(CNN) -- Dion couldn't understand it.
Dion gives such classics as "Summertime Blues" and "Jailhouse Rock" his interpretation on his new CD.
The rock 'n' roll legend, who dominated the charts in the '50s and '60s with such hits as "A Teenager in Love," "Runaround Sue," "The Wanderer" and "Abraham, Martin and John," was asking a "young rock friend," in Dion's words, about some musical pioneers. Had he heard of Cliff Gallup? The Burnette brothers?
The friend had no idea what Dion, 69, was talking about.
"I said, 'People like Jeff Beck revere them,' " the singer said from southern Florida.
"Rock 'n' roll started in the '50s, not the '60s. And I started thinking, a lot of people -- even the kids buying the [old] records -- they don't understand the significance of Cliff Gallup, James Burton and Scotty Moore," Dion continued, naming guitarists known for their work with Gene Vincent, Ricky Nelson and Elvis Presley, respectively.
"These guys infused freedom into the music," he said. "And I thought it would be a fun thing to record the songs."
Which led to Dion's new album, "Heroes: Giants of Early Guitar Rock" (Saguaro Road). The CD features Dion's take on songs including Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues," the Everly Brothers' "Bye Bye Love," Presley's "Jailhouse Rock" and Big Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle and Roll," songs known as much for their big beats and driving guitars as their vocal performances.
Dion's backed by a crack band he proudly describes as "under the radar," including drummer Michael Harvey and guitarist Crow Richardson, and takes a few guitar leads himself.
But in front is the man himself, the guy born Dion DiMucci with the voice rock critic Dave Marsh described as "rough as sharkskin, smooth as Italian knit." It's the voice that, in rock history, rides "The Wanderer" like a horseman galloping on a stallion, eases into "Ruby Baby" as if putting on a butter-soft leather jacket and snarls "Daddy Rollin' (In Your Arms)" -- a song Dion wrote about his heroin addiction -- like a defiantly frightened child.
"I describe myself as a rhythm singer," Dion said. "There's a place where you place words, and if you don't place them there, you're sunk. I learned from listening to horn players at the Apollo [Theater in Harlem]; they had to be right on the money.
"The biggest thing," he added, warming to the subject, "is that people don't dance [anymore]."
Dion and his colleagues routinely played halls where a crowd of teenagers would let the performer know right away if there was no groove: "It's got a good beat, and you can dance to it" really meant something. Rock groups today, he observes, don't get that kind of feedback from concert halls: "[The audience doesn't] feel it, and if they don't feel it, you're sunk."
Dion revels in the history and depth of the "Heroes" tunes. "Take a song like [Del Shannon's] 'Runaway' -- it's like an opera," he said. "Or [Buddy Holly's] 'Rave On' -- just the title gets you going. And if you take a song like 'Believe What You Say': Johnny and Dorsey Burnette wrote it and the great Paul Burlison played behind it. ... Ricky Nelson learns it, then James Burton plays behind it. So each song has such a history."
Dion was in the middle of much of this history. He knew a number of rock pioneers personally. With his old group, the Belmonts, he was on the ill-fated Winter Dance Party tour during which which Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens lost their lives in a 1959 plane crash. Dion would have been on the plane himself but didn't want to part with the $36 fee, a fortune to a boy who grew up poor in the Bronx.
He's even on the cover of the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," one of just two rock-era singers to make the cut (Bob Dylan being the other).
On an accompanying DVD, Dion tells several stories about his old colleagues and demonstrates some of the guitar playing on the records. "I show how it was done," he said, taking pride in his musicianship.
"I'm excited about this," he said. "I had fun doing this. I heard these songs in person five times a day, so it's in my DNA."
Those songs, he adds, have developed a reputation as golden oldies, harmless tunes conflated with sock hops and neon-soaked diners. They were anything but.
"It wasn't Sha Na Na. It was anything but dumb; it was bad," he said, stressing every ounce of danger in the word.
And Dion? He's not so bad anymore -- clean for 40 years, laughing about how wife insisted that he include "The Wanderer" or "I'll kick your ass if you don't." But, he says, he still has the fire of that young rock 'n' roller.
"There's an 18-year-old inside me," he said.
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