. Linna related what Sony had said about Dion not wanting the label to release the recordings. A quick phone call from Kempner later and Linna and Miller found themselves talking to the man himself.

“‘There was an album that I cut in ‘65’” Linna as Dion recounts. “‘If you want to put it out, you tell Sony that I want you to put it out.’” Just like that. You like it, I like you, you put it out. “So it was just back and forth. We talked to Sony, and they were shocked but also very happy to hear this,” she says, the shock and thrill of it all still audible in her voice. “They went off digging in the vaults and did turn up an album that was basically what came to be Kickin’ Child.”

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In between all this, however, the label faced a seemingly insurmountable series of setbacks. From Miller’s debilitating illness to the massive flooding in the wake of Hurricane Sandy that wiped out much of the Norton catalog, it seemed everything was conspiring against the little label that could. When Miller died in November of 2016, Linna understandably felt as though the ground had been stripped from beneath her feet. “When he passed I kind of fell into a really heavy pit, and I really wasn’t coming out of it,” she shares, the emotions still raw, still just below the surface. “I woke up one day in early February like out of a dream and thought, ‘Oh my god, I’ve dropped the ball on the Dion thing!’”

Calling Dion to apologize for the delay in everything, he simply told her not to worry, to call Sony, have the album released and dedicated to Billy Miller. Not only that, he went digging through his own archives to provide photos for the project, coming back with shots by the late Don Hunstein, he of the iconic Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album cover, among many others. More than half a century later, these sessions have finally seen the light of day as originally intended and, taken as such, represent one of the greatest folk rock records of all time and a clear triumph for Dion and Norton, underdogs both.

“It’s bittersweet,” she says, her voice breaking as she discusses the project having been seen through to completion and the prospect of moving forward with the business after having spent the last two years dealing primarily with Billy’s health care. “For me, the struggle is in that, during my entire adult life—I met Billy when I was 20—through our entire existence as a couple, as a unit, I don’t think we ever made a decision on our own.” Here she recalls a particularly telling interaction shared during the final months of Miller’s life: discussing the label’s future, he off-handedly ponders shutting the whole thing down. Appalled, Linna vehemently refuses any such notion only to find a smile spreading across Billy’s face at her response. “He was just testing me,” she says with a laugh.

As for what might lay in store for Norton in the coming years, Linna remains cautiously optimistic, slowly re-immersing herself in a world from which she’s largely been absent these past few years. Everyone seems to be offering help and ideas to further the label, looking out for Linna moving forward without Miller. “They’re trying to be nice about it,” she says, “but for me, when I hear that kind of talk it almost scares me because I don’t want any of it to stop until the story, whatever it may be, is told. I want to be able to keep this thing going as it was.”

Kickin’ Child may well be the start of the next chapter of Norton Records, being the first release following Miller’s death. “For me to try and conjure up a vision of what Billy would say,” she pauses, “on the one hand I know because he knew the answers before he’d discuss anything with me. I kind of knew them also, but there is some kind of joy in being able to come to decisions when they’re mutual.” One project that will for sure be seeing the light of day is Miller’s exhaustively researched account of Fortune Records, a label not unlike Norton that was a mom-and-pop operation that worked closely with its artists. Having spent seven years interviewing those associated with the label and tracking down any and all related ephemera, Linna sees it as one of Miller’s last great works.

“It’s a person that makes the record, also a person that makes a record label and so for us we were always such big fans of the labels as well,” she says. When asked if she hopes that one day someone might endeavor a similar undertaking with regard to Norton, she demurs. “It was important for us to make records that involved the artists. If they were living artists, we worked together to help them get back to performing, and if they were deceased, we worked to make sure they got the recognition they deserved.” It’s this personal relationship between the label, artists and its fans that proved an ideal fit for Dion and the idea of a future collaboration is not entirely out of the question.

“[Kickin’ Child] came together like this amazing project during [Miller’s] very last days. We did not realize these were the last days for Billy because we were completely convinced that he would recover and learn to walk again. But it ended up being the last project that he worked on, and he was so, so happy with it. We listened to it all the time.” Indeed, Kickin’ Child is something of which to be immensely proud. It’s not only a phenomenal recording but also a testament to what people with a driving passion can accomplish when they set their minds to it. “It’s my favorite album for those reasons: it’s the last project I got to work with Billy on and it involved very special people,” Linna muses. “I’m glad that it all came together.”

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