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.
_______________________________




“Motown’s Heat Wave”
1963-1967

Martha & the Vandellas on 1964 record sleeve, from left: Martha Reeves, Annette Beard,and Rosalind Ashford.
Martha & the Vandellas on 1964 record sleeve, from left: Martha Reeves, Annette Beard,and Rosalind Ashford.
     One of the 1960s’ more renowned “girl groups” coming out of Berry Gordy’s Motown music center in Detroit, Michigan, was named “Martha and the Vandellas.”  Between 1963 and 1967, this group – consisting initially of Martha Reeves, Annette Beard, and Rosalind Ashford – laid down a string of hits that helped define the popular music of that day.  Their sound was distinctive, and it would become one of the hallmark musical identities to be associated with Motown for years thereafter.  But in the 1960s, this music also distinguished Motown as a rising power in the pop music business.  For at that time, Motown was just beginning to be noticed on the national music scene.

 

“Heat Wave”

     One of the first big hits to come from Martha and the Vandellas was “Heat Wave”–  a key song released in July 1963; a song that helped send this group, Motown, and its songwriters into the realm of big business.  At the time, leading-edge baby boomers, with their significant buying power, were moving through their high school years.  “Heat Wave” hit the streets precisely as millions of these kids were coming of age.  A buoyant, hard-driving rock ‘n roll tune, “Heat Wave” captured the spirit and optimism of its time – along with the energy of its young listeners – as well as well as any song of that era.  Even to this day, “Heat Wave” is an irresistible dance tune.  In 1963, it quickly scaled the pop charts.

Music Player
“Heat Wave” – 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 song’s full title is actually “(Love is Like a) Heat Wave,” with lyrics about teen love describing a young girl’s heart burning with desire — “like a heat wave.”  As Martha and her ladies ask in the singing: “Has high blood pressure got a hold on me, or is this the way love’s supposed to be?”  Their answer: “Can’t explain it, don’t understand it, ain’t never felt like this before.”  But in 1963, the power of this song was not in its lyrics.  Rather, this tune aroused its listeners with buoyant hand-clapping, an unyielding drum beat, and pure musical drive.  Its “message” was its energy and its vibrancy.  “Heat Wave” offered its coming-of-age charges pure possibility.  To them, the song’s optimistic musical assessment suggested wide-open horizons with  few limitations – especially in those more innocent, pre-JFK-assassination days of  September 1963.

A 45 rpm of Martha & The Vandellas’ ‘Heat Wave’ on the Gordy label from Motown, 1963.
A 45 rpm of Martha & The Vandellas’ ‘Heat Wave’ on the Gordy label from Motown, 1963.
     “Heat Wave” became a million seller, and by late September 1963 it had risen to No. 4 on the pop charts and No. 1 on the R&B charts, remaining in those spots for about five weeks.  “Heat Wave” was produced by a famous three-person team at Motown – a team consisting of the two brothers, Brian and Edward Holland, along with Lamont Dozier.  This talented trio — “Holland-Dozier-Hol- land,” as they came to be known, or H-D-H — wrote and arranged a number of the songs that came out of Motown, producing a distinctive sound that  helped define American popular music in the 1960s.   During their tenure at Motown, from 1962-1967, Dozier and Brian Holland were the compo- sers and producers, while Eddie Holland wrote the lyrics and arranged the vocals.  Thus, “Holland-Dozier-Holland” was the credit line that often appeared on many of the Gordy and other record labels coming out of Motown in that period.

Cover of a 2009 U.K. remastered CD with  'Come & Get These Memories' & 'Heat Wave,' plus four bonus tracks. Universal/Island.
Cover of a 2009 U.K. remastered CD with 'Come & Get These Memories' & 'Heat Wave,' plus four bonus tracks. Universal/Island.
     “Heat Wave” was the second hit collaboration between the Vandellas and the H-D-H team.  “Come and Get These Memories” had been Martha & the Vandellas’ first hit, released earlier in February 1963.  “Memories” rose to No. 29 on the Billboard singles chart, and No. 6 Billboard R&B chart.  But it was “Heat Wave’s” success that helped propel the “Vandellas-HDH-Motown” sound to new heights.  The song also garnered the group’s only Grammy Award nomination – Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group for 1964.  “Heat Wave” was followed shortly by another song in the same vein, as HDH turned out “Quicksand,” released in October 1963.  “Quick- sand,” like “Heat Wave,” was another very “danceable” tune.  In its lyrics, the lover this time was bringing his lady “closer and closer” – into a love that was like “quicksand,” causing her to fall “deeper and deeper in love” with him.  This tune rose quickly on the charts, reaching No. 8.  It was the third hit for the Vandellas and the HDH team.

Getting Their Start
Young Artists Rising

 

1960s photo of Martha & The Vandellas – from left: Annette Beard, Martha Reeves, and Rosalind Ashford at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
1960s photo of Martha & The Vandellas – from left: Annette Beard, Martha Reeves, and Rosalind Ashford at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
     Martha Reeves, Annette Beard, and Rosalind Ashford formed a singing group in high school called the Del-Phis.  They recorded one single with the Check-Mate records, a subsidiary of Chess Records.  Martha Reeves had also sung on her own under another name.  However, in 1961, Reeves took a secretarial job at Motown working for recording producer Mickey Stevenson.  On one occasion in July 1962, Motown’s head, Berry Gordy, was in need of some back-up singers for a recording session, and Reeves and her friends were called in to sing behind Marvin Gaye on two songs – “Hitch Hike” and “Stubborn Kind of Fellow.”  Now under contract with Gordy and Motown, the three young singers soon recorded their first song, “I’ll Have To Let Him Go.”  By then they adopted their new group name, Martha and the Vandellas – “Vandellas” being a word combi- nation made from Detroit’s Van Dyke Street and Martha Reeves’ favorite singer, Della Reese.  By February 1962 they released “Come and Get These Memories,” their first song to chart, and with that, they were one their way.

 

European record sleeve for 1964's ‘Dancing in the Street’ single.
European record sleeve for 1964's ‘Dancing in the Street’ single.
 

“Dancing in the Street”

     In July 1964, came perhaps the crowning gem of Martha & The Vandellas’ career – “Dancing in the Street” – another signature Motown tune and one of the Vandellas’ most famous songs from that era.  This song was produced by William “Mickey” Stevenson and written by Stevenson and soon-to-become Motown star in his own right, Marvin Gaye.  Originally written with another singer in mind, Kim Weston, Martha and the Vandellas did the song after Weston passed on it.  After Martha Reeves first heard the demo, she asked if she could arrange her own vocals to fit the song’s message.  Gaye and Stevenson agreed.  They also included a new Motown songwriter, Ivy Jo Hunter, who helped with instrumentation and musical composition.  The song was then recorded in two takes.

Martha & the Vandellas performing, 1960s.
Martha & the Vandellas performing, 1960s.

     “Dancing in the Street” peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard chart in September 1964 and would remain in the Top 40 for 11 weeks.  It was released as the first single from the group’s third album, Dance Party.  “Dancing’s” lyrics offer a good time “in the streets” in practically whatever city the listener could imagine.  The song’s lyrics, in part, go as follows:

Calling out around the world,
“Are you ready for a brand new beat?”
Summer’s here and the time is right
For dancing in the street
They’re dancing in Chicago
Down in New Orleans
In New York City…

All we need is music, sweet music
There’ll be music everywhere…

Music Player
“Dancing in the Street”-1964

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.

     “Dancing in the Street” was released in late July 1964 and played through that summer at the height of the civil rights movement in the U.S.  Some interpreted the song as a call to “demonstrate in the streets,” others as an anthem for social change.  However, Martha Reeves would remark at one point that it was nothing more than “a party song.”  And according to co-writer William “Mickey” Stevenson, the song was inspired by the sight of a group of multi-racial kids playing in the spray from a fire hydrant on hot summer evening in Detroit in the summer of 1964:  “All the hatred and prejudice in the world, and these kids had no concept of it,” Stevenson would say.  And notably, Berry Gordy had fashioned his Motown music business for commercial success with the idea of his stars “crossing over” to appeal to larger white audiences all across the country.  So “Dancing in the Street” was not designed as music to incite street riots.

Martha & the Vandellas ‘Dance Party” album of 1965 included ‘Dancing in the Street’ and other of their popular songs, and is regarded by some as one of their best compilations.
Martha & the Vandellas ‘Dance Party” album of 1965 included ‘Dancing in the Street’ and other of their popular songs, and is regarded by some as one of their best compilations.
     Still, after black activists such as H. Rap Brown began playing the song while organizing demonstrations, some radio stations began taking the song off play lists.  That the music had a certain energy and conveyance for many people, there is no question.  Motown recording artist Marvin Gaye would later observe that of all the Motown acts he’d recalled from the 1960s, he thought “Martha & The Vandellas came closest to nearly saying something [political].”  Gaye continued:  “It wasn’t a nearly conscious thing, but when they sang ‘Quicksand’ or ‘Wild One’ or ‘Nowhere To Run’ or ‘Dancing In the Street’, they captured a spirit that felt political to me. I like that.”  Still, for many, it was just good music.

     It does appear, however, that by 1967 something of a turning point had occurred, as Martha and the Vandellas and other Motown artists toured the country during a time of racial strife and urban unrest.  “Dancing in the Street” and other Motown songs became more politically freighted than they had been, whether intended or not.“Dancing in the Street” and other Motown songs became more politically freighted than they had been, whether intended or not.  In fact, politics and pop music from that time on became more intertwined at Motown and elsewhere.  At least some of the music at Motown and other labels – as well as the artists themselves at those labels – began addressing civil rights and other national issues more directly than had occurred previously.

     In more recent years, books such as Dancing in the Streets: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit (2000, Harvard University Press) by Suzanne Smith, and Ready For a Brand New Beat: How “Dancing in the Street” Became the Anthem for a Changing America (2013, Riverhead) by Mark Kurlansky, have probed the historical and cultural impact of Motown’s music and business on both Detroit and the broader civil rights movement.  In addition, recent magazine articles, including Rollo Romig’s New Yorker piece of July 2013, “‘Dancing in the Street’: Detroit’s Radical Anthem,” and another that same month at Slate.com, adapting a piece from Kurlansky’s book, are also worth exploring.

     “Dancing in the Street,” in any case, was a huge hit in the mid-1960s, and remains a classic of the period.  Tom Moon, writing in his book, 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, labels it the “Quintessential Summer Single.”  In November 2005, the song was ranked No. 40 by Rolling Stone’s list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”  And in April 2006, Library of Congress announced that Martha and the Vandellas’ version of “Dancing in the Street” would be preserved by the National Recording Registry.

Record sleeve for Martha and the Vandellas’ single ‘Nowhere to Run’ issued in Holland.
Record sleeve for Martha and the Vandellas’ single ‘Nowhere to Run’ issued in Holland.

 

“Nowhere to Run”

     “Nowhere to Run,” another of the Vandellas’ HDH-Gordy-Motown hits, was released in February 1965.  This song tells the story of a woman trapped in a bad relationship with a man she cannot help but love.  Musically, the sound is quite similar to “Dancing In The Street.”  The song also appeared on the album Dance Party.  “Nowhere to Run” hit No. 8 the Billboard singles chart, and No. 5 the Billboard R&B chart.  It also charted in the U.K., peaking at No. 26.  Over the years, “Nowhere to Run” has been played at football contests and other sporting events, sometimes to taunt oppossing teams, or otherwise to energize crowds.

     Other songs for Martha and the Vandellas followed “Nowhere to Run,” as seen on the list of hits below.  Two of these were Top Ten finishers – “I’m Ready for Love” in 1966 and “Jimmy Mack” in 1967.  But after 1967, it proved tougher going for the group. 

Martha & The
Vandellas
1960s Hot Hits

 

Come and Get These Memories
1963- No. 29; 6 R&B
Heat Wave
1963- No.4; 1 R&B
Quicksand
1964 – No. 8
Dancing In The Street
1964 – No. 2
Wild One
1965 – No. 34
Nowhere To Run
1965 – No.8
I’m Ready For Love
1966 – No. 9
Jimmy Mack
1967 – No. 10; 1 R&B

     By 1971, when the Motown organization moved west to Los Angles, Martha and the Vandellas parted company with the record label, going out on their own for a time.  Things were never quite the same thereafter.  Reeves, in fact, was stunned to learn of Motown’s move to Los Angeles and she fought a legal battle with the label to be released from her contract.  In the 1970s, Reeves had a bout with prescription drug problems, but emerged in the late 1970s drug free.

     As female artists at Motown, Martha & the Vandellas were second only to Diana Ross and the Supremes, with whom they competed for resources and attention.  One story has it that Berry Gordy favored the Supremes, and allocated resources accordingly.  Once the Supremes had demonstrated their crossover appeal with a couple of No. 1 pop hits, Gordy decided they would be the more lucrative group, and he reportedly sent the best material to the Supremes and helped them in other ways.  Martha Reeves would later write that Gordy held back the song “Jimmy Mack” for two years because it sounded too much like a Supremes song.  Reeves and two other Vandellas –  Beard and Ashford – would sue Motown for back royalties in the 1980s.  Beard and Ashford in fact, claimed at one point they had received no royalties from Motown dating to the 1960s.  There was a settlement in some of the litigation, and at least one lump sum payment to Beard and Ashford.  But as of 2004 or so, disputes were still ongoing in some of the cases.  Reeves appeared to have had separate litigation dating to 1983, and won a lawsuit for some back royalties, an award which also specified royalties for current and future reissues of past work.

 

Top Motown Group

Through The Years

     During their years of performing, Martha and the Vandellas’ personnel changed a few times.  Betty Kelly replaced the departing Annette Beard in 1964, and after Kelly left in1967, Lois Reeves came on.  Sandra Tilley was added to the group in 1969 after Rosalind Ashford left.  Martha Reeves remained throughout the group’s 1963-1972 run.  The group broke up in 1973 after a final farewell performance in December 1972 at Detroit’s Cobo Hall.  Reeves tried a solo career briefly in the mid-1970s, but the magic of the 1960s did not return.  Throughout the 1980s and 1990s there were occasional reunions and perfor- mances, variously constituted, and also a recording here and there.  In 1994, Reeves published an autobiography, Dancing in the Street: Confessions of a Pop Diva, with Hyperion and writer Mark Bego.  By 2005, Reeves ran for and won a seat on Detroit’s city council, which she held until an election loss in August 2009.  Thereafter she returned to performing with her sisters as “Martha Reeves and the Vandellas.”  This group had a sold out tour in the UK in 2009.

     In their heyday, Martha and the Vandellas proved to be one of Motown’s top acts, and their popularity led to spots on popular TV shows of that era, including The Ed Sullivan Show, The Mike Douglas Show, American Bandstand, and Shindig! 

     During their nine-year run on the charts, from 1963 to 1972, Martha and the Vandellas had over 26 hits.  Twelve of these charted within the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100; six within the Top Ten including: “Dancing in the Street,” “Heat Wave,” “Nowhere to Run” and “Jimmy Mack.”  Two of their songs – “Heat Wave” and “Jimmy Mack” – were also No. 1 R& B hits, while eight others finished in the R&B Top Ten.

     In 1995 the trio was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  “Heat Wave” and “Dancing in the Street” were included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.  In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked Martha and the Vandellas at No. 96 on their list of the 100 greatest artists of all time.  The group has also received various other awards and recognition, including  induction into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame.

     See also at this website, “1960s Girl Groups,” a more detailed account of the “girl group” music genre, including many of the groups involved during the 1958-1967 period, as well as some of the producers and songwriters involved.  For additional music stories, see also the Annals of Music category page at this website.  Thanks for visiting – and please consider supporting this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle

______________________

Please Support
this Website

Donate Now

Beowulf psp

Thank You

Date Posted:   7 November 2009
Last Update:   25 August 2013
Comments to:   jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Motown’s Heat Wave, 1963-1967,”
PopHistoryDig.com, November 7, 2009.

_____________________________

 

 

 

 

Sources, Links & Additional Information

Martha Reeves’ biography with Mark Bego – ‘Dancing in the Street: Confessions of a Motown Diva’ – was issued in August 1994 by Hyperion Books.
Martha Reeves’ biography with Mark Bego – ‘Dancing in the Street: Confessions of a Motown Diva’ – was issued in August 1994 by Hyperion Books.
Martha & the Vandellas – Dutch record sleeve for single, “Heat Wave.”
Martha & the Vandellas – Dutch record sleeve for single, “Heat Wave.”
Martha & the Vandellas – Dutch record sleeve for single, “Quicksand.”
Martha & the Vandellas – Dutch record sleeve for single, “Quicksand.”

“Martha and the Vandellas / Martha Reeves,” in Holly George-Warren and Patricia Romanowski (eds), The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press, New York, 3rd Edition, 2001, pp. 613-614.

Richard H. Lingeman, “The Big, Happy, Beating Heart Of the Detroit Sound,” The New York Times Magazine, Sunday, November 27, 1966, p. 25.

Andrew Briggs, “Martha, Vandellas in Town”[at Whisky-a-GoGo, W. Hollywood], Los Angeles Times, May 6, 1967, p. B-7.

Loraine Alterman, “Meet the Graduates of the Motown Sound; Recordings,” New York Times, Sunday, July 28, 1974.

“New Image Shown By Martha Reeves At the Bottom Line,” New York Times, Sunday, September 15, 1974.

“Miss Reeves, Solo, at Reno Sweeney’s,” New York Times, Thursday, December 18, 1975, p. 63.

Richard Skelly, “Martha Reeves and the Vandellas: The Motown Years,”Goldmine, March 3, 1995, pp. 34-50.

Emily Gaul, “The Recordings of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas,” Goldmine, March 3, 1995, pp. 64-68.

Gerri Hirshey Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music, New York: Times Books, 1984.

Martha Reeves and Mark Bego, Dancing in the Streets: Confessions of a Pop Diva, New York: Hyperion Books, 1994.

Martha and the Vandellas,” Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum, Induction, 1995.

Dancing in the Street,” Wikipedia.org.

Martha and the Vandellas,” Wikipedia.org.

Martha Reeves,” Wikipedia.org.

Dave Marsh, “No. 50, ‘Heat Wave,’ Martha and the Vandellas,”The Heart of Rock and Soul – The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, 1989.

Jeff B. (ed), Martha & The Vandellas,” Digital DreamDoor.com.

“Motown Artists Continue to Lose Royalties: Martha and the Vandellas Cannot Void Contract,” BlackWebPortal.com, by EURWeb, March 5, 2004.

Martha and the Vandellas Record Sleeves, Dutch Motown Artone Collection, 7InchRecords.com, site accessed, November 2009.

Also at the PopHistoryDig.com, see other Motown-related and 1960s music stories, including: “Do You Love Me,” on The Contours; “Fingertips, Pt.2,” on Stevie Wonder; “Hello Stranger,” on Barbara Lewis; and “Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” on the Righteous Brothers.

Rollo Romig, “‘Dancing in the Street’: Detroit’s Radical Anthem,” The New Yorker, July 22, 2013.

Mark Kurlansky, “How Martha and the Vandellas Started ‘Dancing in the Street;’ The Backstory of a Motown Song That Defined a Generation,” Slate.com, July 17, 2013.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Fingertips – Pt.2″
1963

1960s record sleeve for 'Little Stevie Wonder.'
1960s record sleeve for 'Little Stevie Wonder.'
     The clear, calling harmonica was the sound that first got your attention; it was coming from a new piece of music being played on the radio in late summer 1963. That was the summer of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech; the summer preceding John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The harmonica in the air those days was from a song that had an unusual name: “Fingertips,” or more precisely, “Fingertips, Part 2.” It was like nothing else at the time; part of a distinctive mix of music and vocals, a song recorded live with an unusual arrangement. And it was performed by a 12 year-old blind boy. “Little Stevie Wonder” they called him; a Detroit kid who had a sixth sense about him; a kid who could, it was said, discern a coin’s identity by the sound it made when dropped on a kitchen table.

     Stevie Wonder was born Steveland Judkins in May 1950 in Saginaw, Michigan, later known as Steveland Morris after his mother’s married name. Placed in an incubator immediately after birth, baby Steveland was given too much oxygen, leading to permanent blindness in childhood.

Early 1962 album with Motown.
Early 1962 album with Motown.
     Growing up as a blind child, young Stevie developed an affinity for musical instruments, playing the harmonica at five, taking piano lessons at six, and playing drums at eight. After his family moved to Detroit, he began singing and playing instruments in church, including the piano, harmonica, and bongo drums. With a transistor radio to his ear, he also listened to Ray Charles and Sam Cook. In 1961, at the age of 11, the young boy and his mother were introduced to Brian Holland and Berry Gordy of Motown records through Ronnie White of the singing group The Miracles. After an audition, Motown signed the boy to a contract, giving him the stage name Little Stevie Wonder.

Stevie & harmonica.
Stevie & harmonica.
     His first recordings in 1962 attempted to link him to jazz and Ray Charles. They included two albums, one, A Tribute to Uncle Ray, featuring Stevie’s versions of tunes by his hero, Ray Charles. A second album, The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie, spotlighted his various instrumental skills. Neither of the albums amounted to much. But then came “Fingertips.” Originally written by Clarence Paul and Henry Cosby, the song was recorded for the studio album The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie Wonder. “Fingertips” was basically a long instrumental piece, showcasing Wonder’s talents on the harmonica. However, a live version of the song — recorded during a “Motown revue” at the Regal Theater in Chicago — was the version that would become the hit. Motown initially grouped it with others songs as part of another Little Stevie album — Recorded Live! The 12 Year Old Genius.

First #1 album with Motown-Tamala, 1963.
First #1 album with Motown-Tamala, 1963.

 

DJ’s Liked Pt. 2

     Radio DJs for some reason began playing the 7-minute version of “Fingertips” on the album, which was quite unusual since songs of more than 3 minutes were rarely played on the radio. The DJs especially liked the second part of “Fingertips,” labeled “Fingertips Pt. 2,” which seemed to capture the frantic energy of a live concert. Seeing how the DJs were reacting to the song, Berry Gordy decided to issue it as a 45 rpm single, with “Fingertips Pt 1″ on one side, and “Fingertips Pt 2″ on the other side. By early August 1963, “Fingertips” became Motown’s second #1 hit. The Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman” had been Motown’s first #1 record, topping the charts in late 1961. “Fingertips Pt 2″, in fact, became the first live, non-studio recording to reach #1 on the Billboard pop singles chart.  The live song, with full instrumentation behind it, also had some “call-and-response” sections, complete with audience participation, as in the excerpt below:

45 rpm with two sides of 'Fingertips' - Pt.1 & Pt.2.
45 rpm with two sides of 'Fingertips' - Pt.1 & Pt.2.

Stevie: Evvybody say yeah,…
Audience: Yeah…
Stevie: Everbody say yeah, yeah, yeah …
Audience: Yeah, Yeah, Yeah…
Stevie: Clap yo’ hands just a little bit louder…
Audience: [Clapping rhythmically]….

     But the harmonica solos in the live version were full of energy and the novel arrangement caught the attention and enthusiasm of DJs and listeners.  “Fingertips” held the #1 spot on the pop charts for three weeks.  The song also reached #1 on the R&B singles chart and the album made history as well.  Little Stevie Wonder became the first artist to have a #1 album and #1 single simultaneously.  He also holds the record for the youngest artist (age 13) to have an album go to #1 on the charts, eventually selling over a million copies.

Cover of 'Early Classics' CD, year 2000.
Cover of 'Early Classics' CD, year 2000.

 

Path to Stardom

     “Fingertips Pt. 2.” put Stevie Wonder on a musical career path that would take him to stardom and a prolific 40-plus years of making and writing music.  But not right away.  After the novelty of “Fingertips” wore off, a follow-up hit did not come for Stevie.  Although he managed to chart a few more singles over the next year, none had the success of “Fingertips.”  His voice also changed, and his recording career was temporarily put on hold.  He then studied classical piano at the Michigan School for the Blind.  On his return in 1964, he dropped “Little” from his stage name and in 1965 had a successful Motown dance tune, “Uptight, Everything’s Alright,” which he co-wrote.  That song hit #1 on R&B chart and # 5 on the pop chart.  Stevie Wonder was on his way.  Through the1960s and 1970s other hits came, among them: “Nothing’s Too Good for My Baby,” Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”, and Ron Miller’s “A Place in the Sun”– all in 1966. He also wrote music for others, including The Miracles’ #1 hit of 1967, “Tears of a Clown,” co-authored with his producer, Hank Crosby.  But there were other Stevie Wonder hits too, including: “I Was Made to Love Her”(1967), “For Once in My Life”(1968), “My Cherie Amour”(1969), and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours”(1970), a song from the first album he produced.

     Up to this point, Wonder was still a minor under the law and Motown managed his career, controlling his publishing and recording sessions and keeping his money in a trust fund. By 1971, however, that changed when Stevie turned 21, taking control of $1 million then in his trust fund (some say he had earned $30 million for Motown by that time). He also began negotiating a new contract with Motown. The 21-page contract he negotiated set precedent there, and gave Wonder complete creative control over his music as well as a higher royalty rate, with Motown still distributing his product.

 

Ten Grammys in 2 Years

      In 1972, he gained a broader national audience by opening for the Rolling Stones on their major U.S. tour that year, where he unveiled the soon-to-be #1 hit “Superstition.” Albums in 1972 and 1973 followed. Then he won five Grammy awards in 1974, and five more the following year. He was now an established rock star and had become a multi-millionaire. His 1976 contract with Motown for $13 million over seven years was then the largest in recording history.His 1976 contract with Motown for $13 million over seven years was the largest in recording history at that time. By then, he had 20 hit singles to his credit and eleven best-selling albums. Yet three more decades of music-making still lay ahead, with more hits and more renown, including some unique collaborations, such as 1982′s “Ebony And Ivory” with Paul McCartney, which remained #1 for seven weeks. In 1986, The New York Times – noting his wide ranging skills in several genres, from funk to ballads, bossa nova to quasi-showtunes – called him “a one-man Tin Pan Alley.” In the 1980s and 1990s he also found time to become engaged in children’s and civil-rights causes, and led the campaign to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday. His music has also paid tribute to figures like King and jazz great Duke Ellington.


Stevie Wonder Hits
Selected Top 20 Singles

1963   “Fingertips – Pt. 2″
1965   “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)”
1966   “Nothing’s Too Good for My Baby”
1966   “Blowin’ in the Wind”
1966   “A Place in the Sun”
1967   “I Was Made to Love Her”
1968   “For Once in My Life”
1969   “My Cherie Amour”
1969   “Yester-Me, Yester-You…”
1970   “Signed, Sealed, Delivered…”
1970   “Heaven Help Us All”
1971   “We Can Work It Out”
1971   “If You Really Love Me”
1972   “Superstition”
1973   “You Are the Sunshine…”
1973   “Higher Ground”
1973   “Living for the City”
1974   “Don’t You Worry ’bout a Thing”
1974   “You Haven’t Done Nothin’”
1974   “Boogie On Reggae Woman”
1976   “I Wish”
1977   “Sir Duke”
1980   “Master Blaster (Jammin’)”
1980   “I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It”
1982   “That Girl”
1982   “Ebony and Ivory”*
1982   “Do I Do”
1984   “I Just Called to Say I Love You”
1984   “Love Light in Flight”
1985   “Part-Time Lover”
1985   “That’s What Friends Are For”*
1985   “Go Home”
1987   “Skeletons”
_________________________________
           *collaborations
 


Collaborator & Innovator 

    Known as a musician who has influenced the work of many other artists, Stevie Wonder has also collaborated with a number of his musical colleagues, including Prince, Michael Jackson, Dionne Warwick, Elton John, Julio Iglesias, the Eurythmics, Babyface, Angie Wood and others.  He provides the harmonica on Elton John’s “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues.”  He has also written over 100 songs for fellow artists.  Wonder’s writing and performing over the years has been distinguished for its novel and complicated musical style and its jazz influences.  American Idol contestants who attempt to cover his songs, for example, find them difficult to perform, as they use unusual chords, make abrupt, unpredictable changes, and often require that a syllable be sung over several notes.  His selection of musical key – sometimes using the black notes on the piano or keyboard, for example – is more often found in jazz than in pop, but he has used it to great success.  He has also been a musical innovator, playing an important role in bringing synthesizers and electronic keyboards to pop music.

CD cover, 2002 edition, Stevie Wonder 'The Definitive Collection,' by Motown.
CD cover, 2002 edition, Stevie Wonder 'The Definitive Collection,' by Motown.

  

    

 





 
Songwriter, Producer

     Today, Stevie Wonder is among the giants in the music industry; an accomplished singer, songwriter, musician, and record producer.  In the U.S., he has had at least nine #1 hits and more than 30 top ten hits.  In August 2007, he under-took his first U.S. concert tour in over a decade, performing in a dozen U.S. cities and Toronto, Canada.  During his career, his album and single sales have exceeded the 100 million mark and he has received numerous awards and honors.  He is the recipient of 25 Grammy Awards — a record for a solo artist — and has also received a Grammy lifetime achievement award.  In 1984, he won an Oscar for Best Song — “I Just Called to Say I Love You” – from the film, The Woman in Red.  In 1989 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and in 1999, received Kennedy Center Honors.  He is also a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame.  No less a musical authority than the former opera star Luciano Pavarotti once called him a “great, great musical genius.”

     Stevie Wonder has come a long way since the early 1960s and the days of “Fingertips, Pt. 2.”  Yet the innocence of that early sound, and his “Fingertips” harmonica, still send a good and clear calling, just as it did way back then.

     For other stories at this website on the history of popular music and profiles of songs and artists, please see the “Annals of Music” category page.  Thanks for visiting.  – Jack Doyle

Please Support
this Website

Donate Now

Thank You


__________________________

Date Posted:  21 April 2008
Last Update:  30 November 2012
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Fingertips, Pt.2, 1963,”
PopHistoryDig.com, April 21, 2008.

_____________________________



Sources, Links & Additional Information

CD cover for a Billboard “Top Hits of 1963” collection, which includes “Figertips-Pt.2.”
CD cover for a Billboard “Top Hits of 1963” collection, which includes “Figertips-Pt.2.”
John S. Wilson, “Big Stevie Wonder Serves Soul at Philharmonic Hall,” New York Times, Saturday, September 27, 1969, p. 24.

“Black, Blind and on Top of Pop,” Time, Monday, April 8, 1974.

Jon Pareles, “Concert: Stevie Wonder,” New York Times, September 28, 1986.

John Rockwell, “Stevie Wonder,” in Anthony De Curtis and James Henke (eds), The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, Random House, New York, 1992, pp.293-298.

“Stevie Wonder,” in Holly George-Warren and Patricia Romanowski (eds), The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press, New York, 3rd Edition, 2001, pp. 1079-1081.

Steve Huey, “Stevie Wonder, Biography,”All Music Guide.

“Biography of Stevie Wonder,” About the Artist, The Kennedy Center, Washington D.C.

Ed Hogan, “Fingertips – Pt 2,” Song Review, All Music Guide.

Stevie Wonder,”Wikipedia.org.

Stevie Wonder Profile at U.K. web site, Soulwalking.

“Stevie Wonder Biography”at Biography.com.

“Stevie Wonder Biography”at Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Stevie Wonder website, StevieWonder.net.

Stevie Wonder U.K. site, StevieWonder.org.



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