Born Dion Francis DiMucci, 18 July 1939, The Bronx, New York City
Dion DiMucci defies categorization. He moved from his doowop roots to rock n roll, teen pop, R&B, folk, gospel, rock, blues and back full circle to doowop, staying creative and relevant whatever the decade and whatever style of music he's playing. He remains a charismatic performer, with more talent and staying power than most of his contemporaries.
Dion was born into an Italian-American family in the Bronx. It was in the bars and on the street corners of his neighbourhood that he developed his singing skills. Considering his blood line and home territory, it's intriguing that he grew up loving country music, especially Hank Williams, though he was also influenced by doowop, rock n roll and blues. In September 1957, Dion cut his first record, for the small Mohawk label, backed by a vocal group billed as The Timberlanes. The A-side was "The Chosen Few", an ethereal doowop ballad that passed quietly into obscurity. Around the same time Mohawk released a single by a 3-piece group called The Belmonts (Fred Milano, Carlo Mastangelo, Angelo d'Aleo). Dion and the Belmonts joined forces for a second Mohawk single ("We Went Away"/"Tag Along"), which met with the same minimal response. Undaunted by the record's failure, the group continued to practice and signed with the new Laurie label in March 1958. Their debut single, "I Wonder Why", demonstrated a tight, original doowop sound, unusual for a white group. It quickly rose to # 22 on the Billboard charts. Over the next two years, Dion and the Belmonts scored seven further Top 100 entries on Laurie, including two Top 10 hits, "A Teenager In Love" (# 5, 1959) and "Where Or When" (# 3, 1960). The group was part of the ill-fated Winter Dance Party tour in early 1959. Buddy Holly asked Dion to fly with him to the next show, but Dion did not want to spend $ 36 for the flight. Had he said yes, four legends would have died in that plane crash rather than three.
The role of rock and roll balladeers suited the Belmonts just fine, but Dion wanted to "rock out" more and decided to go solo in August 1960. The first record on his own, "Lonely Teenager" (still on Laurie), peaked at # 12, but the follow-ups were less successful. It seemed that Dion lacked a distinctive style, until he suddenly hit on a new sound with "Runaround Sue". The party-time vocal group chant and instrumental arrangement were shamelessly copied off "Quarter To Three" (the U.S. Bonds # 1 hit), but Dion probably arrived at his vocal approach by imitating the demo made by the song's co-writer, Ernie Maresca. Dion adopted a rough-and-ready growl, which became his trademark for the next few years. "Suddenly the street hoodlums of New York had a voice of their own", writes Charlie Gillett in "The Sound of the City". "Runaround Sue" hit the top spot of the Billboard charts on October 23, 1961, and DiMucci repeated the formula on the equally successful "The Wanderer" (# 2). The uncredited backing vocals on these records came from a group called the Del Satins.
After three more Top 10 hits on Laurie in 1962, Dion signed with a major label, Columbia. His first disc for the company, "Ruby Baby", was an immediate smash (# 2) and another remake of a Leiber-Stoller composition for the Drifters, "Drip Drop", went to # 6 in 1963. Gradually his material became more blues-oriented. Between September 1964 and October 1968, Dion's name was absent from the charts. Apart from the impact of the British Invasion, this was mainly due to the self-destructive lifestyle in which he had become entangled (heroin addiction). A brief reunion with the Belmonts in 1966 (album "Together Again" on ABC- Paramount) did not improve his fortunes and his career appeared to be nearing an end.
But by 1968 he was ready for a comeback, having kicked his drug habit and reshaped his act. He was now a folk-styled balladeer, accompanying himself on guitar. After resigning with his old Laurie label, he had a # 4 hit with "Abraham, Martin And John", a message song about four assassinated Americans, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and the brothers John and Robert Kennedy. It sold over a million copies and resuscitated Dion's career. His music became more contemplative and mature. In 1970 he switched to the Warner Bros label. A second reunion with the Belmonts took place in 1972, in New York City, on June 2. The evening was preserved on record and released as the "Dion and the Belmonts Live at Madison Square Garden - 1972 Reunion" LP, a great album which captures the magic of the music and the occasion. (Reissued on CD by Rhino in 1990, but no longer available.)
A 1975 LP, "Born To Be With You", was produced by Phil Spector. By the end of the 1970s, Dion had become a born-again Christian, which was reflected in the albums he made in the 1980s. In 1989 - the year of his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame - he returned to rock music with the album "Yo Frankie" (Arista), produced by Dave Edmunds. It spawned the single "And the Night Stood Still", which reached # 75, his final chart entry (on the singles charts at least). The 1990s were relatively quiet, but in 2000 he returned to his doowop roots with the fantastic CD "Déjà Nu", which sounded as if it was still 1958. "Heroes : Giants Of Early Guitar Rock" (2008) contained his covers of early rock n roll songs he considers seminal to the genre and included a DVD as a bonus. "Tank Full Of Blues" is his most recent album (2011). We haven't heard the last of Dion yet.
Official website : http://diondimucci.com/
Autobiography : Dion DiMucci with Davin Seay, The Wanderer : Dion's Story. New York : Beech Tree Books, 1988. 221 pages. Still in print.
Discography : http://www.rocky-52.net/chanteursd/dion.htm
CD recommendations :
Acknowledgements : Richie Unterberger (All Music Guide), Dave Marsh, several encyclopedias, Wikipedia.
Dik, February 2014
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