Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Vocal group formed in 1958 in New York City with Dion DiMucci singing lead (b 18 July 1939); Fred Milano (b 22 August 1939; d 1 January 2012, Long Island), second tenor; Angelo D'Aleo (b 3 February 1940), first tenor; Carlo Mastrangelo (b 5 October 1938; d 4 April 2016), baritone, all from the Bronx. Dion started singing at age five, appeared on a Paul Whiteman TV show ten years later, made his first record 'The Chosen Few' '57 backed by the Timberlanes on a Mohawk label. The new group was named after local Belmont Avenue, and hit with their second single on Laurie, 'I Wonder Why', at no. 22, then 'No One Knows' (19) and 'Don't Pity Me' (40) '58-9, polishing an image as besuited Italian-Americans hoping to equal the best of the black groups. Then 'A Teenager In Love' epitomized their doo-wop-influenced sound and made no. 5 '59 (there were covers by Craig Douglas and Marty Wilde in the UK). Early that year Dion & The Belmonts were on the 'Winter Dance Party' tour on which Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens were killed in a plane crash; Dion had opted out of the airplane ride because he couldn't justify the cost of the ticket: $36 was what his parents paid monthly for their apartment in the Bronx. That year too D'Aleo was in the U.S. Navy and missed some of the recording sessions. 'Where Or When' reached no. 3 '60; by then Dion had a drug problem, partly due to the plane crash ('There were no grief counselors in the Bronx in 1959', he said many years later) and only two more top 40 hits followed. Under management pressure Dion left the group; the trio had a few more hits, two in the top 30 '61-2. 

Dion signed with Columbia and his rockaballad 'Lonely Teenager' made no. 12 '60, but a return to the earlier style (with the uncredited Del-Satins as backup) took 'Runaround Sue' to no. 1, the song, dedicated to his future wife, written by his friend and mentor Ernie Maresca, who encouraged the use of Dion's higher register, and tape reverb effectively updated doo-wop. 'The Wanderer' '61 was no. 2, providing an extra image of a loveable rebel, Dion had a total of 13 top 40 solo hits '60-3, eight of them top ten, including covers of the Drifters' items 'Ruby Baby' and 'Drip Drop'. The advent of Beatlemania washed away a lot of pop stars and coincided with a recurring drug problem; Dion dropped out, but returned '68 on Laurie again, with 'Abraham, Martin And John', a Dick Holler song celebrating the slain Lincoln, King and Kennedy a no. 4 hit, later covered by Marvin Gaye and others. He recorded in a folk-rock vein, reunited with the Belmonts for an ABC LP '68, then for a rock'n'roll revival gig at Madison Square Garden '72, (the live album Reunion made the top 200 albums). He continued solo through the '70s (with Phil Spector on a remake of 'Born To Be With You', the Chordettes' hit from '58). Yo Frankie '89 on Arista was produced by Dave Edmunds and featured a swarm of guests including Paul Simon: successful nostalgia, and perhaps more than that.

Dion had a wider talent than most contemporaries, won his personal battle with heroin (after the death of Frankie Lyman from an overdose) and left classics of the era that haven't faded, and he wasn't finished yet. He recovered the Catholic religion of his youth, and recorded some gospel music. His earliest musical memory was hearing Hank Williams singing 'Lovesick Blues' on the radio, and at the age of 66 he came full circle and made a blues album. At Columbia Records he had recorded blues like 'Spoonful' and 'Hoochie Coochie Man,' one of the first teen idols to do so, but Columbia were pushing him to develop a nightclub act. 'Aretha Franklin was there at the same time, and they had her doing Al Jolson songs. They didn't know what to do with us,' he said. But also at Columbia, John Hammond Sr. had given him a copy of a new release, the profoundly infuential compilation of Robert Johnson tracks from the 1930s, The King Of Delta Blues. During his long, impressive career, Dion said, 'I didn't realize how much Hank Williams and Jimmy Reed were a part of me…You can learn how to sing rock 'n' roll, but I don't know if you can learn how to sing blues because you have to sing without an agenda to capture it. It's so beautiful; you can express anything. I think it fell out of the sky.' He added, 'I don't sing black, I don't sing white, I sing Bronx.' The album Bronx In Blue in 2005, virtually a solo set with Dion playing guitar, was made in only two days, and released on producer Richard Gottehrer's label, Dimensional Music Recordings. With a couple of originals and insightful covers of blues classics, it was very well received. A juke-box musical, The Wanderer, was scheduled to open in May 2020, but was postponed because of Covid-19; a new album, Blues With Friends, had liner notes written by Bob Dylan, and guests including Simon again, Jeff Beck, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, and ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons. 'Hymn To Him' features Springsteen and his wife, Patti Scialfa; 'Song for Sam Cooke' is a duet with Simon. Dion has been married to Susan for 57 years.