The problem was that he’d lost the line on his singing. When he’d started, it was a kind of organic urban folk music, if you can imagine Bronx doo-wop, linoleum floors, and screaming moms instead of ponderosa pines and lonesome railroad whistles as a natural soundtrack: “There was a lot of unresolved conflict in my house.” D smiles wryly. “My pop, Pasquale, couldn’t make the $36-a-month rent on our apartment at 183rd and Crotona Avenue.” He was a dreamer, a failed vaudevillian, and sometimes Catskills puppeteer. He’d talk big and lift weights he’d made from oilcans, while Frances, Mrs. DiMucci, took two buses and the subway downtown to work in the garment district on a sewing machine. “When they’d start yelling, I’d go out on the stoop with my $8 Gibson and try to resolve things that way.”
Richard Gottehrer, who produced a couple of Blondie albums and wrote songs like “My Boyfriend’s Back” and “I Want Candy,” and who is now the prime mover of the Orchard, a digital-music distribution company, describes the fifties milieu that doo-wop came out of as “a period of postwar confidence and pride for middle-aged, working-class Jews and Italians in all the East Coast cities. They’d come through the Depression and couldn’t believe how lucky they were.”
Dion began singing in Bronx bars at 13, channeling Hank Williams’s nasal twang through a street-corner aesthetic.
But their kids didn’t see it that way. They saw their parents killing themselves and kicking off at 55. They were bored by stupid TV programs and politics, and by standard radio fare before rock and roll— Pat Boone, the Four Freshmen, and the Crew-Cuts doing lame covers of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” and the Chords’ “Sh-Boom!” They were listening to Alan Freed and going to the Brooklyn Fox on Saturdays to see the Cadillacs do “Speedoo” and they were digging John Lee Hooker and Bo Diddley on those big southern stations that used to waft up at night, and even getting cross-pollinated by WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia, which played Eddy Arnold and Lefty Frizzell. Dion “is a closet hillbilly,” wrote Waylon Jennings, many years later. Doo-wop was about performance, about extreme style. “The whole hair thing in the Bronx, with ‘the Zoom’ in the front?” says Gottehrer. “In my neighborhood, you’d slick your hair back with Wildroot or Vaseline, you’d have about five pounds of hair up there, and you’d comb it up, up, high as you could, then stick your finger in front, put it way in and pull it through. That gave you the Zoom, like a rooster. Or a young kid, 15, he couldn’t get a license, he gets in his father’s car in the parking place in front of the tenement and drives it forward two feet, then backs up two feet, for hours, back and forth … That was doo-wop attitude.”
The singing traditions around Belmont Avenue, where Mastrangelo, Milano, and D’Aleo came from, were more Jerry Vale–Julius La Rosa bel canto than Vito and the Elegants (“Little Star”), or Johnny Maestro and the Crests, which had inspired Dion, who hung a few corners away. These groups were basically corner boys who’d started harmonizing and bopping to dramatize their teenage feelings, get girls, and break the dirty monotony. Dion began singing in neighborhood bars when he was 13, channeling Hank Williams’s nasal, heartsick love songs through the corner aesthetic and giving him the trademark melancholy toughness that carried everything from “I Wonder Why,” the Belmonts’ first smash in 1958, through “A Teenager in Love,” “That’s My Desire,” “Runaround Sue,” “The Wanderer,” and 1963’s “Ruby Baby,” a remake of an old Drifters song heavily influenced by John Lee Hooker’s stomping, slightly menacing delivery: “See, everybody else had the ‘Let me entertain you–Nipsy–Shecky–showbiz shtick, like Bobby Cassatto [Darin], who was also a Bronx boy from across town. We were like, ‘Hey! You’re on 183rd and Crotona, baby! How you like it?’”
To get the right echo for the Belmonts’ harmony, Dion would drag them into empty subway stations, hallways in abandoned buildings, and up to tenement rooftops.
“They bought our singles because they wanted a record of how it really was,” he says, back in the Lexus, driving home to his gated community in central Boca on a fine early-winter day. “If you went off, they’d stop buying you.”
D’s got a $1.2 million house, sort of neo-plantation, cool, white, a high entrance foyer over a terrazzo. The housekeeper is singing in the kitchen, and Susan, his wife, may or may not be home. (“She’ll kill me for not lettin’ her fix her hair in advance.”) His music room is off to the right, dominated by a huge portrait he painted of Robert Johnson, the legendary thirties bluesman poisoned by a jealous husband. D picks up a black Martin “Dion” model acoustic guitar and does twelve bars of Chuck Berry’s “Nadine,” from his new album: