Singer, guitarist, songwriter
It is notoriously difficult for teen singing idols to maintain popularity as they mature—often they drift into total anonymity or appear only in “oldies” revues. These avenues have never appealed to Dion DiMucci, the Italian heartthrob of rock ‘n’ roll’s formative years. Dion— with and without his group the Belmonts—scored a long string of pop hits in the late 1950s and early 1960s, earning millions before the British Invasion changed the face of the rock world. Once dismissed as a mere pop entertainer, Dion has earned the respect of critics for his musicianship, his honest lyrics, and his ability to sustain an audience well into middle age. Now in his 50s, he is still producing, writing, and singing new material.
In a Los Angeles Times review, Kathy Orloff finds much to praise in Dion’s work. The critic writes: “His style is immediately identifiable and unique, his voice is strong and rich and profoundly pure. The sound is sensitive tangible, full. His songs... show him to be open, vulnerable, and yet somehow steady.” The vulnerability in Dion’s music stems from his years of struggle with drug addiction and his subsequent satisfaction at having kicked a heroin habit. The star who has always called himself “the Wanderer” told People magazine that in his teen-star years he was “Mr. Macho, yeah, but… lost in a way…. Now [I’m] home.”
Dion was born and raised in the Bronx, son of an itinerant puppeteer who was often unemployed. People reporter Steve Dougherty notes that the singer’s father “was a disaster. He taught Dion to shop-lift and filled him with a lifelong sense of fear and insecurity.” Dion grew up on the Bronx’s mean streets, running with a gang and shooting heroin from his early teens. He hardly seemed a candidate for show business stardom, but he had two valuable assets that he learned to use: a beautiful singing voice and a cool, macho image that somehow suited rock ’n’ roll music.
“The day I heard Hank Williams for the first time, my life changed,” Dion told People. “Before that, music was boring…. Rock and roll didn’t exist in my neighborhood before that. Hank was the dawn of creation for me.” Dion was one of the millions of teens who embraced rock ’n’ roll and its black counterpart, rhythm and blues. He began to spend evenings on street corners, singing a capella with several buddies. Dion was the first of the group to find his way into a recording studio, and with a group called the Tamberlanes he cut the single “The Chosen Few.” When that song did well, he brought in his friends to back him up on his second single, “I Wonder Why.” Soon they were traveling together
Full name Dion DiMucci; born July 18, 1939, in Bronx, N.Y.; son of Pasquale DiMucci (a puppeteer); married, wife’s name Susan; children: Tane, August, Lark.
Singer, guitarist, songwriter, 1957—. Formed group Dion and the Tamberlanes, 1957; with Fred Milano, Carlo Mastangelo, and Angelo D’Aleo, formed group Dion and the Belmonts, 1957-60; solo performer, 1960—; record labels include: Laurie Records, Columbia Records, ABC Records, Warner Bros. Records, Word Records, and Arista Records.
Awards: Elected to Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame, January, 1989.
Addresses: Record company—Ansia Records, Inc., 6 W. 57th St., New York, N.Y. 10019.
gather as Dion and the Belmonts—named after Belmont Avenue in the Bronx.
While other groups of the period specialized in flashy dance routines, Dion and the Belmonts preferred to keep their stage show simple, almost a version of their street-corner doo-wopping. The group had a number of Top 40 hits between 1957 and 1960, including “No One Knows,” “Don’t Pity Me,” “A Teenager in Love,” and “A Lover’s Prayer.” Their most fateful appearance was certainly February 2,1959, when they appeared in Clear Lake, Iowa on a program with Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper. At the show’s conclusion, Dion was asked to pitch in thirty-five dollars to charter a plane to the next concert site. He chose to travel in the bus instead, and thus was spared when the plane carrying Holly and Valens crashed in a cornfield.
Dion and the Belmonts parted ways with no animosity in 1960. Dion began a solo career and soon could lay claim to a number of Top 10 hits. After several modest successes he produced the multimillion seller “Runaround Sue” in 1961 and the equally successful “The Wanderer” the following year. Between 1962 and 1964 the singer placed numerous songs on the charts, including “Lovers Who Wander,” “Born To Cry,” “Little Diane,” “Sandy,” and “Come Go with Me.” Then the Beatles and the Rolling Stones arrived in America, and the music of entertainers like Dion began to seem simplistic and old-fashioned.
“A lot of people thought the British thing [the Beatles, Stones, etc.] blew a lot of people away,” Dion said in Where Have They Gone? Rock ’rí Roll Stars. “I don’t remember it that way. It didn’t knock me on the roadside. I remember stopping. It was a very conscious decision. It wasn’t like anything overtook me.” In fact, the singer was simply ready to explore new kinds of music, especially folk and blues. He disappeared from the concert scene and began performing at small halls in the Bronx again, practicing acoustic guitar until he became a master of the instrument. He also began to face the facts about his drug use, finally quitting heroin and alcohol in 1968.
That same year a new Dion emerged on the pop scene. The singer recorded a Dick Holler song, “Abraham, Martin and John,” a folk tribute to three of the nation’s slain leaders. The piece was an enormous success commercially, but more important, it accorded Dion more respect among critics. In the Rolling Stone Record Guide, Dave Marsh suggests that “Abraham, Martin and John” is “perhaps the best, and certainly the best received, protest song of all,” adding that the album from which the single came “revealed enormous artistic growth.” Dion followed this success with a powerful anti-drug song, “Clean up Your Own Back Yard.”
Some critics feel that Dion’s work in the 1970s was hampered by lack of vision on the part of his producers. As Marsh puts it, the singer was “trapped in the company’s pop-rock production mill,” with shoddy backup and lackluster promotion burying his albums. Dion found a new audience in the 1980s and early 1990s, however. A religious experience in 1979 gave him the incentive to apply his brand of soft rock to gospel music. “I used to think God only liked organ music,” he told People, “but religion puts God in a box. From what I read in the Bible, God doesn’t like religion. God talks about having a personal relationship with Him. I feel comfortable with that.”
From his home base in Boca Raton, Florida, Dion continues to write and record soft-rock inspirational music. “There’s a real enjoyment I get out of life today that I never had before,” he told People. Dion is not a regular on the oldies revue circuit by any means. When he performs live, it is more likely to be fresh material from recent albums rather than just another tired rendition of “Runaround Sue.” Still, the singer has not forgotten his roots, the excitement of rock ’n’ roll that made him a music fan in the first place. He concluded in People: “I show rock and rollers how to grow old gracefully. I want to rock till I drop. I love rock and roll music. It keeps you young.”
“Lonely Teenager,” 1960.
“Havin’ Fun,” 1961.
“Kissin’ Game,” 1961.
“Runaround Sue,” 1961.
“The Wanderer,” 1961.
“Lovers Who Wander,” 1962.
“Little Diane,” 1962.
“Love Came to Me,” 1962.
“Ruby Baby,” 1962.
“This Little Girl,” 1963.
“Come Go with Me,” 1963.
“Be Careful of Stones that You Throw,” 1963.
“Donna the Prima Donna,” 1963.
“Drip Drop,” 1963.
“Johnny B. Goode,” 1964.
“Abraham, Martin and John,” 1968.
“Purple Haze,” 1968.
“Both Sides Now,” 1969.
“If We Only Have Love,” 1969.
“Clean up Your Own Back Yard,” 1970.
“New York City Song,” 1974.
“Hey, My Love,” 1976.
“Queen of ’59,” 1976.
“Young Virgin Eyes,” 1977.
LPs; with the Belmonts
Presenting Dion and the Belmonts, Laurie, 1960.
Dion and the Belmonts, Laurie, 1960.
When You Wish Upon a Star, Laurie, 1960.
Together with the Belmonts, ABC, 1967.
Sixteen Greatest of Dion and the Belmonts, Laurie, 1971.
Everything You Always Wanted To Hear by Dion and the Belmonts, Laurie, 1973.
Dion and the Belmonts Reunion, Laurie, 1973.
So Why Didn’t You Do That the First Time? (previously unissued recordings), Ace, 1987.
Dion Alone, Laurie, 1961.
Runaround Sue, Laurie, 1961.
Lovers Who Wander, Laurie, 1962.
Dion Sings His Greatest Hits, Laurie, 1962.
Ruby Baby, Columbia, 1963.
Dion Sings to Sandy, Laurie, 1963.
Dion’s Greatest Hits, Volume 1, Laurie, 1966.
Dion’s Greatest Hits, Volume 2, Laurie, 1966.
15 Million Sellers, Laurie, 1966.
Dion, Laurie, 1968.
I Wonder Where I’m Bound, Laurie, 1968.
Sit Down, Old Friend, Laurie, 1970.
You’re Not Alone, Laurie, 1971.
Sanctuary, Laurie, 1971.
Suite for Late Summer, Laurie, 1972.
Dion’s Greatest Hits, Columbia, 1973.
Ruby Baby, Columbia, 1973.
Streetheart, Warner Bros., 1976.
Return of the Wanderer, Lifesong, 1978.
Kingdom in the Streets, Word, 1985.
Abraham, Martin and John, Ace, 1987.
Alone with Dion, Ace, 1987.
Velvet and Steel, Word, 1987.
Yo Frankie, Arista, 1989.
DiMucci, Dion and Davin Seay, The Wanderer: Dion’s Story, Beech Tree Books, 1988.
Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia, Grosset, 1978.
McColm, Bruce and Doug Payne, Where Have They Gone? Rock ’N’ Roll Stars, Tempo, 1979.
The Rolling Stone Record Guide, Rolling Stone Press, 1979.
Stambler, Irwin, Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul, revised edition, St. Martin’s, 1989.
Los Angeles Times, March 28, 1971.
People, November 21, 1988.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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