Maybe you’ve been listening to the radio since you got one for your fourteenth birthday in 1958. Or perhaps you discovered the “oldies” in the spring of 1992 when you were 19 and searching the AM band for something decent to listen to. Either way, it’s more than likely that one of the first dozen voices you heard belonged to Dion DiMucci. Whether as leader of Dion and the Belmonts or on his own, Dion’s music was all over the radio during the golden era. And into the new millennium, Dion is a staple and can be heard anywhere oldies are played. But maybe more than this, Dion is by far one of the coolest artists of the time.
Dion was born in 1939 in the Bronx. He acquired a taste for music early, accompanying his father on vaudeville gigs. Dion’s tutelage included the country music of Hank Williams and the blues he heard in local bars. There is a popular image in American culture, that of a group of boys huddled under a streetlight harmonizing in the dark of night. Dion and his Italian buddies could easily be considered the prototype of this image as he and his cronies sang all over their neighbourhood, under streetlights and in other places.
In 1957, Dion scored an audition with a minor record label who brought in a trio to back him. The record was a local hit but Dion couldn’t stand the boys singing with him; “The vocal group was so white bread, I went back to my neighborhood and I recruited a bunch of guys”. Who he recruited was an already established vocal group called The Belmonts, named after their Belmont neighbourhood, “The Little Italy of the Bronx”. They consisted of Angelo D’Aleo (born 1940), Carlo Mastrangelo (1937-2016) and Fred Milano (1939-2012). With Dion, they went with the name Dion and the Belmonts.
The nascent group signed with a relatively new record label named Laurie Records, a label that would find some success eventually becoming home to the likes of The Chiffons, The Jarmels, Lou Monte and the Royal Guardsmen. The boys scored with their initial release on Laurie, “I Wonder Why”. Containing a perfect doo-wop sound, “I Wonder Why” hit #22 on the US Pop charts in the spring of 1958. Perhaps less memorable but a bigger hit was their next single, “No One Knows”. In March of ’59, Dion and the boys scored one of their biggest hits with a bona fide classic of the oldies era “A Teenager in Love”, a tune that peaked at #5. They would go two spots better at the end of the year with a cover of the standard “Where or When”. Dion and the Belmonts released 8 singles on Laurie in a 2-year period and all but one of them reached the Top 40. It then became apparent that something was very wrong.
The three Belmonts wanted to continue in the same vein, recording vocal versions of standards like “Where or When”. Dion began to pull in another direction, wanting to sing more guitar-based rock & roll. Additionally, DiMucci had a heroin addiction, one that had plagued him since his teens. He was in hospital detoxifying when “Where or When” peaked on the charts. Dion left the Belmonts behind and began his solo career in October of 1960, staying with Laurie. That same month, he released his first solo single, “Lonely Teenager”, that reached #12. After a couple of misfires, Dion put his enduring stamp on the music of this era.
Ernie Maresca was a songwriter and a record company executive who would pen hits for Dion before having one of his own with “Shout! Shout! (Knock Yourself Out)” (Pop #6, R&B #25). Dion had started writing a song informally at a party and he took what he had to Ernie. The two finished it and called it “Runaround Sue”. It became a monster hit, an emblem of the era and one of Dion’s signature songs. The tune topped the pop charts in the US and also in Canada and New Zealand. Few songs can conjure up the era we love to talk about here at Your Home for Vintage Leisure more than Dion’s “Runaround Sue”.
As if that wasn’t enough, his very next single is almost as revered today. “The Wanderer” (also by Ernie Maresca) has become an anthem; an anthem for the early 1960’s, for Italian-Americans of a certain age and an anthem for lovers of the oldies. The song hit #2 in the US and #10 in the UK. It has been suggested that, for all its cool posturing, “The Wanderer” is essentially a sad song. Some say it’s a song about a man without a home, without satisfaction in life, one who is “going nowhere”. The song had initially been the B side of another Dion hit, “The Majestic” (#36).
1962 brought Dion more Top Ten songs and an eventual label change. The excellent “Lovers Who Wander” got the year off to a good start reaching #3 for Laurie but by year’s end, Dion had made the move to the big leagues signing with Columbia who issued Dion’s excellent cover of the Drifters‘ “Ruby Baby” (#2). In 1963, Dion suffered a bit of a lull although he was releasing new material on Columbia and Laurie was dumping out old masters, resulting in a glut of Dion on the radio. The late summer and fall saw a resurgence in Dion’s chart activity when both “Donna the Prima Donna” and “Drip Drop” – another excellent cover of a Drifters song written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller – hit the Top Ten. All of these songs bear the unique Dion stamp. He epitomized cool in this era and his strutting performances were loaded with masculinity.
While Dion can be described as a unique artist, here is where his story echoes that of many other artists of this time. With the onset of the British Invasion of 1964, DiMucci’s fortunes declined. He toured Europe where he was well received and when he returned he immersed himself in the sound of the blues; something that his record label bristled at. This was after all a time when artists where expected to sing a certain style, a style they were popular for and were discouraged from following their muse wherever it took them. Additionally – like Bobby Darin – Dion explored the burgeoning folk sound recording songs written by then-emerging Bob Dylan. Neither approach was supported by Columbia and Dion’s career seemed to be over. 1967, though, featured one highlight. Along with Dylan, Dion DiMucci was the only rock artist featured on the iconic cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. Certainly a stamp of approval of sorts.
In April, 1968, Dion DiMucci had an experience that made chart success, fame and fortune seem insignificant. He had what he referred to as a religious experience. He began to consider his Creator and he took fresh stock of his life, finally divesting himself of his addiction to heroin. Part of his change included approaching Laurie Records and brokering a return. His first single back with the label that gave him his start put him back on the map. “Abraham, Martin and John” was a gentle folk song that had been written in response to the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The song was released mere weeks after the Kennedy slaying and it resonated with grief-stricken audiences. It was a worldwide hit and returned Dion to the public’s consciousness. Interestingly, another single from the same album, Dion, was released. Dion’s vastly different cover of the recent Jimi Hendrix song “Purple Haze” reached #63.
Throughout the 1970’s, Dion and the Belmonts reunited for shows at Madison Square Garden and DiMucci continued releasing albums that were well received by critics and by his peers but that failed to make any dents in the charts. In particular at this time was the 1975 album Born to Be With You that was produced by Phil Spector. Spector was dealing with his own addictions at the time and the recording process was “chaotic” and the record was unsuccessful. Later reevaluations of Dion’s music, though, have elevated the album to enjoy some acclaim.
At the dawn of the 1980’s, Dion began expressing his Christian faith in music and began releasing Contemporary Christian Music albums. Signing with gospel music giant Word Records, Dion would have success releasing six albums over the course of seven years, one of which – I Put Away My Idols (1983) – charted on the pop charts, won DiMucci a Dove Award and earned a Grammy nom. The end of the 1980’s saw Dion DiMucci enter the period that many artists of his vintage enter. He was no longer judged by how many singles he put on the pop charts and was allowed to make the records he wanted while at the same time celebrating his past with concerts and special appearances. Artists of the day began to praise Dion for his contribution and countless singers cited him as an influence. Dion had survived to enjoy his “victory lap”.
DiMucci marked this second phase by releasing albums of quality starting with his “comeback”, 1989’s Yo Frankie that featured guests like Lou Reed, Dave Edmunds, Bryan Adams, k.d. lang, Paul Simon, Jim Horn and Chuck Leavell. Later came an album near and dear to my heart. Déjà Nu (2000) is a nostalgic-sounding record that features the wonderful song “Shu-Bop (The Lost Track)” that you will hear often on Ron Norwood’s wonderful internet radio station The Doo-Wop Express. In fact, it was my article on “Shu-Bop” (read it here) that got me my gig writing the blog for Norwood Media. Additionally, the article at my site is one of my most-read as it seems that all of the information available on this track – seemingly loved by many – is available only at Your Home for Vintage Leisure.
After this, Dion released a clutch of blues albums that are adored by the critics and feature guest appearances. Many artists from today and yesterday are eager to pay him homage and cherish the opportunity to play with him on record and so share in his current musical vision. These recent records have been nominated for Grammy awards and have charted high on blues charts. His 2020 release, Blues With Friends, features contributions from Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon and others and topped Billboard‘s Blues Albums chart.
Now it’s time to take a look at Dion’s golden era releases and his chart success during that time. In this case, let’s include his records made with the Belmonts. Between “I Wonder Why” recorded with the Belmonts in 1958 and his solo hit “Drip Drop” released in late 1963, at the end of the time we talk about here, DiMucci appeared on 28 chart singles, sending 20 of them into the Top 40. Ten of them reached the Top Ten and the timeless “Runaround Sue” topped them all in the fall of 1961.
It bears repeating that Dion is a singular artist. He is the very epitome of the Italian doo-wop vocalist who was fetched up in the Bronx singing on street corners with his friends. His golden era releases are as close to perfect as you can get in the oldies idiom and his ability to survive and make quality music into the new millennium places him in elite company. He is to be commended for having followed his muse into the realm of folk/rock and later into singer-songwriter territory even when he must’ve known it would be a hard sell for an artist that people still thought of as “The Wanderer”. And for that intangible element of cool, Dion DiMucci has few peers.
10 from DiMucci
- I Wonder Why
- A Teenager in Love
- Runaround Sue
- The Wanderer
- Lovers Who Wander
- Ruby Baby
- Donna the Prima Donna
- Loving You is Sweeter Than Ever
- Young Virgin Eyes (I’m All Wrapped Up)
- Shu-Bop (The Lost Track)