So prominent is his impact on rock & roll that he and Bob Dylan were the only two pop artists chosen by The Beatles to be featured on the cover of Sgt. Pepper. And like Dylan he’s both absorbed and shaped every facet of popular music, from folk and blues through rock, gospel and beyond, to create classics songs.
First came the early classics he wrote with Ernie Maresca, “The Wanderer,” and “Runaround Sue,” as well hit records of other songs, most famously “Teenager In Love,” by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman.
In 1968 came his elegiac recording of “Abraham, Martin & John,” by Dick Holler,
which introduced him to a whole new audience unfamiliar with his 1950s records.
Few rock fans forget those records, or Dion’s impact on the shape of rock & roll. What is often forgotten is how closely he came to dying in 1959. Invited by the Big Bopper to get on the doomed plane, along with Buddy Holly, for the short flight from Iowa to Chicago, he declined. To save a little money for the plane ticket, he elected to take the bus instead, and he gave his seat to Ritchie Valens. All three of these legendary rockers – The Big Bopper, Buddy Holly and Valens – plus the pilot, all perished that night, February 3, 1959, during a late-night flight in poor wintry weather; the small Beechcraft Bonanza plane crashed into a cornfield near Clear Lake, Iowa.
Dion, however, is still here.
In an interview at his lower Manhattan apartment, directly across the street from the Stock Exchange, Dion said he is still somewhat in shock at the turn of events. He was saved, but felt some responsibility for the death of Valens, who was only 17 years old, and would not have been on the flight if not for him.
“The cost of the plane ticket was $37,” he said. “”Which back then, in 1959, was a lot of money. It was what my mother paid in rent in the Bronx. And Ritchie Valens, who was a good kid from the L.A. barrio, couldn’t afford the ticket. So I gave him mine.”
It’s a tragedy memorialized by Don McLean in 1971’s “American Pie,” as “the day that music died.” Yet Dion’s music prevailed, and extended from his early 1950s hits with Dion & The Belmonts to his 1968 solo success with with “Abraham, Martin & John” through a chain of gospel records and up to the present with new albums of rock standards. These include the great Heroes-Giants of Early Guitar Rock, which features many classics by his friends, and also a new rendition of “The Wanderer” that his wife insisted he include.
The son of a vaudeville star who grew up in the Bronx, Dion DiMucci often haunted the vast dark backstages of theaters where his dad would perform. He taught himself guitar at 10, absorbed every note and every word Hank Williams ever wrote, and was on Crotona Avenue daily, teaching his pals to harmonize doo-wop.
“I loved all kinds of music,” he said. “I still do, pretty much. Country, blues, gospel, and standards. I dig all of it.” All of those styles and more came together in his music, and the band he assembled. The name Dion & The Belmonts, he said, was chosen for nearby Belmont Street, though it was on Crotona Avenue where everything happened, “because “it sounded better than Dion & The Crotonas.”
Signed to Mohawk Records, it was Dion’s bluesy tenor tones piercing through the heart of his records which made them hits, as it did with “Teenager In Love,” written by Doc Pomus & Mort Shuman, which went to the top of the charts.
But Dion and the Belmonts soon disbanded, making him one of the first rock stars ever to go solo after jettisoning a famous band. His first No. 1 hit, “Runaround Sue,” written with Ernie Maresca, emerged from a street-corner jam.
“We were partying in a schoolyard,” he recalled. “We were jamming, hitting tops of boxes. I gave everyone parts like the horn parts we’d hear in the Apollo Theater. It came from that, though the girl’s name wasn’t actually Sue. It was about a girl who loved to be worshipped but as soon as you want a commitment and express your love for her, she’s gone.”
He also wrote “The Wanderer” with Maresca (although, unlike Elvis, who got his name on songs he didn’t write, Dion sometimes did not get writer’s credit on ones he did write.)
“The Wanderer,” similar to his friend Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The U.S.A.”, became a big hit despite the darkness of a message most people missed.
“It’s a sad song,” Dion said. “Springsteen was the only guy who accurately expressed what it’s about. It’s ‘I’m as happy as a clown with my two fists of iron, but I’m going nowhere.’ In the ‘50s, you didn’t get that dark.”
Dion, who’d been to the depths of drug-addicted darkness himself, emerged whole with renewed faith in 1968, when he recorded the song “Abraham, Martin & John,” by Dick Holler. Encapsulating so much of the unspoken heartbreak America was feeling then in 1968 in the wake of recent assassinations of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy that year, it introduced yet another side of this artist to the mainstream public, many of whom never knew of his rock roots.
But in time, all the Dions we knew merged into one, and unlike so many of his peers, he prevailed. Subsequent albums rocked with his authentic fusion of streetwise soul and rebel spirit that has always infused his music.
“You make me feel good,” he said humbly, when reminded of his enduring eminence, and the abiding influence his music has had on so many who came in his wake. From The Beatles though Simon, Springsteen, Bowie, Elvis Costello, Bono and beyond, all of whom have spoken of his impact, the legacy of Dion seems to have only intensified in recent years.
But perhaps the most eloquent of all in explaining the true significance of Dion’s songs and singing was Lou Reed, who, while inducting him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, said this:
“And then there was Dion…whose voice was unlike any other. Dion could do all the turns, stretch those syllables so effortlessly, soar so high he could reach the sky and dance there among the stars forever.
“What a voice,” Reed continued. “He absorbed and transmogrified all these influences into his own soul, as the wine turns into blood, a voice that stood on its own, remarkably and unmistakably from New York. Bronx Soul. It was the kind of voice you never forget.
“Over the years that voice has stayed with me, as it has, I’m sure, stayed with you. And whenever I hear it I’m flooded with memories of what once was and what could be.”