Sunday, July 17, 2011
With Dion DiMucci at the Jukebox
Dion DiMucci – The Wanderer Checks In
If you remember the Sixties they say, then you weren’t there. It’s a cliché that holds true, at least in part for Dion DiMucci.
The Wanderer, who is still married to his high school sweetheart, Runaround Sue, is still wandering and playing rock & roll, but the wonder years are a thing of the past, and mostly a blur in his memory banks that were shortcircuited by booze and drugs.
Dion, who had ten songs in the top ten charts in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, hasn’t had a drink or a taste of drugs since April 1, 1968, and hasn’t had a hit song since then either. He’s a survivor however, and he’s lived to tell the story of the heydays of rock & roll, at least what he remembers of them.
I caught up with Dion at the Island Highroller lounge, just off the Sands casino floor, shortly after a Labor Day weekend performance. Most people didn’t recognize him since he was wearing a baseball hat instead of his trademark floppy Andy cap. The Papparazi Queen noticed him though, tugged my arm and said, “There’s Dion over by the jukebox.”
Dion and the Belmonts – Dion’s original group of singers included Freddie Milano, Angelo D’Aleo and Carlo Mastrangelo, all kids from the hood – which in his case was centered around the corner of Crotona Avenue and 187th Street, near Belmont Avenue in the Bronx.
They fused a motley conglamoration of R&B, country, side walk acapella and doo-wop into a new stream of rock & roll. While most of the Belmonts drifted off into a jazzy acapella realm, Dion stuck with rock & roll.
Since I had him cornered I went up to the Juke Box and put some more money in and he looked at me as if to see if I wanted to fight, and then smiled. I introduced myself and he asked us to join them at his table.
Asked how it differs today from touring in the early days of rock & roll Dion said, “I think it’s difficult, sometimes for the later generations of rockers to appreciate a time when there were no rules, no expectations, no luxury busses, no stage monitors. We were just a bunch of street singers who were regarded by society as degenerate infidels, one small step away from jail or the gutter, you know? But it was a lot of fun because it was a very creative time. Rock & roll didn’t exist, since we were making it up as we went along. And it was very cool traveling with guys like Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly.”
He’s been on the road since he was 14 years old, playing honkeytonks, roadhouses, school auditoriums, arenas, concert halls and casinos. He was Bobby Daren’s roommate on one tour, and was with Buddy Holly, Frankie Vallens and the Big Bopper when they decided to get off the bus and rent a plane, but Dion didn’t have the $38 a seat.
“It was sub-zero degree weather and we didn’t have those beautiful luxury converted touring buses that we have today,” he recalls. “It was just a school bus, and we slept in the luggage racks, and it kept breaking down. I was supposed to be on the plane, we were recruiting people, the more people the less the fare would be, and when I found out it was $38, I bowed out. My parents were paying $38 a month rent in New York City at the time, and it was a lot of money.”
“I was baffeled. I was 19 at the tiem, Februray 1959, and we were riding on top of the world at the time, and the rug was pulled out from under me.”
Like Runaround Sue, there really was a Wanderer, a guy by the name of Jackie Burns. “He was a real character,” Dion explained, “a real guy with a lot of swagger. He had Flo tattooed on his left arm. When he broke up with Flo, he he had it covered with a panther, and then got a Mary tatoo, and had to cover that up with an elephant” and he kept going until he had to cover them all with a battleship. “I like writing about strong characters,” Dion quipped.
Besides a 1987 tribute concert at Madison Square Garden that featured Billy Joel, Paul Simon and Bruce, and a tribute album that features Brian Adams, Phil Spector and Patti Smyth, getting inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame was his biggest thrill. “That meant a lot to me. It was a great night. I was inducted with Stevie Wonder, the Rolling Stones, the Temps and Otis Redding.”
“And to look out into the audience and see Sprigsteen, Bob Seeger, Paul Simon – they came there to honor me. It was a wonderful feeling.”
Does he ever get tired of the old songs? “Well, you know, it’s a funny thing. You’d think I’d be tired of them, but those particular songs, those hit records have become more valuable to me as time moves on. They mean more to mean, and I think they mean more to the people that come and see our shows. I see the response. We hold these songs in a very fond place in our hearts and I enjoy singing them today.”
I had bought a copy of his book at the concert, so I asked him if he would sign my copy of his book, and he was happy to oblige.
After telling him that “Runaround Sue” was one of the most popular songs on the Anchorage Tavern jukebox he looked up at me and smiled before writing, “To Bill Kelly and the gang at the Anchorage – Dion,”
He then wrote down September, and looked up and asked, “What year is this again?”
Dion opened the summer concert season at the Trump Plaza in May and will be at the NJPAC in Elizabeth on July 27 and at the Count Base Theater in Red Bank on July 31.
Also see: The Wanderer – Dion’s Story (Beech Tree Books, William Morrow Press, NY, 1988)
[Bill Kelly – firstname.lastname@example.org]