Dion DiMucci, formerly of the Belmonts, the best Bronx doo-wop group of the JFK era, inspirer of Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, Paul Simon (the poètes maudits of commercial hip), is having some navigational problems. He’s been cruising Yamato Road off I-95 in Boca Raton, Florida, for twenty minutes, trying to figure exactly where the egress road for the Embassy Suites Hotel begins. Finally, he cells in: “Yo, Lombahdy! Where are ya? I’m drivin’ up and down here! Maybe you could step outside, wave ya arms or somethin’?! … Oh, wait, I think it’s there…”
Two minutes later, a high, gray GX-470 slides under the hotel’s portico, and Dion, all in black—ball cap, vest, shirt, leather sneakers—eases down from the cab, adjusting his prescription shades and grinning like Sinatra as Frankie Machine in The Man With the Golden Arm. He winks at the valet—“’Sawright, we’re gonna park!”—then sidles over to shake hands.
He’s 68, but the bop is still there. The left step foreshortens a little, almost a limp, the right sliding very slightly in the old 125th Street Apollo Theater Shuffle, as practiced by D’s idols and instructors back in the fifties mists, when he was 14 and hanging around the Apollo’s stage door to pick up harmony and choreography tips.
“In those days, it was the Cleftones, the Cadillacs … You could say we copped some moves from the brothers,” D says, laughing.
At the hotel, there’s a computer convention going on. Dion is definitely out of his element. “It’s like Chinese when they talk, isn’t it? What does ‘Do you use Yahoo Messenger to Webcam?’ mean?”
Dion, who has a new record, Son of Skip James, on Verve, has been in Florida since 1968, the year he released “Abraham, Martin and John,” his last chart topper, about the Lincoln-King-Kennedy assassinations and the end of the sixties. It was a song suffused with strings, a kind of soft-rock Aaron Copland Fanfare for the Common Man, and it came out of Dion’s having finally kicked junk, a habit that affected his relations with the Belmonts—bass singer Carlo Mastrangelo, second harmony Freddie Milano, and lyric tenor Angelo D’Aleo, who gave the group its distinctive lift—and with record companies like Laurie, Columbia, and ABC. Junk was another trick he shared with some of the acts at the Apollo.
“We dug that those guys were busting some moves that we just weren’t getting, and foolishly, we wanted to copy everything, so that the feeling would rub off.”
The difference between Dion and the other teen idols he was up against—Frankie Avalon, Fabian, and Bobby Rydell from Philadelphia; Sal Mineo and Johnny Restivo, also from the Bronx—was that they were so clean and nice, showbiz-gilded, representing the assimilation so many Italian-Americans thought was the key to success. DiMucci wanted to make it as desperately as anyone, but he couldn’t help himself; he really was a corner guy, turning his collar up, walking like an outlaw and profiling the greatest forehead curl since Tony Curtis. He traded licks with Harlem hoodies like Sam “the Man” Taylor and Earl Bostic, the R&B sax men. He was the Italian Ray Charles, the coolest guy in New York, and his voice is part of the rock-and-roll canon. “I have always listened to Dion’s voice,” Lou Reed once said. “It’s inside my body and my head forever. I’ve always hoped for any new songs he cared to sing. He is, after all, the original Wanderer. One of the most original, soulful voices sprung from the New York City cauldron. And in his heart he is rhythm and blues and country, which we call rock and roll.” Bruce Springsteen called him “the real link between Frank Sinatra and rock and roll.”
D’s heroin habit had him so hard that his wife Susan Butterfield took their daughter, Tane, away from the nice suburban retreat they’d bought in 1966, Dion’s effort to escape the rough influences of Manhattan: “Man,” he says, “I was really gone. Sometimes, me and Frankie Lymon of the Teenagers would cop in Harlem and then come back uptown and hang. Once I took him to Arthur Avenue, and we had to fight our way out.” If D hadn’t been an alumnus of the Fordham Baldies, his old street gang, “it could’ve been Custer’s Last Stand that day.” Not long after that, Lymon ODed. The effect was like that of John Belushi’s passing at the Château Marmont in L.A. fourteen years later, a milestone in hip culture—it pushed Dion and a lot of others to deal with their habits. It also pushed him out of the city. “I moved my family down to Miami to stay with my father-in-law, Jack, for a while. Best move I ever made.”