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.”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.”
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.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.”
“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.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.
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.”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.
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.
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.”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.
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.
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.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.
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.
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.
“Abraham, Martin & John”
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”
Has anybody here seen my old friend Abraham?
Anybody here seen my old friend John?
Anybody here seen my old friend Martin?
Didn’t you love the things that they stood for?
Anybody here seen my old friend Bobby?
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.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.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.”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.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.
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!”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’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.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
Date Posted: 11 January 2013
Last Update: 11 January 2013
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Jack Doyle, “Dion DiMucci, 1950s-2012,”
PopHistoryDig.com, January 11, 2013.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
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