Unless you happened to be born sometime around the mid-point of the twentieth century like I was, you may not be familiar with the name “Dion DiMucci.” It’s certainly not a name that will conjure up images of a great rock musician in the minds of your average younger 21st century music fan! However, those of us old enough to remember those halcyon days of the 1950s and 1960s may very well remember “Dion” as one of the great rock and roll musicians of his era.
Way back in 1961, I was a boy of 10 years old. Even then, much to my parents’ consternation, I was developing a fervent interest in rock and roll music. I had become aware of Dion that year, and he had already become one of my very favorite rock and roll singers. I loved listening to his driving, high energy vocals on “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer,” which were his big hits that year.
Dion’s musical career had started only a few years before I had become a youthful fan… back in 1958 to be exact, when this Italian-American kid from the Bronx joined with his street buddies – Fred Milano, Angelo D’Aleo, Carlo Mastrangelo, and Nick Caruso – in Bronx-based doo-wop group called the Belmonts. For two years, Dion and the Belmonts had performed in the recording studio and on tour and had had released several huge hits, including “I Wonder Why,” “A Teenager in Love,” and “Where or When.”
Dion and the Belmonts quickly became so popular that in early 1959 they were invited to join the “Winter Dance Party” tour and perform alongside tour headliners Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and J. D. (Big Bopper) Richardson. After a performance in Clear Lake, Iowa on February 1, 1959, Dion had been invited to join the tour’s headliners on a plane ride to Fargo, North Dakota. Dion refused the ride; Holly, Valens and Richardson were all killed later that night when their plane crashed.
Dion left The Belmonts in 1960 in order to pursue a solo career. He and his band mates had disagreed about the musical direction the Belmonts should take. Dion favored a faster, more driving rock and roll sound; his colleagues wanted to go with a slower, mellower, easy listening sound. That’s when Dion decided to record “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer” on his own.
By 1963, Dion had a string of hit singles to his credit. In addition to “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer,” he had released “Ruby Baby,” “Donna the Prima Donna,” “Lovers who Wander,” and other singles that shot up the music charts. Dion was now one of the most popular rock and roll musicians in America…
…Then, suddenly – nothing. For four years, from 1964 through 1968, Dion had no new songs being played on the radio and no new records being sold in stores. The British Invasion had hit the United States in 1964, and rock and roll fans flocked to see the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits, the Hollies, and other British bands that brought a new and distinctive style of rock and roll to America. Also by 1964, Dion’s drug habit, which began when he was a teenager on the streets of New York, was getting worse. He recorded and performed only very erratically, and the material he released did not succeed commercially.
By 1968, Dion had kicked his drug habit. He re-emerged as a more mature songwriter and performer. That was the year when two of America’s greatest leaders – Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. – were assassinated. Later that year, Dion composed and released “Abraham, Martin, and John,” a mournful, meditative folk-rock song that became Dion’s biggest hit in five years.
Throughout the 1970s, Dion released albums that were critical successes but commercial failures. These albums – which included Sit Down, Old Friend (1970), Sanctuary (1972), Born to Be with You (1975), and The Return of the Wanderer (1978) – reflected Dion’s evolution into a more blues-oriented, folk-rock style of music.
In 1979, Dion experienced a spiritual awakening. He became a born-again Christian and his music reflected his new-found faith in God. Throughout the 1980s he recorded a series of critically acclaimed and commercially successful contemporary Christian albums that included Inside Job (1980), the Grammy-nominated I Put Away my Idols (1984) and Velvet and Steel (1986).
In 1989, Dion’s 25-year long musical comeback was completed when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In his speech inducting Dion into the Hall, Lou Reed said of him: “…His voice was unlike any other I had ever heard… He had the chops, and he practically invented the attitude.”
Since 1989, Dion has remained in the public eye as a kind of rock and roll “senior statesman.” In the 1990s and 2000s Dion returned to recording secular music. His most notable – and commercially successful – 21st century albums include Déjà Nu (2000), Bronx in Blue (2006) and Heroes: Giants of Early Guitar Rock (2008). Today, Dion lives in Florida. He continues to record albums and perform on tour, mostly in smaller theaters but always before wildly enthusiastic audiences.
Dion DiMucci’s name may not be familiar to many of today’s rock and roll enthusiasts, but he can count among his most loyal fans several other rock and roll icons, most notably: Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Lou Reed, and the late Waylon Jennings. All of these legendary musicians have stated that Dion is one of the great influences on their music.
There’s no doubt about it: Dion DiMucci still has the chops and the attitude! He is a genuine rock and roll legend.
Dion Biography – Rock and Roll Hall of Fame web site
Dion Biography – allmusic.com
Dion Discography – allmusic.com
Biography – Official Dion DiMucci web site
My Spiritual Journey – Official Dion DiMucci web site
Official Belmonts web site