Bold. Suave. Swaggering. Dion helped usher in a new era.
With one foot in the Fifties and one in the future, Dion blended R&B with doo-wop and helped ring in the age of rock and roll.
Singer Dion DiMucci, better known simply as Dion, epitomized the indigenous music of the Bronx streets where he was raised.
Dion was born on July 18, 1939 and was raised in the Little Italy section of the Bronx. He started singing at a young age, and he had a variety of musical influences. As he wrote in his autobiography, “I was picking up influences from all over the place, mixing in early R&B with doo-wop. Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley and, of course, Elvis. In other words, like every other teenager in America, I was discovering rock & roll.”
In 1957 he teamed up with three neighborhood pals—Fred Milano, Angelo D’Aleo and Carlo Mastrangelo—to form a vocal group that earned a reputation as the best street-corner singers for miles. Dion and the Belmonts (named for Belmont Avenue in the Bronx) perfected four-part harmonies while falling under the spell of rock and roll. Dion, a tenor, became the group’s lead vocalist. His father was eager to help Dion break into the big time and arranged a meeting for him with the head of Mohawk Records, a small New York label. Dion auditioned by singing the Five Satins’ “Wonderful Girl.” He became the second artist signed to the label. However, the Belmonts were not part of the deal.
Dion’s first single, “The Chosen Few,” created a stir in the Boston area, prompting Dion to quit school and pursue his career full time. He then convinced Mohawk—which had changed its name to Laurie Records—to bring the Belmonts on board, and in 1958 Dion and the Belmonts recorded their first Top 40 hit, “I Wonder Why.” They followed that with “No One Knows” and “Don’t Pity Me.” A year later, they cracked the Top 10 with “A Teenager in Love,” written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman. That winter, as the single moved up the charts, Dion and the Belmonts joined the Winter Dance Party, a package tour. Because he balked at paying the $35 it would have cost him, Dion, who was 19, declined an invitation to fly on the chartered plane that went down on February 3, 1959, killing fellow musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J. P. “the Big Bopper” Richardson.
Dion and the Belmonts scored their biggest hit, “Where or When,” in 1960, but the group found itself being steered in a polished, adult-pop direction, so Dion left to reclaim his rock and roll roots. His first solo hit was “Lonely Teenager,” which reached the Top 20. In 1961 he hit upon a loose, swaggering style that he could call his own with the songs “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer.” At this time, Dion was nearly alone among all the “teen idols” in attempting to equal the sultry charge that Elvis Presley had brought to rock and roll. Other hits in the same swinging, spontaneous vein followed: “Lovers Who Wander,” “Little Diane,” “Ruby Baby” and “Donna the Prima Donna.”
Dion’s star subsequently dimmed in the wake of the British Invasion and some personal setbacks that included a struggle with drug addiction. However, he re-emerged in 1968 with a more introspective, folk-based style that earned him his eleventh Top 10 song, a thoughtful ode to slain martyrs entitled “Abraham, Martin and John.” He then released a folkish version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” and recorded an album that included covers of Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan songs. By 1969 he had signed with Warner Bros. Records, where he released Sit Down, Old Friend, You’re Not Alone (1970) and Sanctuary (1972).
In 1973 Dion reunited with the Belmonts for a concert at Madison Square Garden that resulted in a well-received live album, Reunion. In 1979, Dion became a born-again Christian and began adding Christian music to a stylistic canon that includes folk, doo-wop, rhythm & blues and rock and roll. In 1987 he performed at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, and the show was released as a two-CD live album. The following year he published his autobiography, The Wanderer: Dion’s Story.
In 2002, Dion’s “Runaround Sue” was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 2009 Dion performed “The Wanderer” with Paul Simon at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s twenty-fifth anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden. He has continued to perform and release albums, including Tank Full of Blues, which came out in 2012.
Inductee: Dion DiMucci (born July 18, 1939)