The Pop History Dig

“Dion DiMucci”
1950s-2012

A young Dion DiMucci in his 1950s swagger.
A young Dion DiMucci in his 1950s swagger.
     Dion DiMucci – better known simply as “Dion” from his 1950s doo-wop fame – is a highly successful recording artist much loved by Baby Boomers.  Dion flourished first with The Belmonts and then alone, scoring a series of hit songs in the 1950s and 1960s.  Among the more famous of his Top Ten hits are: “A Teenager in Love” (1959, with the Belmonts), “Runaround Sue” (1961), “The Wanderer” (1961-62), “Ruby Baby” (1963), and “Abraham, Martin and John” (1968).  But in later years, as he continued recording, Dion took on new musical genres – folk, Christian music, blues, country, and back to rock.  During these years, he did not always have the commercial success he once had.  And sometimes he was dismissed by critics as being defined by his teen idol years. But reassessments of his work found value in his later recordings, with a range of artists – including Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan and others – citing his influence.

     As a teenager growing up in the Bronx, Dion DiMucci began singing on street corners.  In those years, he also picked up a drug habit that would lead to heroin addiction – something he would struggle with for years.  After dropping out of high school, he recorded a demo that made its way to the producers of the Teen Club TV show in Philadelphia, where he made a performing debut in 1954 and released a few early songs with a group called the Timberlanes.  But by 1958 Dion joined another neighborhood group called The Belmonts – named after Belmont Avenue in the “Little Italy” section of the Bronx.  This group became “Dion and The Belmonts.”

1959: From left: Carlo Mastrangelo, Freddie Milano, Dion DiMucci, Angelo D'Aleo – Dion & The Belmonts.
1959: From left: Carlo Mastrangelo, Freddie Milano, Dion DiMucci, Angelo D'Aleo – Dion & The Belmonts.
     Dion & The Belmonts included Dion singing lead and three others singing background – Carlo Mastrangelo, bass-baritone; Fred Milano, second tenor; and Angelo D’Aleo, first tenor.  With their second recorded single released in April 1958 – “I Wonder Why” – they nearly broke the Top 20, peaking at No. 22.  The song remained in the U.S. Top 40 for ten weeks.  “I Wonder Why” was classic doo-wop, described by Bob Hyde in a 1993 booklet for the Doo Wop Box as follows: “…[T]he song opens with bass Carol Mastrangelo’s masterpiece of nonsense syllable-stringing, and just rolls from there.  The Belmonts had a highly recognizable sound to compliment Dion’s voice…”  After this song hit, Hyde wrote, “it was Katie-bar-the-door for white, predominantly Italian-American groups singing in what [was] called a ‘new-doo-wop’ style.”

Music Player
“I Wonder Why”-1958

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

     Dion and The Belmonts soon rose to the national scene, appearing on the American Bandstand TV show August 7, 1958, performing their hit song, ” I Wonder Why.”  They would also perform ”No One Knows” on Bandstand, a song that would break the Top 20, hitting No. 19 on the U.S. charts.

     Years later, “I Wonder Why” would find subsequent use in film and television soundtracks, including the 1983 film adaption of Stephen King’s novel, Christine; the 1993 film, A Bronx Tale; and the January 1999 pilot episode of The Sopranos TV series.  Nicolas Cage also did a cover version of the song in the 1983 film, Peggy Sue Got Married.

London American Recordings 45 rpm label for Dion & The Belmonts’ 1959 hit, “A Teenager in Love.”
London American Recordings 45 rpm label for Dion & The Belmonts’ 1959 hit, “A Teenager in Love.”
     While visiting his old Bronx neighborhood some years later, Dion would recall the first time he and The Belmonts heard their song being played:  “I remember the night that they first put ‘I Wonder Why’ on the radio… Everybody on the block turned their radios up loud and stuck them out the window….”  Back in the late 1950s, meanwhile, Dion and The Belmonts released a couple of other songs after “I Wonder Why.”  But their big hit came in March 1959 – “A Teenager in Love”– hitting No. 5 of the Billboard chart.  That song remained on the U.S. Top 40 list for 13 weeks, became a million-seller, and was also an international hit, reaching No. 28 on the U.K. charts.  The song was written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, and is ranked among the great rock `n roll classics.  About the trials and tortures of adolescent love, “A Teenager in Love” was actually the antithesis of an earlier Pomus/Shuman song – “Great to Be Young and In Love.”

Music Player
“A Teenager in Love”-1959

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

     “A Teenager in Love” was followed by the group’s first album, Presenting Dion and the Belmonts.  “Teenager in Love,” meanwhile was later covered by a number of other artists, including: The Fleetwoods, Helen Shapiro,  Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Marley & The Wailers, Less Than Jake, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.  The song is also used in a Nintendo video game.

Dion & The Belmonts toured with Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens in early 1959, but fatefully did not take a tragic plane flight that crashed and killed Holly, Valens and two others.
Dion & The Belmonts toured with Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens in early 1959, but fatefully did not take a tragic plane flight that crashed and killed Holly, Valens and two others.
     As Dion and The Belmonts’ songs rose nationally, they began touring in the U.S., beginning in 1958.  On one tour in early 1959, they were part of  the “Winter Dance Party” featuring Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper.  On February 2nd 1959, after playing the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, Buddy Holly had arranged to charter a plane to fly the performers to their next gig.  Dion, however, decided not to ride with the group because of the expense.  Shortly after midnight, however, on February 3rd 1959, the plane carrying the other members of the tour crashed not far from Clear Lake, Iowa, killing Holly, Valens, the Big Bopper, and the pilot – a tragedy which hit popular music hard, taking some of the era’s rising young stars.

     Later that year, in November 1959, Dion and the Belmonts released another song that rose on the charts, a remake of a Rodgers & Hart standard, “Where or When,” which actually did better than their previous hit, “Teenager in Love,” rising to No. 3 on the charts.  The popularity of this song helped bring the group back to American Bandstand for another national appearance.  At about this time, however, Dion’s drug dependency worsened, and reportedly he was in the hospital detoxifying as “Where or When” peaked.

Early Influence
1949-1950s

1963: Dion DiMucci with guitar.
1963: Dion DiMucci with guitar.
     Before he ever came to singing on the street corner with the guys, Dion DiMucci as a young boy created his craft from what was around him at his home and growing up on 183rd Street.  His uncle bought him an $8 guitar.

     At home, Dion would sometimes hear songs on the family radio that got his attention.  In 1949, when he was about 11, he heard Hank Williams singing “Honky Tonk Blues” on Don Larkin’s country music radio show broadcast out of Newark, New Jersey.  “I had no idea what a honky-tonk … was,” he would later say.  But he liked what he heard.  He liked the way Williams sounded so committed; how he pronounced and dug deep into the words of his songs.

     But family life wasn’t always the best then for young Dion, but he turned inward toward his music, as New York magazine writer John Lombardi explained in a 2007 interview incorporating some of Dion’s recollections of those years:

“…There was a lot of unresolved conflict in my house… My pop, Pasquale, couldn’t make the $36-a-month rent on our apartment at 183rd and Crotona Avenue.”  He was a dreamer, a failed vaudevillian, and sometimes Catskills puppeteer.  He’d talk big and lift weights he’d made from oilcans, while Frances, Mrs. DiMucci, took two buses and the subway downtown to work in the garment district on a sewing machine.  “When they’d start yelling, I’d go out on the stoop with my $8 Gibson and try to resolve things that way.”

Apollo Theater marquee, Dec 1955.
Apollo Theater marquee, Dec 1955.
     Then there were also the local haunts where Dion would watch and learn from other musicians.  At around age 14 or so, hanging out at the stage door of 125th Street Apollo Theater, he learned a few things about harmony and choreography.  “In those days,” Dion explained to New York magazine’s John Lombardi, “it was the Cleftones, the Cadillacs…  You could say we copped some moves from the brothers…”

     Dion would first succeed in doo-wop and rock `n roll, but in his later years he would explore the roots of this music more deeply.  After he joined Columbia Records in 1962, Dion met John Hammond, a famous producer and talent scout at the label who introduced Dion to older blues recordings from artists like Robert Johnson.  Dion would record some of this music at Columbia, but it would not be released until later years.

 

Dion's No.1 hit of 1961, "Runaround Sue," shown on its Laurie Records 45 rpm label.
Dion's No.1 hit of 1961, "Runaround Sue," shown on its Laurie Records 45 rpm label.
     In October 1960, Dion quit The Belmonts and started a solo career.  By the end of the year he released an album on the Laurie label, Alone with Dion, and a single “Lonely Teenager,” which rose to No. 12.  Follow-up recordings had less success until he began working with the Del-Satins as an uncredited backup group. 

     In September 1961, “Runaround Sue” was released and became the No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 from October 23 through November 5, 1961, overtaking “Hit the Road, Jack” by Ray Charles.  It spent 12 weeks in the Top 40.  “Runaround Sue” went on to sell over a million copies, and also rose to No. 11 in the U.K.  Dion wrote this song with Ernie Maresca, who had written the earlier song, “No One Knows.”  Maresca would partner with Dion on a few of his other songs as well.

Music Player
“Runaround Sue”-1961

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

     Dion later described “Runaround Sue” as a song about a girl “who loved to be worshiped, but as soon as you want a commitment and express your love for her, she’s gone.  So the song was a reaction to that kind of woman.”  More than 40 years later, in 2004, the song was ranked at No. 342 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”

1961-62: Laurie Records single sleeve with Dion’s hit song,“The Wanderer,” which peaked at No. 2.
1961-62: Laurie Records single sleeve with Dion’s hit song,“The Wanderer,” which peaked at No. 2.
     For Dion’s next single, Laurie Records of New York had two new songs lined up for December 1961 – the “The Majestic,” which was featured on the “A” side of the 45 rpm disc, and “The Wanderer” on the flip side.  Despite Laurie’s hope that it would be “The Majestic” that would take off, radio DJs instead played “The Wanderer.”  

     The song entered the U.S. charts in December 1961 and rose to No. 2 in February 1962.  “The Wanderer” also hit No. 10 in the U.K. and No. 1 in Australia.  The uncredited background singers  with Dion on the song were the Del-Satins, a Laurie Records contract group at the time who later formed the core of another doo wop group, Johnny Maestro and the Brooklyn Bridge.

Music Player
“The Wanderer”-1962

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

    Dion, later offering his interpretation of “The Wanderer,” would say of  the song:

…At its roots, it’s more than meets the eye.  ‘The Wanderer’ is black music filtered through an Italian neighborhood that comes out with an attitude.  It’s my perception of a lot of songs like ‘I’m A Man’ by Bo Diddley or ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ by Muddy Waters. “The Wanderer” is really a sad song. A lot of guys don’t understand that.
                            – Dion DiMucci
  But you know, ‘The Wanderer’ is really a sad song.  A lot of guys don’t understand that.  Bruce Springsteen was the only guy who accurately expressed what that song was about.  It’s ‘I roam from town to town and go through life without a care, I’m as happy as a clown with my two fists of iron, but I’m going nowhere.’  In the fifties, you didn’t get that dark.  It sounds like a lot of fun but it’s about going nowhere.

A CD of 1962's top hits by Billboard includes “The Wanderer” on its cover at No. 7.
A CD of 1962's top hits by Billboard includes “The Wanderer” on its cover at No. 7.
     In any case, “The Wanderer” – which came to be owned by Michael Jackson’s Mijac publishing – was ranked at No. 239 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”  In 1962, it was followed by a string of other Dion singles, each of which broke the Top Ten, including: “Lovers Who Wander” (No. 3), “Little Diane” (No. 8), and “Love Came To Me” (No. 10).  Two albums were also produced – Runaround Sue and Lovers Who Wander.  Dion by this time was a major star, touring worldwide and also making an appearance in Columbia Pictures’ 1961 film, Twist Around the Clock

     At the end of 1962, Dion had changed his recording label, moving to Columbia Records.  His first single there was a 1956 song, “Ruby Baby,” originally written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, one of those teams of songwriters from New York’s fabled Brill Building music center.  The Leiber/Stoller song was first recorded by The Drifters in 1956 who had a No. 10 R&B hit with it.  But “Ruby Baby” also became a big hit for Dion, reaching No. 2 in 1963 for three weeks, and remaining in the Top 40 for 11 weeks.

Dion's "Ruby Baby" album of 1963 also hit No. 20 on the albums chart.
Dion's "Ruby Baby" album of 1963 also hit No. 20 on the albums chart.
     At Columbia, Dion also had Top Ten hits with “Donna the Prima Donna” – which was recorded in Italian as well – and “Drip Drop,” another earlier Drifters hit.  Both of the remakes by Dion rose to No. 6 in late 1963. 

Music Player
“Ruby Baby”-1963

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

     The subject matter of Dion’s hit songs in the 1960-1963 period, was, by some accounts, type-casting him, as  Richie Unterberger of AllMusic.com, observed – “as either the jilted, misunderstood youngster or the macho lover, capable of handling anything that came his way…” 

     Dion’s other Columbia releases in the period were less successful as changing tastes in music had arrived with the Beatles and other British groups, bringing a period of commercial decline for the doo-wop and street rockers of the early 1960s.  Dion also had recurring problems with heroin.  In 1966, there was an attempt to reunite Dion and the Belmonts, but the reunion did not work out as their joint album, Together Again, was unsuccessful.

 

Cover of 1980s album issued in Germany by Ace Records featuring “Abraham, Martin & John” by Dion.
Cover of 1980s album issued in Germany by Ace Records featuring “Abraham, Martin & John” by Dion.
Abe, Martin & John

     In 1968, Dion had what he would later describe as a powerful religious experience.  After getting clean from heroin addiction once again, he approached Laurie Records for a new contract.  They agreed on condition that he record a new song written by Dick Holler.

     The year 1968 was a tumultuous period of  political and social upheaval in the U.S., made stark by the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King in April 1968, followed by a second assassination of  Democratic U.S. Senator and presidential hopeful, Robert “Bobby” Kennedy in June 1968.

Music Player
“Abraham, Martin & John”

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

     Commemorating these tragedies, songwriter Dick Holler was moved to write the song “Abraham, Martin & John,” which became a tribute to the memory of four assassinated Americans, all icons of social change – Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy. 

“Abraham, Martin & John”
Dick Holler / Songwriter

Has anybody here seen my old friend Abraham?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He freed a lot of people,
But it seems the good they die young.
You know, I just looked around and he’s gone.

Anybody here seen my old friend John?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He freed a lot of people,
But it seems the good they die young.
I just looked around and he’s gone.

Anybody here seen my old friend Martin?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He freed a lot of people,
But it seems the good they die young.
I just looked ’round and he’s gone.

Didn’t you love the things that they stood for?
Didn’t they try to find some good for you and me?
And we’ll be free
Some day soon, and it’s a-gonna be one day …

Anybody here seen my old friend Bobby?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
I thought I saw him walkin’ up over the hill,
With Abraham, Martin and John.

     Each of the first three verses of the song features, respectively, Lincoln, King and JFK, with the fourth and final verse describing “Bobby” walking “over the hill” with the other three.

     “Abraham, Martin and John” was a major American hit single for Dion in late 1968, reaching No. 4 on the U.S. singles chart, remaining in the Top 40 for 12 weeks, and selling more than a million copies. 

     The song became a folk-pop standard known worldwide.  In Canada, it topped the charts, reaching No.1 there in late November 1968.  Some years later, in 2001, the song would be ranked No. 248 on the Recording Industry Association of America’s  “Songs of the Century” list. 

     The success of  “Abraham, Martin and John” also resuscitated Dion’s career, leading to appearances on TV shows such as The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour to perform the song.  Some years later, reflecting on the reaction he received from fans regarding this song, he noted: “I must have gotten 4,000 letters at the time, which was odd because I never got letters from college students before.  If I had an e-mail address, I probably would have gotten a million.”

     In the early 1970s, Dion shifted his musical style somewhat, focusing on more mature, contemplative and folk-rock type material.  But Dion’s period with folk music ran its course within a few years.

Over the years, Dion DiMucci has changed his style, and experimented with new genres.
Over the years, Dion DiMucci has changed his style, and experimented with new genres.
     In 1972 he reunited with The Belmonts and they did a live reunion show at Madison Square Garden in early June that year, releasing an album from that concert.  A year later, in 1973, Dion and the Belmonts performed once again at a sold out concert at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island.  This was followed in 1975 by the album Born To Be With You, produced by Phil Spector, which initially did poorly, but later found praise among some artists, including Pete Townshend of The Who.  In 1978 Dion released another album drawing on his earlier successes, titled Return of the Wanderer, which did not do well.

     Beginning around December 1979 Dion began recording contemporary Christian music, releasing five albums on the Dayspring label reflecting his born-again Christian convictions.  A few singles in this period also did well on Christian radio, and he won the Dove Christian music award for one of his albums, I Put Away My Idols, which was also Grammy nominated for best male Gospel performance.

Dion’s “Bronx Blues” of 1991 includes 20 songs recorded with Columbia Records in the 1960s – half “Dion” style and half blues.
Dion’s “Bronx Blues” of 1991 includes 20 songs recorded with Columbia Records in the 1960s – half “Dion” style and half blues.
     By the late 1980s, Dion returned to rock ‘n roll with a series of sold out concerts in June 1987 at Radio City Music Hall in New York.  The following year, he  published a book with writer Davin Seay titled The Wanderer: Dion’s Story,  and in 1989 he was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  That year he also released the album Yo Frankie, and after hearing him perform in a 1989 concert, New York Times writer Stephen Holden was reminded that Dion was:

“…an innovator who took the black street-corner styles of the late 1950′s and, in songs like ‘’The Wanderer,’ fashioned a white urban blue-collar style of rock-and-roll that influenced not only [Lou] Reed but also Billy Joel and to a lesser extent Bruce Springsteen.  Even though the lyrics of hits like ‘The Wanderer,’ ‘Runaround Sue’ and ’Ruby Baby’ seem quaint today, the songs helped define blunt, streetwise machismo that has long since become a classic rock music attitude.”

Dion DiMucci in more recent years.
Dion DiMucci in more recent years.
     In the 1990s, Dion appeared on a few occasions at concerts or for limited club dates.  In July 1997, he headlined at Tramps club in the Chelsea section of New York for a rare small club performance – his first New York club date as a headliner in more than 35 years.  That show, which sold out to stranding-room capacity, brought out old Dion fans in the New York region, where the doo-wop memory runs deep.  One such fan who came out to Tramps was Harvey Weinstein, then a 42-year-old Social Security clerk from Coney Island.  “When I was growing up,” he told New York Times reporter Rick Lyman, “there would be guys singing outside the shops and on the street corners.  You’d hear the music on the trains.  I don’t go to concerts all that often, but when I saw Dion was playing a club in Manhattan, I had to come.”

     Bobby Jay, a black disk jockey who still played Dion and The Belmonts music on WCBS-FM, also spoke to Times reporter Rick Lyman in July 1997.  Dion and The Belmonts, he said, “had that indescribable element that set them apart, that street attitude.”  The teen idols of the late 1950s and early 1960s, he said, “were so clean-cut, almost nonregional.”  But Dion, he explained, was different: “he had a New York swagger, a New York walk, a New York way of talking, that New York style that no one else had.” To this day, Dion still has a loyal New York following.

Dion DiMucci on the cover of a 2011 book he wrote with author Mike Aquilina.
Dion DiMucci on the cover of a 2011 book he wrote with author Mike Aquilina.
     Through the 2000′s, Dion continued making music, earning a second look from critics who earlier dismissed him as a teen idol.  In early 2001, Dion: King of the New York Streets was released, a three-disc, 6o-track boxed set that included a 50-page booklet with comments by Dion and other muscians, plus an essay by music critic Dave Marsh.

     Other Dion albums during the decade included: Déj Nu in 2000, Under the Influence in 2005, Bronx in Blue in 2006, Son of Skip James in 2007, Heroes: Giants of Early Guitar Rock in 2008.  In 2011, Tank Full of Blues  was released, with Dion producing and playing the guitars on the recording and writing or co-writing most of the songs.  He also published a book in 2011, The Wanderer Talks Truth, a biographical and spiritual memoir written with Mike Aquilina.

 

Broadway Play?

     Also in 2011, Dion began working with playwright/ director Charles Messina on a proposed stage play with the title, “The Wanderer — the Life and Music of Dion.”  The play will cover the years 1957 through the late 1960s and feature more than 20 songs from that era as well as new music.  It will weave the songs through a plot centered on Dion’s life from that period – a time that brought him his greatest success and his biggest tragedies.

     New York Times reporter David Gonzalez described the play as “sort of a deeper version of Jersey Boys, the musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.”  Discussing the play and playwright with Times reporter David Gonzalez in December 2012, Dion explained: “You know, I always saw my story as a young ‘Sopranos’ with great music and a Rocky Graziano ‘Somebody-Up-There-Likes-Me’ ending. It’s a story of redemption. A rock and roll redemption story!”

Cover of 1988 book Dion wrote with Davin Seay, “The Wanderer: Dion’s Story.”
Cover of 1988 book Dion wrote with Davin Seay, “The Wanderer: Dion’s Story.”
     Indeed, Dion took his lumps over the years, sank into drug and alcohol abuse, but he did redeem himself – with help from his wife Susan and others.  Dion has traced his troubled times back to his early teen years.  There was a rocky home life, mean streets gang involvement, and drugs.  Then, all of a sudden, came fame and fortune.  “One minute we were four mooks on the street,” he recounts of his Dion-and-The-Belmonts rise in his 1988 book, The Wanderer, “the next, everyone wanted to get close to us…  You never wanted it to stop, and the only way to keep it going, it seemed to us, was to smile, sing and try to sort it all out later.”

     Eventually, Dion confronted some truths about himself.  “There was never a word of praise in my house… A lot of demeaning talk and criticism,” he would later explain.  “I never felt good about myself – and the success didn’t change things.”  But by the mid-1960s, he was living large in the fast lane.  In 1962, Columbia Records had signed him to a $500,000 five year contract.  “I made $2 million by the age of 22 . . . had 10 Top Ten records… was at the height of my profession,” Dion recounted in one interview.  “I had all the bases covered… Fame, fortune and romance.  I had even married my childhood sweetheart.  But I was empty.  I was looking out the penthouse window and saying, ‘What the hell is wrong?’  What I finally discovered was that I had others’ esteem, but I didn’t have self-esteem.”

Dion DiMucci visiting his old New York neighborhood in 2012.  Photo, Librado Romero / New York Times.
Dion DiMucci visiting his old New York neighborhood in 2012. Photo, Librado Romero / New York Times.
     Dion’s 1960s stage swagger was part pretense and part compensation, which he wrote about (with Bill Tuohy) years later in a song titled “King of the New York Streets.”  One verse in that tune goes: “Well, I was wise in my own eyes/I awoke one day and I realized/You know this attitude comes from cocaine lies.”  He would later add in one interview: “That song represents a chaotic kind of self-serving illusion about oneself, a guy who is full of himself and really can’t see past his nose.”  Another verse in the same song goes: “Schools gave me nothing needed / To my throne, I proceeded / Every warning went unheeded / Yeah, king of the New York streets.”

     In the late 1960s, Dion took control of his life.  He moved to Boca Raton, Florida with his wife Susan to get away from the New York streets that helped form his heroin habit.  He and his wife Susan have three daughters and a grandchild.  In the late 1990s, Dion also returned to Catholicism and through the church has worked with prison inmates and others going through addiction recovery.

2006: Dion DiMucci in his music room at home in Florida, where a huge portrait he painted of 1930s bluesman Robert Johnson hangs on the wall behind him.
2006: Dion DiMucci in his music room at home in Florida, where a huge portrait he painted of 1930s bluesman Robert Johnson hangs on the wall behind him.
     But for Dion, it’s still the music that keeps him going.  And over the years, of course, the praise and respect he has received from fellow musicians and music critics has been no small matter either.  Los Angeles Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn wrote in January 2001: “Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly were superstars of rock’s first wave, but none of them expressed the innocence and desire of adolescence any more soulfully than Dion DiMucci.”  Bruce Springsteen once called him “the bridge between Frank Sinatra and rock ‘n roll.”  And songwriter Jerry Lieber has stated that Dion was “the best white blues singer he had ever heard.”  Dion, meanwhile, continues to record and explore new music.  No doubt there is more to come.  Stay tuned.

     For other stories at this website that cover the music of the 1950s and 1960s, or feature artists from those years, see for example: “American Bandstand, 1950s” (Dick Clark’s  TV dance show); “At The Hop, 1957-1958″ (Danny & The Juniors); “I Only Have Eyes For You” (1959 hit song by The Flamingos); “Be My Baby 1960s-2010″ (The Ronettes, Phil Spector, etc.); and “…Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’, 1964-1965″ (The Righteous Brothers).  For additional music-related stories please visit the Annals of Music category page, or visit the Home Page for other topics.  Thanks for visiting. - Jack Doyle

Please Support
this Website

Donate Now

Thank You

____________________________________

Date Posted: 11 January 2013
Last Update: 11 January 2013
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Dion DiMucci, 1950s-2012,”
PopHistoryDig.com, January 11, 2013.

____________________________________

 



Sources, Links & Additional Information

1950s: Dion DiMucci with the two of The Belmonts behind him.
1950s: Dion DiMucci with the two of The Belmonts behind him.
1959 album: “Presenting Dion and The Belmonts.”
1959 album: “Presenting Dion and The Belmonts.”
1959: Dion & The Belmonts with Dick Clark of the "American Bandstand" television show.
1959: Dion & The Belmonts with Dick Clark of the "American Bandstand" television show.
Dion DiMucci in his “teen idol” years, on the cover of “Teen Screen” magazine, June 1962.
Dion DiMucci in his “teen idol” years, on the cover of “Teen Screen” magazine, June 1962.
Dion DiMucci on the road, waiting for a train.
Dion DiMucci on the road, waiting for a train.

“Dion and The Belmonts/Dion Dimucci,” in Holly George-Warren and Patricia Roman- owski (eds), The Rolling Stone Encyclo- pedia of Rock & Roll, New York: Rolling Stone Press, 3rd Edition, 2001, pp. 264-265.

Bob Hyde and Walter DeVenne, “I Wonder Why, Dion & The Belmonts” and The Doo Wop Box, Booklet & Liner Notes (used in PBS promotions), Rhino Records, 1993, p. 57.

“Dion and the Belmonts,”Wikipedia.org.

Richie Unterberger, “Dion: Biography,” All Music.com.

“A Teenager in Love,”Wikipedia.org.

Bruce Eder, “Dion: Runaround Sue” (album review), AllMusic.com.

“The Wanderer,” Wikipedia.org.

Tom Zito, “Dion DiMucci’s Back,” Washington Post, August 12, 1976 p. B-12.

Larry Rohter, “All Dion, Past and Present,” Washington Post, October 26, 1976, p. B-11.

Sam Howe Verhovek, “A Wanderer, Dion Returns to His Roots,” New York Times, June 19, 1987.

Dion DiMucci and Davin Seay, The Wanderer: Dion’s Story, Beech Tree Books, 1988.

Robert Hilburn, “Dion: The Wanderer Finds His Way Home: New Rock Album Exorcises Years of Drugs, Insecurities,” Los Angeles Times, April 30, 1989.

Stephen Holden, Review/Pop, “Creator of Blue-Collar Rock Takes It on a Nostalgia Trip,” New York Times, September 2, 1989.

Mike Boehm, “The Wander Years: Musically, Dion’s the Type of Guy Who’ll Never Settle Down,” Los Angeles Times, October 3, 1991.

Bill Locey, “Doo-Wop: Dion Will Be Singing “I Wonder Why” and His Other Teen-idol Hits at the Ventura Theatre,” Los Angeles Times, November 14, 1991.

Rick Lyman, Pop Review, “Still in Love, And The Love Still Grows,” New York Times, July 31, 1997.

Jon Pareles, Pop Review: “A Bronx Boy Grown and Gone to Boca; Yet Despite the Decades, Dion Holds Tight to His Doo-Wop Roots,” New York Times, July 31, 1997.

Robert Hilburn, “Beneath the Surface, Dion’s Restless Melancholy,” Los Angles Times, January 26, 2001.

Fred Goodman, “A King of the Bronx Reclaims His Country-Blues Heart,” New York Times, January 4, 2006.

Richard Harrington, “Dion Wanders Back Into The Blues,” Washington Post, Wednesday, January 11, 2006.

John Lombardi, “Dion DiMucci, Teen Idol; a Seminal Bronx Rocker, Inspiration for Lou Reed and Springsteen, Is Coming Back to His Roots,” New York Magazine, December 30, 2007.

Marcia Z. Nelson, “Runaround Catholic: Dion Writes Spiritual Memoir,” Publishers Weekly, April 27, 2011.

“Abraham, Martin and John,” Wikipe- dia.org.

Dion DiMucci Website.

David Gonzalez, “A Wanderer, The Singer Dion Returns to The Bronx,” New York Times, December 9, 2011.

“Abraham, Martin & John,” One of 20 songs featured in, Songs Sung Red, White, and Blue: The Stories Behind America’s Best-Loved Patriotic Songs, a book by Ace Collins.

“Dion DiMucci and The Belmonts,” History-of-Rock.com.

“Dion & The Belmonts I Wonder Why 1958,” YouTube.com, uplodaded by Doo wopRick, August 14, 2009.

“The Belmonts,” Wikipedia.org.

Dennis Hevesi, “Fred Milano, an Original Member of Dion and the Belmonts, Dies at 72,” New York Times, January 3, 2012.
_______________________________




“The U.S. Post Office”
1950s-2011

“Coastal Post Office” by artist Stevan Dohanos published by the “Saturday Evening Post” magazine on August 26th, 1950.
“Coastal Post Office” by artist Stevan Dohanos published by the “Saturday Evening Post” magazine on August 26th, 1950.
     In this day and age of Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail, when information travels at the speed of light, the U.S. Post Office system seems a quaint and costly anachronism – and an easy target for government budget cutters.  Yet despite the changes that have come to the system in recent decades, and the carping about rising postage, slow service, or overpaid workers, the U.S. Post Office as place and institution in the local community – whether remote rural outpost or big-city neighborhood branch – is still, even today, a much-loved part of the American scene.  And over the years, in the nation’s cultural tableau and social register, the post office has been portrayed fondly as a valued place and integral part of the community. 

     Take, for example, how the Saturday Evening Post magazine portrayed a local post office scene on one of its covers from August 26, 1950.  This rendering, shown at right,  by artist Stevan Dohanos (1907-1994), is titled “Coastal Post Office.”  It portrays the “Menemsha Post Office” – an actual place on Martha’s Vineyard Island, Massachusetts.

Detail from Stevan Dohanos’ “Coastal Post Office.”
Detail from Stevan Dohanos’ “Coastal Post Office.”
     Dohanos depicts this post office as something of a busy community hub in 1950, with people coming and going.  A line of patrons is queued up, extending out through the entrance doorway, each person awaiting his or her turn at the postal services window.  Outside, a local artist has set up a display of one of his paintings, being admired by two onlookers.  A couple of other locals are simply biding their time at the front of the building, one leaning on a cane, and another siting on the porch. 

     A close-up portion of Dohanos’ painting  displayed at left reveals a bit more detail about the postal patrons and the services being offered – a woman reading her mail on the way out; signs in the post office window announcing, “Skiffs Rented” and “Home Baked Goods,” and another higher up for a local “bake” of some kind on “Friday.”  True to form, and as suggested by Dohanos in this rendering, the thousands of local post offices that stood across mid-20th century America were active community hubs — and many remain so today. Thousands of post offices that stood across mid-20th century America were and still are active community hubs. Then and now, they have been and continue to be important gathering places and information centers, offering multiple services beyond just the mail, also as Dohanos relayed of Menemsha in 1950.

     Those were surely the halcyon days of the U.S. postal system; a time when letter writing, mail, and the local post office were all a more central part of everyday American life.  Yet still today, the U.S. Post Office system is a major player in American communities and the American economy.  In 2010 it had revenues of $67 billion, which if it were a private company, would place it at roughly No. 29 on the Fortune 500 list.  The U.S. post office system has more domestic locations – i.e., some 31,800 post offices – than Walmart, Starbucks, and McDonald’s combined.  And despite the system’s current financial woes and the rapidly changing nature of information culture, the long-standing community place known as the local post office is still a welcomed and valued presence in many communities.

Recent photo, Menemsha Post Office.
Recent photo, Menemsha Post Office.
     Artist Stevan Dohanos, meanwhile, were he alive today, might be pleased to know that the Menemsha Post Office – which is actually located in the town of Chilmark, Massachusetts on the southern end of Martha’s Vineyard Island – appears to be still operating today as a combination grocery story and Postal Service substation.  It’s open for business mid-May thru mid-September, Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

     The structure, shown at left, appears somewhat differently than it did in the time Dohanos did his rendering more than 60 years ago, but the resemblance is still there.  A story about its local operation and one of its long-time postmasters and store owners appears as a link in “Sources” below.  It is not known, however, if the Menemsha Post Office is on the latest list of targeted post office closings.

A Stevan Dohanos illustration, “Rural Post Office at Christmas,” provides the seasonal cover art for the Saturday Evening Post of  December 13, 1947.
A Stevan Dohanos illustration, “Rural Post Office at Christmas,” provides the seasonal cover art for the Saturday Evening Post of December 13, 1947.
     Another post office rendering by Stevan Dohanos for The Saturday Evening Post  appeared on the cover of the magazine’s December 13, 1947 issue.  This one, entitled “Rural Post Office at Christmas,”  shown at right, depicts a wintry scene with a rural resident, likely a farmer, who has parked his truck out front with a cow riding in back and a dog in the cab.  The farmer is carrying several packages – Christmas presents, no doubt – to the entrance of the red brick post office building.  The overhead sign at the building’s entrance says “Post Office, Georgetown.”  It is believed the model for this rendering was the actual Georgetown, Connecticut post office which in those years was located on North Main Street in that town from about 1920 to sometime in the 1950s, when it then moved to a new location.

     A somewhat crisper portion of this Dohanos painting, displayed below, reveals a bit more detail in the scene.  A sign on the ground at the corner of the post office building features a Santa Claus on the move with mail sack over his shoulder, also bearing the seasonal admonition: “Don’t Delay,  Mail Today.”  Through the doorway, an older man in a white shirt can be seen, likely the postmaster waiting to help with the packages.  Behind him, through the doorway, rows of postal boxes can be scene, and through the window, tacked to the wall, are various notices and announcements.  Prints of this particular Dohanos painting – both in its Saturday Evening Post cover form and as the painting by itself – can be found for sale online.  The painting used for the Saturday Evening Post cover was offered for sale at Sothebys in March 2010 with an estimated price of between $15,000 and $20,000.

Detail from "Rural Post Office at Christmas," S. Dohanos.
Detail from "Rural Post Office at Christmas," S. Dohanos.
     At the Saturday Evening Post, Stevan Dohanos – along with J. C. Leyendecker and Norman Rockwell – was one of the magazine’s most prolific and popular cover artists, doing more than 100 covers there as well as others for story composition. 

     Dohanos also worked for Esquire and Medical Times magazines and provided advertising art for Caterpillar, Four Roses Whiskey, Maxwell House coffee, Pan Am airlines, Cannon Towels, Olin Industries, John Hancock Insurance, and others.  In addition, Dohanos illustrated WWII posters, did Christmas Seal art, film art for White Christmas, and also wall murals for a number of federal buildings from West Virginia to the Virgin Islands.

“Wanted Posters,” cover scene title for the February 21, 1953 Saturday Evening Post, by artist Stevan Dohanos.
“Wanted Posters,” cover scene title for the February 21, 1953 Saturday Evening Post, by artist Stevan Dohanos.
     Another Dohanos rendering of post office activity in the American community came on the cover of the February 21, 1953 edition of The Saturday Evening Post.  Entitled “Wanted Posters,” the scene shows a group of three young boys in their cowboy attire, complete with hats and six-shooter guns, looking up at the latest FBI wanted posters on a wall in the post office lobby.  The “most wanted” posters have been regular fare in many post office lobbies for decades, and have typically included unflattering mug shots of the nation’s most notorious criminals.  The boys in this rendering appear somewhat in awe of what they are viewing and reading.  They have apparently taken a break from their play, and wandered into the free and open lobby of the local post office, deciding to take a look at the posted information on the nation’s real criminal element.  They are not likely contemplating a try for the reward money, but perhaps they may add to their play fantasy by what they read.  And who knows, maybe one of them might even be inspired to go into criminal justice work.  But surely such cold and stark “money-on-your-head” public postings must have helped dissuade the young play outlaws that this was no real life for them.  Meanwhile, the postal worker at the stamp window in this scene is watching the boys with seemingly amused approval.

Detail from “Wanted Posters” reveals that one of the offenders is wanted for “mail fraud” the other “bank robbery.”
Detail from “Wanted Posters” reveals that one of the offenders is wanted for “mail fraud” the other “bank robbery.”
     The FBI’s “most wanted” poster program came about after a reporter for the International News Service asked the FBI in 1950 for the names and descriptions of the “toughest guys” the Bureau wanted to capture.  The resulting story generated so much publicity and had so much appeal that then FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover began the “Ten Most Wanted Fugitives” program.  The program at post offices, however, has done its share, as at least 14 of the “Ten Most Wanted” FBI criminals between 1950 and 1999 were apprehended as the result of folks recognizing the criminals from postings they saw at their local post offices.


Mailmen & The Mail

“Mailman,” is the title of the cover art for the May 13th, 1944 edition of the Saturday Evening Post, by Stevan  Dohanos.
“Mailman,” is the title of the cover art for the May 13th, 1944 edition of the Saturday Evening Post, by Stevan Dohanos.
     Other Saturday Evening Post covers by Stevan Dohanos featuring postal themes  includes his “Mailman” cover  for the May 13th, 1944 edition.  This illustration shows an umbrella-covered mailman slogging through an early spring rain making his appointed rounds, bulging mailbag in tow.  And today, more than 60 years later, there are thousands of letter carriers that continue to make their daily rounds, rain or shine.

     The U.S. Postal Service currently has something on the order of 570,000 full-time workers, making it the country’s second largest employer.  All of these folks are not letter carriers, or course, as many work in various other parts of the mail system.  Still, only Wal-Mart employs more people in the U.S. than the Postal Service.  And the U.S. mail system still handles an enormous amount of “product.”

     As of 2010, the U.S. Postal Service was delivering an average 560 million pieces of mail each day; more than 170 billion annually, accounting for about 40 percent of all global mail.  However, in recent years, the composition of the U.S. mail bag has been changing in major ways.  In the late 1970s, for example, Congress prevailed upon the Postal Service to allow private companies to carry letters needing urgent delivery.  As a result, Federal Express and the United Parcel Service (UPS) built enormously valuable businesses on what was once Post Office turf.  Today, UPS and FedEx have respectively 53 and 32 percent of the American express and ground-shipping market, while the Postal Service has about 15 percent.

“Mailman” detail – What’s in the U.S. mail sack today?
“Mailman” detail – What’s in the U.S. mail sack today?
     Then came e-mail in the 1990s, which has since devastated first-class mail – the primary funder of most U.S. mail operations and the Postal Service’s most profitable form of mail.  With e-mail’s ascendancy, “old-fashioned,” physical-form letter-writing declined fairly dramatically, pushing first-class mail volume way down, declining from 103.7 billion pieces in 2001 to 78.2 billion pieces in 2010.

     By 2005, junk mail had surpassed first-class mail for the first time.  Yet junk mail, per piece, is only a third as valuable as a first-class letter.  And junk mail rises and falls with the vagaries of the economy.  Recently in the U.S., when times were flush with booming real estate sales and easy credit, banks deluged mailboxes with mortgage deals and credit-card offers.  But when the recession hit in 2006-2010, total mail volume plunged 20 percent.


Stamp Collecting

Stevan Dohanos did this “Stamp Collecing” cover for the Saturday Evening Post of  February 27, 1954.
Stevan Dohanos did this “Stamp Collecing” cover for the Saturday Evening Post of February 27, 1954.
     Back at the Saturday Evening Post in the 1950s, artist Stevan Dohanos did another postal-related cover illustration, this one depicting a father and son engaged in stamp collecting, shown at right.  Stamp collecting then and now, is a fairly huge global enterprise.  There are some 200 million stamp collectors world wide, 25 million of those in the U.S.  The first U.S. postage stamps were authorized by Congress in 1847, with Benjamin Franklin and George Washington appearing on some of the earliest known issues in July 1847.  Commemorative stamps have also been issued in the U.S. since 1893, when a set of 16 were issued to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World (1492-1892).  Those were $1 stamps and the first one depicted a scene entitled “Isabella pledging her jewels” — to finance Columbus’s first expedition.  Since then the U.S. commemorative and postage stamp universe has expanded broadly to include many different categories of stamps along with collectors who partake of them – stamps of presidents, statespersons, and politicians; stamps of famous places, historic events, and famous battles; stamps of birds and other wildlife; stamps of sports figures, film stars, and celebrities of all stripes; and more.  Among notable stamp collectors have been, for example, Franklin Roosevelt, who also designed several American commemorative stamps while he was U.S. President.  Libertarian author Ayn Rand revived her childhood interest in stamps to become an avid collector in later life.  And even some rock stars such as Freddie Mercury, lead singer of the band Queen, and John Lennon of The Beatles, were childhood stamp collectors.

“Stevan Dohanos”
1940s-1960s

Photograph of Artist Stevan Dohanos at work, undated.
Photograph of Artist Stevan Dohanos at work, undated.
     Stevan Dohanos, it turns out, was not just a casual observer of the American postal scene.  In later life he would become quite involved with art for U.S. postage stamps and would also do some post office wall murals during his career. Born in Lorian, Ohio. Dohanos was the son of Hungarian immigrants.  A childhood admirer of Norman Rockwell, Dohanos’ own talent was noticed by his family and men he worked with at a local steel mill.  After a two-year home study course in art, he enrolled at the Cleveland Art School as a ful-time student, graduating to become a commercial artist in Cleveland.  He later settled in the Westport, Connecticut area and began submitting his work to The Saturday Evening Post, his first cover appearing there in the March 7, 1942 edition, depicting a WWII search-light team.  During the next fifteen years he became one of the Post’s regular cover artists, his work categorized as “American realist,” influenced by Edward Hopper.  He also painted some wall murals for the government during the Great Depression.

“Legend of James Hamilton--Barefoot Mailman” (mural study, West Palm Beach Post Office), 1940, S. Dohanos, panel 2.
“Legend of James Hamilton--Barefoot Mailman” (mural study, West Palm Beach Post Office), 1940, S. Dohanos, panel 2.
     Stevan Dohanos also had a role in depicting some of the “remote delivery” mailman lore, as postal carriers, especially in the earlier years, were often known for their heroics delivering mail in difficult and out-of-the way places.  In 1939 the Treasury Department’s Section of Fine Arts contracted Dohanos to paint six murals depicting the “Legend of James Edward Hamilton, Mail Carrier” in the West Palm Beach, Florida Post Office.  Hamilton was one of the “barefoot mailmen,” letter carriers who worked a remote stretch of rural Florida in the 1880s – a 68-mile roadless and part-by-boat route from Palm Beach to Miami, much of it by beach walking.  The round trip of 136 miles from Palm Beach to Miami and back took six days.  Hamilton mysteriously disappeared on the route, either drowned, taken by alligator, or some say, murdered.  In conducting his work on the murals, Dohanos corresponded with Charles W. Pierce, postmaster in Boynton Beach, Florida who had also been one of the carriers on the “barefoot route,” which ended in 1892 after a rough road was installed.  Pierce first used the term “barefoot mailman” in conversation with Dohanos, the term then applied to the murals Dohanos produced.  In 1943, the novel, The Barefoot Mailman, by Theodore Pratt, was based on the story of James Hamilton, and a film followed in 1951 starring Robert Cummings and others.  Some of the studies for the Dohanos post office wall murals are now in the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum and have also been displayed at the Library of Congress.

Stevan Dohanos helped design this 1967 JFK stamp.
Stevan Dohanos helped design this 1967 JFK stamp.
     In 1959, Dohanos was asked by the U.S. Post Office to design a stamp commemorating the 10th anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.  In the 1960s, after the Saturday Evening Post ceased to use artist illustrations on its covers, Dohanos took a position as chairman of the National Stamp Advisory Committee where he helped design and select art for postage stamps.  Dohanos worked with stamp art during the administration of seven U.S. presidents and nine postmaster generals, and he knew from his own experience how much the public display art work meant to its creators.  “Artists are always interested in seeing their art reproduced,” he said at one point during his Stamp Advisory Committee years.  “Imagine seeing your work reproduced four and a half billion times.”  Dohanos designed 46 stamps for the U.S. Postal Service, including one honoring John F. Kennedy in 1967.  Among others he designed were those commemorating the statehood of Alaska and Hawaii, another on the Food for Peace Campaign in 1963, and one featuring duck decoys with the caption, “Folk Art U.S.A.”  As a design coordinator Dohanos also oversaw the art work for more than 300 other stamps.  In 1984, the Postal Service’s Hall of Stamps in Washington was dedicated in his honor.  He died of pneumonia in 1994 at the age of 87.

     Stevan Dohanos’ paintings today can be found in the collections of the Avery Memorial of Hartford, The Cleveland Museum, New Britain Museum of American Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

“The End of Mail” cover story illustration, Bloomberg Business Week, May-June 2011.
“The End of Mail” cover story illustration, Bloomberg Business Week, May-June 2011.
     Today’s magazine cover art featuring the U.S. Postal system has not been in the tradition of those old Saturday Evening Post covers capturing community bustle at a picturesque post office in a coastal town, or of Christmas cheer a-coming in December’s mail.  Rather, today’s magazines are now focused on the financial side of the story, as Bloomberg Business Week did with its May-June 2011 cover story displayed at left. 

     Yet for millions of Americans there is still something of the Stevan Dohanos and Saturday Evening Post imagery and vitality that survives in today’s real world postal system – and a longing among many that something like it should survive into the future.  But how to do that has been the major problem facing Congress and country in recent years, as a variety of bills proposing major changes have been offered and debated.  And as this is written in September 2011, more than 3,600 U.S. Post Offices across the land have been slated for shut down.

Yvonne Rennolds stops by the Arrow Rock, Arkansas post office in August 2011 to get her mail and bring postmaster Tempe McGlaughlin a container of pasta salad. The post office is among those slated for closing.  Sarah Hoffman.
Yvonne Rennolds stops by the Arrow Rock, Arkansas post office in August 2011 to get her mail and bring postmaster Tempe McGlaughlin a container of pasta salad. The post office is among those slated for closing. Sarah Hoffman.
     The U.S. postal system it would seem — as Stevan Dohanos’ historic renderings remind us – is about more than just money.  The post office, especially at the community level, is also about social connection – people-to-people and community-to-government.  Like Facebook and Twitter, the local post office is a kind of social networking –  the actual on-the-ground physical network that is out there working every day, connecting people to government, or at least extending that opportunity.  These brick-and-mortar places then, are a kind of connective national tissue.  Post offices still help to “bind a nation together” – words from the founding language and Congressional debate to justify the system.  So what sense is there in tearing apart this connective tissue?

Kim Billington of Waverly, WA, a city council member, at her town's post office which serves 100 residents in southern Spokane County. Billington says the post office is the only building in town that is staffed every day.  Photo, AP.
Kim Billington of Waverly, WA, a city council member, at her town's post office which serves 100 residents in southern Spokane County. Billington says the post office is the only building in town that is staffed every day. Photo, AP.
       Those American small towns and remote rural regions now targeted for post office closings will surely become future assets; places that can and will absorb future growth.  Why disconnect them now? 

     Paring down far-flung networks and centralizing services may seem an efficient accounting at the moment.  Yet if it costs the nation citizen connectedness today and imposes a future capital replacement cost tomorrow, isn’t that really a false economy?  Rather, if a network of connectedness exists out there now, why take it apart?  Why dismantle something that connects people to their government, is in place now, and can serve the future?

Some 60 post offices may close in Mississippi...
Some 60 post offices may close in Mississippi...
     Would it not be better to rebuild and repurpose this network – or even expand or combine it with other government services, old and new – but at all costs, keeping it in place?  Why not refurbish these places and bolster their networking capability by adding community services – from worker training counseling and housing assistance, to energy conservation outreach and computer training?  Surely with all that the government is doing now – or should be doing – to help American communities and lift local economies, there ought to be way to keep and revitalize today’s national network of local postal locations.

     Additional stories at this website on magazine history and magazine cover art include, for example: “FDR & Vanity Fair,” (cover art) “Murdoch’s NY Deals” (New York magazine history), “Remington’s West” and “Christy Mathewson” (John Hancock magazine ads), and “Rockwell & Race” (cover art).
Thanks for visiting. – Jack Doyle

Please Support
this Website

Donate Now

Thank You

____________________________________

Date Posted:  29 September 2011
Last Update:  22 December 2011
Comments to:  jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “The U.S. Post Office, 1950s & Today”,
PopHistoryDig.com, September 29, 2011.

____________________________________


 


Sources, Links & Additional Information

Stevan Dohanos wasn’t the only cover artist at the Saturday Evening Post who did postal- or mail-related cover art. This one, titled  “Letter From Overseas,” by artist John Falter, appeared May  8, 1943.
Stevan Dohanos wasn’t the only cover artist at the Saturday Evening Post who did postal- or mail-related cover art. This one, titled “Letter From Overseas,” by artist John Falter, appeared May 8, 1943.
December 8, 1945:  “Post Office Sorting Room” by artist John Falter for the Saturday Evening Post.
December 8, 1945: “Post Office Sorting Room” by artist John Falter for the Saturday Evening Post.
February 22, 1936: “Reading Her Mail at the Greenville Post Office,” by artist Ellen Pyle for the Saturday Evening Post.
February 22, 1936: “Reading Her Mail at the Greenville Post Office,” by artist Ellen Pyle for the Saturday Evening Post.
February 18, 1922: “Sorting The Mail,” by artist Norman Rockwell for the Saturday Evening Post.
February 18, 1922: “Sorting The Mail,” by artist Norman Rockwell for the Saturday Evening Post.

“Stevan Dohanos,” Artist Gallery, Curtis Publishing.com.

“S. Dohanos,” AmericanIllustration.org.

“Stevan Dohanos Biography,” Ilustration -House.com.

“Stevan Dohanos,” Wikipedia.org.

Stevan Dohanos, selected Saturday Evening Post covers, FullTable.com.

“The Saturday Evening Post, Stevan Dohanos,”  MyMags.com.

“U. S. Postal Service,” Wikipedia.org.

“Barbara F. Seward” (with photo), The Martha’s Vineyard Times, January 2011.

“Barbara Seward, Last Menemsha Postmaster,” The Vineyard Gazette, January 14, 2011.

Devin Leonard, “The U.S. Postal Service Nears Collapse,” Bloomberg Business Week, May 30-June 5, 2011.

Sandra Taylor Smith and Mark K. Christ, “Arkansas Post Offices & Treasury Dept.’s Section Art Program, 1938-1942,” Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, 1500 Tower Building, 323 Center Street, Little Rock, AR 72201.

Lot 171, Stevan Dohanos, “Georgetown Post Office (Don’t Delay, Mail Today),” American Paintings, Drawings & Scuplture, Catalogues, Sothebys, March 2010.

“History of Georgetown, Connecticut,” HistoryofRedding.com.

“U.S. Presidents on U.S. Postage Stamps,” Wikipedia.org.

Panel 2, Legend of James Edward Hamilton–Barefoot Mailman (mural study, West Palm Beach, Florida Post Office), 1940, Stevan Dohanos, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

“Barefoot Mailman,” Wikipedia.org.

Stevan Dohanos, Artwork Sampler, American Art Archives.

“Chronological Listing of the FBI’s ‘Ten Most Wanted Fugitives’,” FBI.gov.

“Stevan Dohanos, A Stamp Designer And Illustrator, 87,” New York Times, July 6, 1994.

Eleanor Charles, “Illustrator’s Works in Retrospective Opening Today,” New York Times, Connecticut Weekly Desk, Sunday, November 10, 1985, Section 11CN, p.32.

William Zimmer, Art; “Illustrator’s Show: ‘Images of America’,” New York Times, December 8, 1985.

Robert Hood, “Rural America Feels the Sting of Post Office Closings,” MSNBC.MSN.com, July 12, 2011.

Carly Mallenbaum, Postal Service lists 3,700 branches for possible closing,” USA Today, July 27, 2011.

Susan Meeker, “Grimes Community Hub on List of Possible U.S. Postal Service Closures,” Colusa County Sun-Herald  (California), Friday, July 29, 2011.  

Harry R. Weber/ Associated Press, “Rural America Worried About Post Office Closings,” Detroit News, July 31, 2011.

Monte Whaley, Photos by RJ Sangosti, “New Raymer Post Office Closure Would Shut down Tiny Town’s Community Hub,” The Denver Post, July 31,2011.

Clarke Canfield and Renee Elder, Associated Press, “Post Office Closings Threaten Appalachian Trail Hikers,” USA Today, August 1, 2011.

Sarah Hoffman, “Small-town Residents Saddened by Prospect of Post Offices Closing,” ColumbiaMissourian.com,  Aug 3, 2011.

Melissa Shriver, “Post Office Closure in Chambersburg,” ConnectTri-States.com, September 8, 2011.

“Save the Post Office,” SaveThePost Office.com, Re: Closures, Consolidations, Suspensions, Stories, Analysis, Opinion.

Monica Hesse, “In a Post-Postal World, Christmas Still Delivers,” Washington Post, December 22, 2011, p. A-1.




 



“Sixteen Tons”
1955-1956

Record sleeve cover for January 1956 Capitol album that included ‘Sixteen Tons’ by Tennessee Ernie Ford.
Record sleeve cover for January 1956 Capitol album that included ‘Sixteen Tons’ by Tennessee Ernie Ford.
     The top song in America during late 1955 and early 1956 was a tune about coal mining – a song about the hard life and poverty of being a coal miner.  Its title was “Sixteen Tons” and it was made popular by a singer named Tennessee Ernie Ford.  The song had actually been written in the 1940s, its verse grown piecemeal from oft-heard phrases and the lives of miners dating to the 1930s.  And although the song had been previously recorded in the 1940s, it wasn’t until the 1950s that it became a big hit.

 

By Merle Travis

     In the mid-1940s, Merle Travis was a guitar-playing, country musician from Kentucky who had worked in radio, studio recording, and live stage shows.  He also had bit parts in Hollywood films singing in B Westerns.  In 1946, he signed a recording contract with Hollywood-based Capitol Records and had some early hits.  Capitol also asked him to record an “album”of folk songs – four 78 rpm disks – three of which were songs that Travis wrote about coal mining.  They were about life in the mines of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, where his father had worked.  One of the songs was “Dark As A Dungeon” and another, “Sixteen Tons.”  For the latter song, Travis had pieced together fragments of phrases he had heard while growing up and in later life.  A letter his brother sent during WWII made a comparison to working in the coal mines, saying:  “You load sixteen tons and what do you get?  Another day older and deeper in debt.”  Travis had also heard an expression his father used with neighbors, which Travis adopted for “Sixteen Tons,” as he later recounted:  “…The chorus is from a saying my Dad often used.  He never saw real money. He was constantly in debt to the coal company. When shopping was needed, Dad would go to a [coal company] window and draw little brass tokens against his account.  They could only be spent at the company store. His humorous expression was, ‘I can’t afford to die.  I owe my soul to the company store.’ “

A later compilation of Merle Travis music.
A later compilation of Merle Travis music.
     Travis’ version of “Sixteen Tons” was released by Capitol records in 1947 on Folk Songs of The Hills.  But the song did not receive much notice.  In fact, during the Cold War hysteria of the late 1940s, songs dealing with workers’ woes by “folk music activists,” as they were called, became suspect.  Ken Nelson, a Capitol record producer who had also worked at WJJD radio in Chicago in the 1940s, later explained in 1992 that FBI agents advised the radio station not to play Travis’ records because they considered him a “communist sympathizer,” which Travis was not.  Although his version of “Sixteen Tons” – produced with a single guitar – did not become a hit, Merle Travis continued his music career, becoming one of the most highly regarded country guitarists in history.  His “Sixteen Tons” would be made famous by Tennessee Ernie Ford.

 

“Tennessee” Ernie’s Big Hit

Ernie Ford in Capitol recording session.
Ernie Ford in Capitol recording session.
     Ernest Jennings Ford was from Bristol, Tennessee, where in high school his baritone voice had first been noticed.  After a stint in the military during WWII, he adopted the stage name “Tennessee Ernie.”  He began his career as a singer of country music on radio stations in San Bernardino and Pasadena, California.  By 1949, he signed a contract with Capitol records, had a few hit records and also became a local TV star on the popular Southern California show, Hometown Jamboree

     In 1954 Tennessee Ernie Ford became nationally known through his several appearances on the I Love Lucy TV show as a visiting “country cousin.”  Ford knew the “Sixteen Tons” song from working with Merle Travis who had appeared on Hometown Jamboree.  Ford’s grandfather and uncle had also worked in the mines.  In early 1955, Ford did a version of “Sixteen Tons” on television.  Within five days, NBC received over 1,200 letters from viewers asking about the song.  In July 1955, Ford performed the song again at the Indiana State Fair before a crowd of 30,000 and the response was “deafening,” according to one report.

Label on 78 rpm version of ‘Sixteen Tons’.
Label on 78 rpm version of ‘Sixteen Tons’.
     Capitol Records, meanwhile, informed Ford in September 1955 that he needed to produce a new record to meet the terms of his contract.  Shortly thereafter, a two-sided single was produced.  “You Don’t Have To Be A Baby To Cry” appeared on the “A” side and “Sixteen Tons” on the B side.  Capitol believed that the A-side song was destined to be Ford’s biggest hit yet.  On October 17th, 1955, Capitol shipped the new record to radio DJs who began playing the B side, “Sixteen Tons.”  In about ten days’ time, the record promptly sold 400,000 copies.  Demand for “Sixteen Tons” became so great that Capitol geared all its pressing plants nationwide to produce the record.  In less than month after its release, over one million recordings of “Sixteen Tons” were sold.  It became the fastest-selling single in Capitol’s history.
Sample record sleeve, 'Sixteen Tons'.
Sample record sleeve, 'Sixteen Tons'.

 

No. 1 Hit

     “Sixteen Tons” hit Billboard’s Country Music charts in November 1955, and held the No. 1 position for ten weeks.  By December 15, 1955, more than 2 million copies were sold, then making it the most successful single to date.  It then crossed over to the pop charts, and held the  No. 1 position there for eight weeks into early 1956.  Ford later gave some background on the song’s recording in an interview he did with the Saturday Evening Post:   
    
(…continues, at right…)

Sixteen Tons

Now, some people say a man’s made out of mud,
But a poor man’s made out of muscle and blood,
Muscle and blood, skin and bones,
A mind that’s weak and a back that’s strong.

You load sixteen tons and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter, don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go,
I owe my soul to the company store

Well, I was born one mornin’ when the sun didn’t shine.
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mines.
I loaded sixteen tons of Number Nine coal,
And the straw-boss said, “Well, bless my soul.”

You load sixteen tons and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter, don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go,
I owe my soul to the company store

Well, I was born one mornin’, it was drizzlin’ rain.
Fightin’ and trouble is my middle name.
I was raised in the bottoms by a mama hound.
I’m mean as a dog, but I’m as gentle as a lamb.

You load sixteen tons and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter, don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go,
I owe my soul to the company store

WeIl, if you see me a-comin’ you better step aside.
A lotta men didn’t and a lotta men died.
I got a fist of iron, and a fist of steel.
If the right one don’t get you, then the left one will.

You load sixteen tons and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter, don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go,
I owe my soul to the company store

Ford interview:

     “…Sometimes it’s a new twist that boosts one of those songs up into the million sales class.  ’Sixteen Tons’ was written eight years before I recorded it, too.  I’d sung ‘Sixteen Tons’ years before [on radio], but it hadn’t been any blockbuster, and Merle Travis, who’d written it, had put it in an album of his songs called Folk Songs of the Hills.  Nothing happened then either.  Then we decided to do some of Merle’s things with modern instrumentation [on television].  When Merle did them, he’d used a straight guitar music background.  When we did them we used a flute, a bass clarinet, a trumpet, a clarinet, drums, a guitar, vibes and a piano.  They gave it a real wonderful sound.”

     “I snapped my fingers all through it.  Sometimes I set my own tempo during rehearsal by doing that….  After I was through rehearsing that song, Lee Gillette, who was in charge of the recording session for Capitol Records, screamed through the telephone from the control room, ‘Tell Ernie to leave that finger snapping in when you do the final waxing.’”

     “They liked ‘Sixteen Tons,’ all right, at Capitol, …but nobody threw a fit over it.  Nobody said, ‘We’re glad you brought this along because it’s sure to sell a million copies in twenty-one days.’  They didn’t say that because anybody in his right mind knew that wouldn’t happen.  Yet that’s exactly what did happen.”  [end Ford interview]

     “[N]o American song in many a generation has got as much [play] in such a short time…as ‘Sixteen Tons’,” wrote a Time magazine reporter in December 1955.  “It is currently the No. 1 hit on almost every list.  It has been called deeply American by some and dangerously radical by others.”

Coal mining town of Dehue, West Virginia showing a 1934 labor march.
Coal mining town of Dehue, West Virginia showing a 1934 labor march.

 

Danger & Debt

     The song’s lyrics hinted at the dangers of working in mines and the hard times of living in mining communities.  And indeed, from the early 1900s through the 1940s, life in the coal mining communities all across the country was pretty grim. Mineworkers were frequently killed in mine accidents and most who worked in the mines developed “black lung” disease from years of breathing coal dust. Although mine conditions improved following the unionization of mine workers in the 1930s and subsequent mine safety laws, even in the mid-1950s when “Sixteen Tons” was at the top of the charts, mine accidents and deplorable conditions in mining communities were still found throughout the coal fields.

     And as “Sixteen Tons” made plain in its lyrics, indebtedness to the company was also a problem in some coal communities, especially before labor reforms were adopted.  Coal miners often became indebted to the “company store,” also known as the general store in some locations.  With no competition, the company could keep prices high for everyday items, and employees – especially those with families – often needed to pay in credit with tokens or scrip.  A never-ending cycle of debt often resulted, meaning essentially that the workers were perpetually bound to the company. 

Coal Mine Dangers
1950s-2010

Miner working in a confined, cramped position inside a narrow coal seam on a piece of equipment called a ‘lizard.’  (photo, Earl Dotter).
Miner working in a confined, cramped position inside a narrow coal seam on a piece of equipment called a ‘lizard.’ (photo, Earl Dotter).

     Although mine safety has generally improved over the years – and “Sixteen Tons” spoke largely to an earlier era – coal mining accidents were still occurring through the 1950s and 1960s, as they have to the present day.  In December 1951, for example, the Orient No. 2 mine in West Frankfort, IL exploded killing 119 miners. In Farmington, WV, the Jamison No. 9 mine exploded in November 1954 killing 16. And in McDowell County, WV, the Bishop No. 34 mine had two fatal explo- sions in the 1950s – one on February 1957 that took 37 lives, and another in October 1958 that killed 22.  The 1960s saw more of the same. A March 1960 mine fire killed 18 in the No. 22 mine at Pine Creek, WV. Suffocation took the lives of 6 workers in a Dora, PA mine in June 1966.  And in 1972, a collapsed coal wastewater impoundment at Buffalo Creek, WV killed 126, injured more than 1,000, and displaced thousands more after flooding several downstream communities.  In recent years, mine accidents have continued to occur, as in the May 2006 Darby Mine explosion in Harlan County, KY that took five lives; the August 2007 Crandall Canyon Mine cave-in of Emery County, Utah that killed six miners and later three rescuers; and the Montcoal, WV mine explosion of April 2010 at a Massey Energy mine that killed 29 miners.


"Sixteen Tons" record sleeve photo.
"Sixteen Tons" record sleeve photo.
Song Resonates

     “Sixteen Tons” caught on all across the country in 1955 and 1956, as it offered a distinctly different sound; somber and fatalistic, in sharp contrast to the up-beat pop ballads of that day.  Rock ‘n roll was just starting its rise to prominence then.  Still, the chorus of “Sixteen Tons” offered memorable lines and helped bring the plight of miners more into general pubic awareness at that time.  Some listeners were also thought to identify with the tune in their own lives, as they too were living on credit or stuck in never-ending jobs, seeing themselves as “owing their souls” to a kind of “company store.”   In any case, Capitol Records was certainly happy, as “Sixteen Tons,” along with other songs, helped improve 1955 sales to a record $21.3 million, up 25 percent over 1954, with profits up by 33 percent.

Cover of 'TV Guide' in March 1957, one of four he would appear on.
Cover of 'TV Guide' in March 1957, one of four he would appear on.

 

Ford’s Career Soars

     Tennessee Ernie Ford, meanwhile, went on to a successful TV career hosting prime-time network music and variety shows from 1956 to 1965.  Ford proved a versatile performer, cutting across comedy, film, and various music genres, including country, pop, gospel and religious music.  Ernie Ford also appeared in Hollywood films, sang the title song for the Marilyn Monroe/Robert Mitchum 1954 film, River of No Return, a song which became a pop hit.  He also did the “Ballad of Davy Crockett,” another 1955 hit record.  His music career continued through the 1970s, as he completed a 1975 album with Glen Campbell, as this and other music from his past enjoyed a second life with new listeners and CD sales in the 1990s.  At age 71 in 1990, Ford was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.  He passed away the following year due to liver cancer.

     In 2005, some fifty years after “Sixteen Tons” had made its run at the top of the music charts, the General Electric Co., the giant industrial corporation, used the song in a TV advertising campaign designed in part to promote the use of “clean coal.”  For more on that story see “G.E.’s Hot Coal Ad.”

Please Support
this Website

Donate Now

Thank You

________________________

Date Posted:  6 October 2008
Last Update:  20 May 2012
Comments to:  jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Sixteen Tons, 1955-56,”
PopHistoryDig.com, Octobe 6, 2008.

________________________


 


Sources, Links & Additional Information

'Music of Coal' CD
'Music of Coal' CD
“Tennessee Ernie Ford,” Wikipedia.org.

“Merle Travis,” Wikipedia.org.

“The Wild Birds Do Whistle,” Time, Monday, December 19, 1955.

“High-Priced Pea Picker,” Time, Monday, May. 27, 1957.

Pete Martin, “Tennessee Ernie Ford Interview.” Saturday Evening Post, September 28, 1957, p. 124.

Archie Green, Only a Miner, Urbana, Illinois 1972, pp. 301-302.

George Korson, Coal Dust on the Fiddle, Hatboro, Pennsylvania, 1965, pp. 72-73.

George Vecsey, “Strike Frees Miners From ‘Dungeon’ Peril”(Dante, VA), New York Times, Saturday October 2, 1971, p. 16.

Herbert C. Bardes, “A Chronicle of Coal Company Scrip,” New York Times, Sunday, April 1, 1973, p. 183.

Leonard Sloane, “The Company Store Comes Out of the Coal Mines; The Company Store, Revised for 1975,” New York Times, Business & Finance, Sunday, June 22, 1975, p. 147.

Coal mining folk music.
Coal mining folk music.
“Kentucky Coal Area Recalls Days of Token Money”(Dunmor, KY), New York Times, Sunday, May 4, 1980, p. 59.

Ace Collins, The Stories Behind Country Music’s All-Time Greatest 100 Songs, New York: Berkeley Publishing Group, 1996, pp. 91-93.

The Billboard Book of Number One Hits (fifth edition).

 ”Sixteen Tons: The History Behind the Legend,” formerly at: ErnieFord.com.

Rhonda Janney Coleman, “Coal Miners and Their Communities in Southern Appalachia, 1925-1941″ West Virginia Historical Society Quarterly, Volume 15, Nos. 2 & 3.

Dehue, West Virginia, “Past & Present: Another Day Older…” (Dehue labor photo from this site).

“Coal Mining Disasters,” (incidents with 5 or more fatalities), NIOSH Mining Safety and Health Research, National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health.

Tennessee Ernie Ford website, TEF Enterprises, LP.

__________________________________________________



 

“Person to Person”
1953-1961

A three-disc DVD compilation of 32 'Person to Person' shows was released by CBS in 2006.
A three-disc DVD compilation of 32 'Person to Person' shows was released by CBS in 2006.
     Among the first television shows to bring celebrities into the homes of millions of Americans was Person to Person, a 1950s show produced by CBS.  Prior to this show, which debuted in 1953, most Americans learned about the lives of film stars and other famous people through magazines or by way of short features in movie newsreels.

     Person to Person was created by the legendary newsman, Edward R. Murrow, a celebrity himself who first gained notoriety with his World War II radio broadcasts from London during that city’s bombing by the Germans.  Following the war, Murrow moved his radio show, Hear It Now,  over to television, calling it See It Now.  From his war days on, Murrow became known as a no-nonsense newsman who would take on tough, controversial subjects, including abuses of power.  

     In the early 1950s, when much of the nation was being terrorized by the communist witch-hunt of U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy, Murrow exposed McCarthy for the demagogue he was in a classic 1954 televised showdown.  Yet Murrow also became well known for the success of Person to Person, an early version of  “celebrity TV” and today’s hyped-up successors like Entertainment Tonight or Access Hollywood.  With Murrow as host, Person to Person ran every Friday night from October 1953 to June 1959. 

Edward Murrow at left as home of movie star Kirk Douglas is shown on studio screen, 1957.
Edward Murrow at left as home of movie star Kirk Douglas is shown on studio screen, 1957.
Edward Murrow interviewing guests.
Edward Murrow interviewing guests.
...with Mr. & Mrs. Kirk Douglas, 1957.
...with Mr. & Mrs. Kirk Douglas, 1957.
 
The Douglases with one of their children.
The Douglases with one of their children.

     The show’s format basically featured Murrow, cigarette in hand, visiting with Hollywood stars, TV celebrities, sports figures, authors, and politicians in various informal settings.  Guests were typically shown at their homes or in other settings, and through the magic of televsion, were projected on a wall-size screen in the CBS studio with Murrow seated in an easy chair asking  questions.

     Using two to six cameras in production, the program usually opened in a celebrity’s home, with Murrow taking his viewers on room-by-room tours as he spoke with his on-screen guest.  The range and variety of famous people Murrow interviewed was unprecedented for network television at the time.  Among some of Murrow’s more illustrious guests were performers and actors such as: Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Sammy Davis, Jr., Lucille Ball, Marilyn Monroe, Liberace, Julie Harris, Mary Martin, Milton Berle, and Sophia Loren; authors such as Walter White and John Steinbeck; pianist Van Cliburn; boxer-in-training Rocky Marciano; former U.S. president Harry Truman; and former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

     Other notable shows included his October 1953 interview with the recently married U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy and his new wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, a former Washington newspaper reporter.  An April1955 session with the 31 year-old Marlon Brando came after Brando had starred in movie On the Waterfront, for which he won an Academy Award.

     During one three-week period in 1957, Murrow interviewed political cartoonist Herbert Block, media market researcher, A.C. Nielsen, and Robert F. Kennedy, then Chief Council of the Senate’s Select Committee.

     In a 1957 interview with movie star Kirk Douglas, then at the peak of his film career, Murrow took his viewers on a tour of the Douglas home, with Kirk and wife showing off their tennis court, swimming pool, and lovely home, and one of their children.  Then Murrow asks a typical “Person-to-Person” question: “Kirk, is all this part of the reason why you wanted to be a movie star?”  To which Douglas replies:

“Well, you know, Ed, very seriously, I never even dreamed of being a movie star.  My hope in life was always to be a Broadway actor.  I’ve done about ten Broadway shows, but they were all flops.  At least I was consistent.  Then a friend of mine, Lauren Bacall, got Hal Wallis interested in giving me a screen test.  I was a little frightened at first, I didn’t think I was the type.  But then after another flop… I thought maybe I oughta give Hollywood a try.  So I came out here, Ed, and I will say Hollywood’s been pretty nice to me.”

     Murrow also interviewed Fidel Castro at one point.  And while Castro’s appearance on Person to Person had the potential to alienate viewers – and the program did attract government criticism at the time — Murrow survived.  In fact, after Person to Person’s inaugural season, Murrow won an Emmy for the Most Outstanding Personality in all of television.

 

Show Biz v. Journalism

     Still, Murrow and his show received frequent criticism in the press.  Some called Person to Person aimless chatter with empty-headed movie stars.  These critics argued – as Murrow himself would on more than a few occasions – that television programming demanded more substance and depth.  Someone of Murrow’s stature, they suggested, should be doing more important things.  Yet Murrow had initially thought the show might feature a wide variety of everyday working people and less privileged Americans, including blacks, Indians, farmers, and laborers.Person to Person was an historical step to building the cult of personality in news programs.”  But it failed to do that.  He also believed the series could help “revive the art of conversation.”  Yet the conversation that resulted on most shows was pretty thin, and even with politicians Murrow avoided the controversial.  Celebrity and image proved to be the show’s more powerful appeal.  “The program existed from the start much more in the world of show business than of journalism,” wrote David Halberstam in his book, The Powers That Be.  The Museum of Broadcast Communications has stated that Person to Person “was an historical step to building the cult of the personality in news programs.  The personalities were divided into two camps, with the entertainment and sports figures in one, and the second containing all others, including artists, writers, politicians, lawyers, scientists, and industrialists…”

Murrow in 1954 when ‘See It Now’ took on U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy.
Murrow in 1954 when ‘See It Now’ took on U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy.
     In 1956, CBS acquired Person to Person from Murrow who was the sole owner.  The show was a money maker for the network, providing a substantial profit; it ranked in the top ten network programs nearly every year it ran.  Person to Person also made Murrow more of a celebrity than he already was, providing him with more leverage at the network – at least for a time.  It also embroiled him in controversy and network in-fighting when some accused the show – at the height of the TV quiz-show scandal with its rigged outcomes and coached contestants – of deceit and dishonesty, claiming Person to Person‘s guests were also scripted and coached.  While the controversy had its ill effects at the network, it did not appear to have injured Murrow publicly.  

     By the Fall of 1959, Charles Collingwood, a Murrow associate since WWII,  became the show’s host.  Person to Person‘s ratings success translated to Collingwood, as the show continued to feed the public’s appetite for the celebrity interview.  In 1961, Murrow left CBS after newly elected President John F. Kennedy asked him head up the U.S. Information Agency.

     Although Edward R. Murrow is perhaps best known today for his prescient warnings about the potential dangers of television, he also had a hand through Person to Person in opening up television to its preoccupation with all things celebrity.  At the time he ran the show, however, Murrow defended Person to Person.  He believed that a variety of guests had value for viewers.“Television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insu- late us.”
               – Edward R. Murrow, 1958
  He noted that by interviewing prominent authors his viewers might be prompted to buy books and read more, or that a guest like pianist Van Cliburn could encourage children to take up the piano. But even before Murrow had left the show and CBS, his views on the potential downsides of television were stated quite emphatically in his famous October 1958 speech before the Radio-Television News Directors Association.  In that speech, Murrow alluded to the rising power of television’s “elaborate structure of networks, advertising agencies and sponsors…”  But his central message had to do with the potential misuse of television: “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire, but it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends.  Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box.”  A month later, in December, Murrow wrote in a TV Guide article that viewers must recognize “television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us.”

 

Edward R. Murrow on the cover of Time magazine, September 1957.
Edward R. Murrow on the cover of Time magazine, September 1957.
Debate Continues

     Nearly fifty years later, the debate continues on the “news-vs-entertainment” issue – which in Murrow’s day was focused more on how much money the broadcast networks were spending on each and how to keep news and entertainment separate from one another.  Today, with cable TV plus the internet and the “always-on” news cycle, separation of the two seems almost quaint, as news has increasingly become a form of entertainment.  There is also the broader and more pervasive impact of TV- and web-aided celebrity on business, politics, and popular culture.  Person-to-Person was a stepping stone in all of this, innocent perhaps, but part of the evolution nonetheless.

     For those interested in the Person-to-Person contribution to this portion of television history, there is a good sampling of the show’s legacy on tape and DVDs.  There is also a sampling of clips on line at Google, Yahoo, You Tube and various websites.  One 2006 DVD set on the Person to Person series also includes a good sampling of the show’s interviews.

Liz Taylor and husband Mike Todd on 'Person to Person,' April 1957.
Liz Taylor and husband Mike Todd on 'Person to Person,' April 1957.
     Edward R. Murrow: The Best of Person to Person, is introduced by CBS newsman Bob Schieffer, and includes 32 interviews on three discs.  Disc One, “American Icons,” features interviews with: Dick Clark, Billy Graham, Andy Griffith, Oscar Hammerstein, John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Norman Rockwell, Eleanor Roosevelt, Danny Thomas, Art Linkletter, and Esther Williams.  Disc 2, “Hollywood Legends,” includes interviews with: Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, Bette Davis, Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston, Sophia Loren, Gene Kelly, Marilyn Monroe, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, and Elizabeth Taylor.  And Disc 3, “Legendary Entertainers,” features interviews with: Milton Berle, Jonathan Winters, Sammy Davis Jr., Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Sid Ceasar, Carol Channing, Helen Hayes, and Liberace.  An earlier VHS version by 20th Century Fox, released in August 1993 and introduced by Connie Chung, is also available and includes a shorter but somewhat different selection of interviews, as follows: John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, Mike Todd, Duke Ellington, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Arthur Rubenstein, Sophia Loren, Robert Kennedy and Harpo Marx.

This four-disc DVD set from CBS News is available and includes some of Murrow's news broadcasts & interviews.
This four-disc DVD set from CBS News is available and includes some of Murrow's news broadcasts & interviews.

Murrow The Newsman

     Much more, of course, has been written about Ed Murrow the newsman – his years in radio, his reporting abroad, and his influence generally on news and TV journalism (see sources below).  There are also DVD’s available on a number of Murrow’s news broadcasts and related shows, such as the one displayed at right.  In 2005, Good Night and Good Luck, a Hollywood film produced by movie star George Clooney was released, focusing on Murrow’s famous 1954 confrontation with U. S. Senator Joe McCarthy.  Clooney has also been interviewed about the making of this film by Charlie Rose on The Charlie Rose Show.

     In mid-December 2011, CBS News announced it would launch new version of the Person to Person series, with co-hosts Charlie Rose and Lara Logan.  The new show, according to CBS, will retain many of the elements of the original format, with the TV hosts taking viewers into the private homes of singers, actors, directors, political leaders, and other newsmakers and celebrities.  The new version of Person to Person will debut in February 2012.  Reportedly, for years CBS had dreamed about bringing back “a modern version” of the series.  For other stories at this website dealing with the news business and society see  “Media & Society” or go to the Archive for additional choices.   Thanks for visiting — and please consider supporting this website.  Thank you.  - Jack Doyle

_______________________________

Please Support
this Website

Donate Now

Thank You

Date Posted:  7 May 2008
Last Update:  27 July 2013
Comments to:  jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Person to Person, 1953-1961,”
PopHistoryDig.com, May 7, 2008.

_______________________________

 

 

 

Sources, Links & Additional Information

Edward R. Murrow with Louis Armstrong on 'See It Now', May 1953.
Edward R. Murrow with Louis Armstrong on 'See It Now', May 1953.
Richard Bartone, “Person to Person–U.S. Talk /Inter- view Program,” Museum of Broadcast Communica- tions.

J. Merron, “Murrow on TV: See It Now, Person to Person, and the Making of a ‘Masscult Personality,’ Journalism Monographs (Austin, Texas), 1988.

Pete Martin, “I Call on Edward R. Murrow,” Saturday Evening Post , January 18, 1958.

Edward R. Murrow,” Wikipedia.org.

Stanley Cloud and Lynne Olson. The Murrow Boys: Pioneers on the Front Lines of Broadcast Journalism, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

Alexander Kendrick, Prime Time: The Life of Edward R. Murrow, Boston: Little, Brown, 1969.

Edward R. Murrow, as caricatured at work for the cover of "TV Guide," November 3-9, 1956.
Edward R. Murrow, as caricatured at work for the cover of "TV Guide," November 3-9, 1956.
Joseph Persico, Edward R. Murrow: An American Original, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988.

Bob Edwards, Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism, Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2004.

“A Conversation with Filmmaker George Clooney,” The Charlie Rose Show, October 14, 2005.

David Halberstam, The Powers That Be, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979, pp. 139-143.

“Person to Person: Kirk Douglas (1957),” …She Was a Bird, June 22, 2011.

Lisa de Moraes, “CBS Exhumes Edward R. Murrow’s ‘Person to Person’ Celeb Interview Show,” Washington Post, December 15, 2011.

Brian Stelter, “CBS Is Reviving ‘Person to Person,’ Made Famous by Murrow,” New York Times, December 15, 2011.

“Edward R. Murrow: The Best of Person to Person - Sophia Loren Clip,” formerly posted at GoogleVideos, 2008.

Person to Person with Senator John F. Kennedy, 1953″ (11:06), formerly posted at GoogleVideos, 2008.

“Senator John F. Kennedy on Edward R. Murrow’s Person to Person” (1953), YouTube (1:32).

Person to Person Interview with Marilyn Monroe and Milton Green (magazine photographer) and Amy Greene,” YouTube.com.

“Edward R. Murrow: The Best of Person to Person – Liberace Clip,” formerly posted at Google Videos, 2008.

________________________________

 

 

 

 

 

Home | About | Videos | Archive | Custom Research | Donate | Contact
© 2014 The Pop History Dig, LLC design by: Mindstorm Interactive, Inc.