Dion DiMucci, Teen Idol

Photo: Bill Bush

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.”

Dion in the post-flower-child era, circa 1970.Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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:

“Nad-ine/Honey is that you?/Aw, Nad-ine/Honey, is that youuu …
Seem like every time I catch you/that you up to somethin’ neeew …”

I ask about the transitions: doo-wop to rock star, to his religious phase from 1980 to 1987, and back to bluesman. “They’re not ‘phases,’ man. Doo-wop was full of blues for me. My rockin’ stuff, like ‘Runaround Sue,’ also had a base in blues. My ‘religious’ work, as you call it, is based in blues and R&B: Like ‘The Thunderer,’ on Son of Skip James, about my man St. Jerome, who was always gettin’ into people’s faces, that’s almost like a folk blues. If you haven’t been down that low, it may be hard to understand, but the best music is a search for truth.” He grins.

In the early sixties, Dion left the Belmonts to go solo, leaving lingering acrimony over money. They were too smooth and wanted to harmonize, and, besides, he wanted to rock.

“I moved downtown. I was hangin’ with Tom Paxton, the folkie, and John Hammond Jr., the white bluesman, in the Village. I grew my hair out. Started wearin’ hats and glasses. I wrote ‘Your Own Backyard’ and ‘Daddy Rollin,’ partly about kicking junk.” He grins. “Not too commercial, bro. So I found a relationship with God. Didn’t sell a helluva lot of CDs, but I won some awards and I felt better.”

He puts his guitar back in its case, and suggests that we go to Il Marco, his friend Mark Spillane’s “joint.” He says it has a kind of New York feeling.

Boca Raton is morphing into a pomo Los Angeles—real-estate insiders joke that they can’t wait for global warming to submerge Miami so that Fort Lauderdale–Palm Beach will mark the southern end of the Orlando-Boca corridor. It has many beautiful homes and mansions, especially on the seaside, and plenty of neoclassical gyms, banks, and restaurants, like the Battery since the nineties. But there is no focus.

For years, though Dion missed the grittiness of New York, he avoided the city because he worried that his old haunts might rekindle his old addiction. But he looks back on his Frankie Machine days with equanimity now. After he’d finished experimenting with born-again religions in the eighties, Dion again felt “comfortable” with the incense, candles, and little ringing bells of High Mass that he’d been brought up with.

And at the end of January, Dion and Susan will be moving back into the city, to a part-time apartment on Wall Street. “The city’s always the same, just faster,” he says. “Just walking those streets again, I can hear songs.”

Dion DiMucci, Teen Idol