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+ {Dion And The Timberlanes} + {Dion & The Belmonts} + {Dion DiMucci} + {Dion And The Wanderers}

A singer with a coat of many colours, DION re-shaped the American musical landscape with his trendy post-rock’n’roll R&B, doo-wop and pop. A teenage pin-up sensation and major star from 1958 – with his time fronting The BELMONTS – to a lean period from the mid-to-late 60s, no-one should ever forget his suave and infectious million-sellers, `A Teenager In Love’, `Runaround Sue’ and `The Wanderer’. There is no doubt that The BEACH BOYS, BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, BILLY JOEL et al, owe a great debt of gratitude to the man in the cap.
Born Dion DiMucci, July 18, 1939, The Bronx, New York, the singer exercised his boyhood tonsils on street corners with fellow Italian-American doo-wop devotees. DION had his first taste on stage after being picked to appear on the Teen Club TV show in Philadelphia. In 1957, he fronted Dion And The Timberlanes, who, after a flop single (a dubbed-over cut for Mohawk Records: `The Chosen Few’), teamed up with The Belmonts (who’d stalled with `Teen-Age Clementine’) to create the amalgam of DION & THE BELMONTS. Alongside freshers Carlo Mastrangelo (baritone), Angelo D’Aleo (first tenor) and Fred Milano (second tenor), their debut platter `Tag Along’ showed enough promise to see Laurie Records give them a chance.
In the summer of ’58, as the likes of BUDDY HOLLY and EDDIE COCHRAN slightly struggled to win over a younger teen audience, in walked the quintessential, clean-cut pop star and his backing group, who notched up their inaugural hit when `I Wonder Why’ climbed to No.22. Chart regulars from then on in with `No One Knows’ (#19) and `Don’t Pity Me’ (#40), their finest two minutes came courtesy of the aforesaid `A Teenager In Love’, an angst-ridden schoolyard anthem that furnished the quartet with their first Top 5 hit (Top 30 UK) and a new line in designer college sweat shirts for summer ‘59. Ironically, DION was very lucky to be able to enjoy the success, as on February 3, 1959, he narrowly escaped death after declining the flight on the doomed charter plane that killed BUDDY HOLLY, RITCHIE VALENS, BIG BOPPER and the pilot; choosing instead the cheaper bus route with his Belmonts.
On the back of a not-so-successful catch-up LP, PRESENTING DION AND THE BELMONTS (1959) {*6}, the group were now a trio when D’Aleo was conscripted into the US Navy. After the relative failure of `Every Little Thing I Do’ (#48), America was happy again to embrace the outfit on their Top 3 re-vamp of Rodgers & Hart’s “Babes In Arms” movie nugget, `Where Or When’, but the choices made for them by way of Disney song `When You Wish Upon A Star’ (#30) and Cole Porter’s `In The Still Of The Night’ (#38) – lifted from WISH UPON A STAR WITH… (1960) {*5} – gave rock’n’roller DION a chance to open a new chapter.
Coming of age at the tail-end of 1960, on the advice of his manager, DION embarked on a successful solo career with near-Top 10 smash, `Lonely Teenager’(#12); meanwhile, The Belmonts signed to Sabina Records and issued their own 45s. As minor hits, `Havin’ Fun’ (another from ALONE WITH DION (1961) {*5}) and `Kissin Game’, seemed to present a mixed response from a commercial point of view (`Somebody Nobody Wants’ failed miserably), it was time to step up to the plate.
Roping in Ernie Maresca as co-scribe, fortunes favoured the brave as DION rocketed up to the top spot (UK No.11) with the adventures of a disloyal lover in the title track from the LP, RUNAROUND SUE (1961) {*6}. Its gender counter-balance sequel, in many ways, `The Wanderer’, also won over its young teenage-targeted audience, but was kept off the No.1 slot by a resurgent `The Twist’ by CHUBBY CHECKER. Having reached the Top 10 in Britain, `Lovers Who Wander’ kept up DION’s chart momentum on home-soil, while `Little Diane’ (also from the LOVERS WHO WANDER (1962) {*6} LP), `Love Came To Me’ and the title track from RUBY BABY (1963) {*6} – the latter his first effort for Columbia Records – all went Top 10.
Privately, DION was battling with a drugs problem, and like so many teen idols of the day (on the back of 1963’s `This Little Girl’, `Be Careful Of Stones That You Throw’, `Donna The Prima Donna’ and `Drip Drop’ hits), his career took a bit of a battering with the onslaught of the insurgent British Invasion; now trading as DION DiMUCCI, parent album DONNA THE PRIMA DONNA {*4} was, in effect, a non-entity chart-wise.
An ill-advised switch to the blues resulted in further flops, `I’m Your Hoochie Cooche Man’, `Johnny B. Goode’, `Sweet, Sweet Baby’ and `Spoonful’), whilst worst still was a brief liaison as DION AND THE WANDERERS for three commercial attempts to hop on the folk-pop gravy train a la `Tomorrow Won’t Bring The Rain’, `Time In My Heart For You’ and `Two Ton Feather’.
Inevitably, with his career flagging, a couple of singles, `Berimbau’ and `Movin’ Man’, by the re-charged DION & THE BELMONTS, paved the way for a feisty comeback album, TOGETHER AGAIN (1967) {*7}. Sadly overlooked by a world wrapped up in Carnaby Street rags or Californian hippie gear, ABC Records could not see a future in retro-grade R&B; coincidentally, DION was to feature on the jacket of The BEATLES’ `Sgt. Pepper’ album.
DION’s barren spell was ultimately over when the singer returned to the Top 5 with his folky-pop recital of Dick Holler’s `Abraham, Martin And John’ (also known to fans of MARVIN GAYE). Featuring a few original compositions, a pastel-esque, near-unrecognisable interpretation of JIMI HENDRIX’s `Purple Haze’ and STEVIE WONDER’s `Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever’, DION was re-invented for AM-pop on the eponymous DION (1968) {*7} set; more obvious folk-rock cuts came courtesy of JONI MITCHELL (`Both Sides Now’), LEONARD COHEN (`Sisters Of Mercy’), FRED NEIL (`The Dolphins’) and DYLAN and NEIL respectively, via `Tomorrow Is A Long Time’ and `Everybody’s Talkin’; blues surfaced by way of LIGHTNIN’ HOPKINS’ `You Better Watch Yourself (Sonny Boy)’; he finally kicked his heroin habit into touch the same year.
The Tom Wilson-produced WONDER WHERE I’M BOUND (1969) {*5}, continued the folk-rock formula, albeit without the same grace and aplomb as his previous LP encounter; the top-rated cover this time being TOM PAXTON’s `I Can’t Help Wonder Where I’m Bound’. Stripping back to bare-bones acoustic style, SIT DOWN OLD FRIEND (1970) {*5} and the full-band YOU’RE NOT ALONE (1971) {*4}, found DION in singer-songwriter mode; the latter also showcasing a decent version of MELANIE’s `Close To It All’ and two LENNON-McCARTNEY pieces, `Let It Be’ and `Blackbird’.
As solo LPs faded into the sunset (SANCTUARY (1971) {*4} and SUITE FOR LATE SUMMER (1972) {*4}), DION & THE BELMONTS re-formed once again for a special concert on June 2, 1972, at Madison Square Garden. To mark the occasion, the REUNION (1973) {*7} album resurrected several of their old hits in live fashion.
Teaming up with the legendary PHIL SPECTOR’s “wall of sound”, 1975’s darkly introspective BORN TO BE WITH YOU {*7} was thought too un-DION to be released in the States. However, with Britain backing the record all the way (Andrew Loog Oldham and PETE TOWNSHEND were fans at the time), re-treads of Mann-Weil’s `Make The Woman Love Me’, a funereal reading of `(He’s Got) The Whole World In His Hands’ and the opening title track, convinced the 36-year-old to continue.
When Warner Brothers decided not to extend DION’s contract beyond the Michael Omartian-produced STREETHEART (1976) {*5} LP – featuring PHIL EVERLY on harmonies – Lifesong Records gave the singer another life-line. Drawing on songs from DYLAN (`Spanish Harlem Incident’), TOM WAITS (`Heart Of Saturday Night’) and JOHN SEBASTIAN (`Do You Believe In Magic?’), among several other songs produced by Terry Cashman and Tommy West, RETURN OF THE WANDERER (1978) {*7} was another record that surely deserved a better fate than to fill the bargain bins.
Probably more than dissatisfied with his lot, DION lingered in the commercial wilderness and duly converted to Christianity. Contemporary gospel albums, INSIDE JOB (1980) {*4}, ONLY JESUS (1981) {*4}, I PUT AWAY MY IDOLS (1983) {*3}, KINGDOM IN THE STREETS (1985) {*4} and VELVET & STEEL (1986) {*5}, served a purpose and er… served the Lord, but his loyal rock’n’roll brethren had long since lost patience with the former pop star.
However, in 1989, having turned 50, the man returned in fine style with a harder-edged rock’n’roll set, YO FRANKIE {*7}, masterminded by producer DAVE EDMUNDS. Roping in a stellar cast of guests including LOU REED, PAUL SIMON and PATTY SMYTH, DION turned the songs of Diane Warren (`And The Night Stood Still’), Jim Vallance (`Drive All Night’) and TOM WAITS (`Serenade’) into bona fide strum-a-longs, while `King Of The New York Streets’ was a minor UK hit.
Instead of launching another comeback, it was three years cooling off until DION DiMUCCI’s next set, DREAM ON FIRE (1992) {*6}; `The 90’s In The 60’s’, a cover of `I Knew The Bride (When She Used To Rock & Roll)’ and DYLAN’s `One Too Many Mornings’, all good songs, but not great. Taking a leaf from SPRINGSTEEN’s festive flirtations, ROCK n’ ROLL CHRISTMAS (1993) {*5}, kept DION in circulation.
Post-millennium, now over 60, the singer-songwriter rolled back the years for the aptly-titled DEJA NU (2000) {*7}, an album released on twilight rock’n’roll imprint, Ace, that transported two SPRINGSTEEN tracks, `Book Of Dreams’ and `If I Should Fall Down’, back to doo wop DION times. One song in particular, `You Move Me’, was penned by Scott Kempner, a guitarist who’d teamed up his Little Kings combo to churn out a 1996-recorded LIVE IN NEW YORK (2001) {*6}.
Celebrating re-vamped versions of his own smash hits, next to others of his era (`Runaway’, `Stand By Me’, `Rockin’ Pneumonia…’ among them), the “happy days” of DION was in vogue on NEW MASTERS (2003) {*5}. Better still, was his slide back and excavation of his roots on the Grammy-nominated BRONX IN BLUE (2005) {*6} – featuring tracks by ROBERT JOHNSON, HOWLIN’ WOLF, BLIND WILLIE McTELL and JIMMY REED – and SON OF SKIP JAMES (2007) {*7}. Opening with Di Mucci’s self-scribed title piece, among cuts by Skip himself, plus WILLIE DIXON, CHUCK BERRY and DYLAN, no one was expecting an album just so wicked.
Continuing his surge back in time, DION’s karaoke rock’n’roll set HEROES: Giants of Early Guitar Rock (2008) {*6} revised COCHRAN, HOLLY, EVERLYs, ELVIS, BERRY, HALEY, CASH, VINCENT, VALENS et al, while third in his blues trilogy came TANK FULL OF BLUES (2012) {*7}. Co-writing a handful of bar-room R&B beauts with Mike Aquillina (`I’m Ready To Go’, `Ride’s Blues (For Robert Johnson)’ and `I Read It (In The Rolling Stone)’ among them, it proved one was never too late to yearn for the blues. Sadly, Fred Milano died from lung cancer on January 1st that year.
With much the same backing and nostalgic motif as his previous endeavours (Aquillina and Kempner in tow), one had to admire DION’s single-minded conviction to stick with rhythm and blues. Covering only two songs (`Sam Hopkins’ `Katie Mae’ and HUDSON WHITTAKER’s `I Ain’t For It’), NEW YORK IS MY HOME (2016) {*7} was the year’s surprise package; the meditative title track a duet with his friend PAUL SIMON. If one could think back to the late 50s and `A Teenager In Love’, and try to compare this set of ten songs, DION at 76 sounded as young today as he ever did (proof by way of `I’m Your Gangster Of Love’, `Aces Up Your Sleeve’ and `I’m All Rocked Up’).
© MC Strong 1994-2010/GRD-GFD // rev-up MCS Feb2016

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