"Time in his Heart" - Dion DiMucci fan site
Above: more famous for his talent and songs than for his album covers, the “Together Again” front cover is an exception. Dion and the Belmonts pose in an iconic moody picture of the band in mid-60s New York (Gapstow Bridge in Central Park, as seen in 2014 (right)).
Introduction. With Dion it’s easy to understand why he is as famous as he is, and at the same time hard to understand why he is not more famous! We know him on first name terms, and most people can name at least a couple of the songs he brought to the pop charts. Most people know he can sing, but fewer know his excellence on the guitar and of his songwriting skills. In short he is both appreciated for his skills and under-appreciated.
What is it about the general populus that leads us to pigeon-hole artists into certain genres and be unforgiving, or at least unaccepting, of a change of style? In the late 50’s and early 60’s Dion, both solo and with vocal group “The Belmonts” had pretty much established himself as the King of Doo-Wop. But where next? Many would understandably sit on the laurels. Dion was one of those first performers who looked beyond performance to artistry and musical progression.
In some ways it is surprising that Dion DiMucci is just one person! In his career he has moved from 50’s pop and doo-wop styles into blues, sixties pop, then to folk and from there into the singer-songwriter movement, Christian music and back to pop. He has too many singing styles to count (although I probably will try and count them later). True, he has now been in the music business for more than 50 years, but it is rare to see such diversity from one person.
It’s probably best to start with Dion’s breakthrough hit, “I wonder why”, with the Belmonts – Carlo Mastrangelo, Freddie Milano and Angelo D’Angelo. Sure I had heard and admired “The Wanderer” and “Runaround Sue” from the radio, and I would have probably have associated with them the name “Ernest Maresca” (the writer of Wanderer and co-writer with Dion of Runaround Sue”) but hearing this on the radio for the first time in early 2009 was what turned me on to Dion. The sheer energy, skill and catchiness of this two and a half minute wonder is immediately infectious. I knew I had to hear more.
Starting with a Dion and the Belmonts Greatest Hits (also containing Dion solo of course), it doesn’t take many listens to realise that Dion was no one-trick pony (a ten trick pony maybe). Some songs he sings with a swagger (“The Wanderer”), others with a laugh in his voice (“Love came to me”) some with sadness (“Noone knows”), some, the ballads with incredible smoothness (“Where or when”). (Remember I was telling you about all those singing styles). Whatever style he's singing in it's with sincerity - he sings like he means it and has lived it! It sounds so obvious when it's put in writing - see Dion's rendition of Tom Paxton's song "Can't Help but Wonder where I'm bound" - not on the greatest hits CD but we'll come to it later in the article.
The compilation I have is the blue and orange coloured “Dion and the Belmonts Greatest Hits” CD with 20 tracks on it. This I think is a good starting point. However I must stress it is a starting point. You can’t expect to fit a 50 year career, and a varied one with artistic progression at that, onto one CD.
Why write this and set up this website? In short, to get the message out about Dion DiMucci, if one visitor buys a CD of Dion as a result, then it has done its job. Discovering Dion is rewarding in itself, and the more of his work you hear, the even better it gets.
Career phases. Dion's career has had a number of phases.
1. Doo-wop - circa 1958, with the Belmonts, what initially made him famous - eg "I Wonder Why".
2. The Baladeer - circa 1959/60, initially with the Belmonts (the second Dion and the Belmonts album entitled "Wishing on a star", latterly without, eg the first few Dion solo albums) - at a time when either at his instigation, or more likely his record company, he was recording mostly ballads and being moulded as an easy listening singer.
3. The pop era - circa 1961-63 - with Runaround Sue, etc. This was commercially his most successful era.
4. The Blues - circa 1963-4, when Dion found the blues and his recorded material mostly consisted of cover versions of blues material.
5. The Wanderers - 1965 - when Dion returned to recording mostly self-penned material, pop but mid-sixties/Dylan influenced. This period goes on to cover the Dion and the Belmonts reunion album "Together Again" of 1966, which contained less original material but in much the same vein as the Wanderers material. (This, in the author's mind, is Dion's creative peak not just as a singer but as a songwriter, whilst being commercially unsuccessful).
6. The silence - 1967 - Dion's period of silence from late 1966 through to mid 1968 amongst personal issues, with no recording contract, and his family's relocation from New York City to Florida.
7. The singer/songwriter - 1968 - 1979. More introspective material abounds, mostly self-written or with writing partners.
8. Christian Dion - 1979 - 1985. Almost exclusively Christian music releases.
9. Modern day Dion - 1985 to present - occasional album releases.
Phase 1 - Doo-wop
This was ushered in by the chart success of "I wonder why", incredibly this break-through hit made only number 22 in the charts in the USA, but it's incredible performance and production make it, still, one of Dion (and the Belmonts) best known tracks. That's Carlo Mastrangelo on the bass vocal on the intro (more of Carlo later), Freddie Milano on the tenor and Angelo D'Aleo on the soaring falsetto. They would have established themselves as a great singing group on the back of this one track alone. An album, "Introducing Dion and the Belmonts" was to follow, this also included the songs "I got the blues" and "No-one knows" written or co-written by Ernie Maresca, more on him later as well.
Dion and the Belmonts were on the ill-fated Winter Dance Party tour of 1959.
Freddie is the only member never to have left the Belmonts at any stage so he holds the rights to the group name, as of today, Angelo is also currently performing with the Belmonts, making them the two original members.
The album introduces the concepts of Dion's different singing styles, again we can categorise these as follows:
Straight/pop - (but in Dion's unique style!) as on "Runaround
Sue" and "I wonder why"
This phase was relatively brief (despite Dion and Belmonts fame in respect of this genre), as the Belmonts second album contained no doo-wop.
Phase 2 - the baladeer
During the later period of Dion and Belmonts and during the first part of his solo career, Dion seemed to being pushed into an easy-listening / baladeer career, recording mostly standards. These saw decreasing returns, and it was apparent that a change of tack was required. There are varying reasons stated for the split between Dion and the Belmonts. It seems that Dion's reported drug use, finance (the band wanted an equal split of income, Dion wanted more), and choice of music (Dion did not want to go the easy listening route) were factors. The Belmonts continued as a singing group after Dion's departure.
Phase 3 - pop
This phase starts with a bang with the huge success of "The Wanderer" and "Runaround Sue", the former written by Ernie Maresca and the latter by Ernie and Dion together. These two songs really provided the springboard that Dion needed for his solo career and to this day remain his best-known recordings.
The phase ends with "Donna the Prima Donna", "Ruby Baby" etc circa 1963, post Dion's move to the Columbia record label, post these recordings Dion tours UK, and on his return is introduced to the blues by producer Tom Wilson, this completely changes his way of thinking. Phase 3 has been by some distance Dion's most commercially successful (and most documented) phase, with major hits throughout the period 1960-1963.
Phase 4 - the blues
Dion discovers the blues and during late 1963 and 64 records almost entirely blues material, in a move away from his pop era. While there is no doubting the sincerity behind the recordings, as well as excellent quality on some, it sees Dion moving out of the commercial mainstream, no albums are released during this period, and none of the singles are major hits. However it can be argued that Dion needed to develop and not stand still. Also at this point the music scene was very intensively Beatles dominated, it was the time of the "British Invasion" and many established artists pre-Beatle era were struggling to have hits during this period. Certain highlights include Dion's cover of Guthrie's "900 miles", and various other tracks.
Phase 5 - the Wanderers
In 1965 Dion forms a new backing band, The Wanderers and works on recording mostly original or co-written material with producer Tom Wilson. The Wanderers included Carlo Mastrangelo (formerly of the Belmonts) on drums as well as, on certain tracks, Al Kooper on keyboards. Carlo had left the Belmonts circa 1962 for a solo career which had been hit-less, despite some good recordings (such as Stranger in my Arms and Time is Wastin', both written by Ernie Maresca for Carlo), he had also previously been drumming for Dion on TV appearances since circa 1963.
Despite the undoubted quality of the material, none of the "Dion and the Wanderers" material (released as singles) charted. What is apparent, nearly 50 years on, is that the material should have been released at the time in album format, as the tracks very clearly make up a body of work.
This is Dion's obscure period, and clearly not a happy one, he does not generally talk about it in interviews. However to simply assume this period consists of sub-standard work by a drug-addled former star past his prime is simply not accurate, despite his continuing problems, the songwriting and perfornances are terrific. Notable original tracks include "Knowing I won't go back there", "My love", "Time in my heart for you" "Tomorrow won't find the rain" and "Now". In addition, the recording of "I can't help but wonder where I'm bound", written by Tom Paxton, remains, in this author's opinion, Dion's greatest cover version. In fact, it could have been written especially for Dion, although it wasn't.
Due to the inexplicable (or maybe again the Beatles shadow) lack of success of these tracks, Dion was dropped as a solo artist from Columbia records in late 1965. Dion had been signed to a lucrative contract with Columbia since 1962, and the loss of this contract must at the time have been a great financial concern to the DiMucci household, as well as a blow artistically to Dion.
In 1969, post Dion's re-emergence (see next section), an almost random selection of tracks from the Wanderers period was released by Columbia under the album title "I can't help but wonder where I'm bound". The title track had inexpicably and unnecessarily had strings added. For many years this incomplete work was the summary of the Wanderers period, until the release of the compilation "The Road I'm on" (highly recommended) which contains the majority but not all of, the Wanderers tracks.
In 1966 Dion, with the original Belmonts Carlo, Freddie, and Angelo, signed to ABC/Dunhill for a reunion album, titled "Together Again". However this album was much in the sprit of the times of 1966 and was not (thankfully) a continuation from "Wish Upon a Star". It would be the last original studio album by the original Dion and the Belmonts, and, aside from successful but brief reunion performance in New York in 1972 would be the last time that Dion and the Belmonts would be together. One suspects that Dion, as the undoubted hitmaker, was calling the shots at this stage in terms of the making of the album. The album was self-produced, and it's believed that Carlo played drums and Dion played guitar on the album in order to save costs, this album did not have the budget of Dion's solo Columbia recordings.
The album is a disappointment in two respects, it's relative lack of Dion originals (it also contains relatively little of the Belmonts). There are three, the classic "My Girl the Month of May", plus the excellent '"Come to my side" as well as a semi-auto-biographical jam called "New York town", in this Dion shaves two years of age citiing his birthdate as 1941, not 1939. Other highlights include the cover of the John Denver song "For Bobbie" and of the Dylan song "Baby you've been on my mind". Although the album remains highly listenable today, at the time it did not achieve any great commercial success.
The album is only currently available on CD as an unofficial version called "Together Again and More", which sources at least certain tracks from vinyl, but also includes some extra tracks not on the original release.. We could do with a re-mastered official version of this album from the original master tapes, if they are still available - how about it ABC/Dunhill? The album cover is a very cool band photo taken in a New York park with the members looking very mid-sixties.
After this, silence.
Phase 6 - the silence
Drug use was apparently not new to Dion, he had reportedly been involved since his early teens, and from pre-fame to date. But it is clear, whether due to increased usage(?), the stalling of his career, family situation (Dion and wife Susan's first daughter was born in 1966), it came to a head around this time. Without a recording contract, Dion was not recording anyway, resulting in this period of silence.
Phase 7 - the singer/songwriter.
Dion had a moment of enlightenment whilst on a visit with his father-in-law in early 1968. Thankfully and miraculously, he put his drugs past behind him forever as of about April 1968. Who can say how many times he had attempted this, or how painful the final successful departure from drugs was. At this time Dion moved his family from NYC to Florida, which also seems to be a factor in putting past demons behind him. He recorded a single track, called "Daddy Rollin'" in a Miami studio, which remains unique in style amongst Dion's recordings.
Later that year, now clean Dion was invited to re-sign to his original record label, Laurie Records. There was a condition that he record a new song that the company was keen on, called "Abraham, Martin and John", written by Dick Holler. A new album, simply called "Dion" was recorded in the space of about a week. It was the first album to feature Dion's new nylon stringed guitar, and to showcase his new singer-songwriter type style. This author believes the title track and album to be rather dull (and rather lacking in Dion originals), however it is an incredibly important album in Dion's carrier, providing a book-end to his early pop career and introducing the singer-songwriter phase. "Abraham, Martin and John" struck a vein lyrically with the American record buying public, in the light of recent troubles and went to number 3 in the national singles chart, putting Dion back on the map. It enabled Dion to sign a multi-album deal as a singer-songwriter with a good deal of artistic control - a dream situation going forward. At Dion's insistence, "Daddy Rollin'" was included as the B side of the single. The follow-up single from the album, a cover or re-interpretation of Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" was less successful, despite gaining praise from the song's originator.
Dion then recorded four albums in the singer-songwriter vein, the first two ("Sit down old friend" and "You're not alone") are pleasant but unremarkable, as if he is still to hit his stride. The third, Sanctuary, is half of a great album, especially the title track (also written by Dick Holler) and Dion's "Sunshine Lady", though the second half consists of a live performance, which while entertaining and giving an insight into a Dion live performance during this period, leaves the album feeling slightly incomplete. However the following album "Suite for late Summer" hits the spot completely, and is Dion's best album post 1966. The album was produced by Russ Titleman. Highlights include "Running right behind you" and "Traveller in the Rain". Also recorded at these sessions was "New York City song", one of Dion's best songs, and, regretably, missed off the album due to its release as a single.
Around this time a Rolling Stone review of Dion suggested that he was at his best when singing other people's songs. Journalists so often miss the point or fail to research their subject properly and this is a case in point - Suite for Late Summer was a very fine album and it was entirely co-written by Dion, who wrote the music, with lyricist collaborators, most notably Bill Tuohy, who writes an interesting article (including how he met Dion) in the Suite for Late Summer CD re-release. See "Runaround Sue", "My girl the month of May", "Love came to me", "My Love" for just a few examples of Dion really cutting it as a songwriter.
At this point, Dion took an unusual side-step of recording, in 1975, an album with famous producer Phil Spector. Called "Born to Be With You", the album has a number of famous fans. In truth it is a flawed recording which has it's moments, such as "Only You Know", co-written by Spector, and "In and Out of the shadows". However it is telling that some of the most memorable tracks, such as "New York City song" and "In your own back yard" had been recorded with other producers for previous albums, had been missed off them due to them being used as singles. In some cases Spector's over-the-top production makes the some of the new tracks unlistenable on modern equipment, for instance "He's got the whole world in his hands" which manages to make even Dion's voice hard to follow.
1976 saw the recording of the Streetheart album which was a return to normal territory. There are some highlights, such as "Queen of 1959", a duet with Phil Everly, however on the whole the album is unremarkable. Best of all was the single, not included on the album called "Virgin Eyes (All Wrapped Up)", which an upbeat track with clear Elton John influences. It is worth noting that "Queen of 1959" was written about Dion's wife, Susan, who had been the subject (or her name used) for several previous Dion songs, such as "My girl the month of May", "Sunshine Lady" and most notably "Runaround Sue".
Several more albums quickly followed, in 1978 Dion returned to his roots with the "Return of the Wanderer" album, this was followed in 1979 by recordings for an album called "Fire in the night" though this album was not released for some years.
In 1979 Dion had a religious experience whilst out on a morning jog near his home in Florida. This had an effect on his subsequent recordings, which were in a religious vein, and it would not be until circa 1989 that Dion would return to recording secular mainstream pop. For this album "Yo Frankie" Dion worked primarily with Dave Edmunds, a long-time fan.
To be continued!
UK August 2014