Easily the suavest of New York City's late-'50s white teen idols, Dion DiMucci broke from that clean-cut pack with an engagingly cool, streetwise swagger epitomized by "The Wanderer." Through the years, he has boldly essayed new musical directions with mixed results, yet endured as an influence on rock singers ranging from Billy Joel to Lou Reed.
He started singing at age five and picked up a guitar a few years later. As a teenager he began singing on streetcorners. He also began dabbling in drugs and eventually developed a heroin habit that he didn't kick until 1968. Shortly after dropping out of high school, Dion recorded a demo as a Valentine's Day present for his mother. It reached the producers of the Teen Club TV show out of Philadelphia, where Dion made his performing debut in 1954.
Recording his vocals separately over those of a backing group called the Timberlanes, he released "The Chosen Few," and in early 1958 Dion rounded up some neighborhood friends and dubbed them the Belmonts after Belmont Avenue, a street near the Bronx's Italian Arthur Avenue area. Their second single, "I Wonder Why," skirted the Top 20. "No One Knows" and "Don't Pity Me" followed, but the big break came in the spring of 1959, when "A Teenager in Love" (Number Five) became an international hit. The next year "Where or When" climbed to Number Three.
The group toured frequently, often on package tours with other stars; in February 1959 Dion passed up a ride on the chartered plane that later crashed, killing Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper. At the height of the group's success Dion felt confined, and his drug dependency worsened. (When "Where or When" peaked, he was in a hospital detoxifying.)
By early 1960 Dion was recording solo, backed by the uncredited Del-Satins. He hit the Top 10 with "Runaround Sue" (Number One), "The Wanderer" (Number Two), "Lovers Who Wander" (Number Three), and "Little Diane" (Number Eight) in 1962; and "Ruby Baby" (Number Two), "Drip Drop" (Number Six), and "Donna the Prima Donna" (Number Six) in 1963. By then he was recording for Columbia. In 1964 Dion went into near seclusion, releasing a string of unsuccessful covers ("Johnny B. Goode," "Spoonful"). He reappeared in 1965 for another round with the Belmonts (who'd remained active after 1960, achieving moderate success with "Tell Me Why" and "Come On Little Angel"). Together they released "Mr. Movin' Man" and "Berimbau" and an album for ABC.
In early 1968 he moved with his wife, Susan (the real "Runaround Sue," whom he married in 1963) and their daughter to Miami, where, with the help of his father-in-law, he finally kicked heroin. (The couple had two more daughters.) Later that year he recorded "Abraham, Martin and John," a Number Four hit ballad tribute to Lincoln, King, and Kennedy; the flop followup was a cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze."
Dion spent the next few years on the coffeehouse circuit. His Warner Bros. debut, Sit Down Old Friend, featured just his voice and acoustic guitar on eight songs. He also released the nonalbum single, the antidrug "Your Own Backyard." Both that folky album and the lusher Suite for Late Summer failed to sell, and Dion reunited with the Belmonts. The group played Madison Square Garden in mid-1972, as documented on the Reunion LP. Dion then briefly reentered the show-biz mainstream, frequently guesting on TV variety shows like Cher. The transfusion also helped the Belmonts, whose Cigars Acapella Candy sold respectably. In the mid-1970s Dion recorded with Phil Spector, but their collaboration, Born to Be With You, was released only in the U.K.
Dion attempted to update with Streetheart in 1976. He recorded five albums of Christian music; in 1988 he published his candid autobiography The Wanderer: Dion's Story. The next year he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and recorded Yo Frankie!, produced by Dave Edmunds and featuring such guests as Lou Reed, in whose songs Dion's influence had long been apparent. In the mid-'90s for some dates, he formed the Little Kings with Scott Kempner of the Dictators and Del-Lords, Mike Mesaros of the Smithereens, and Frank Funaro of the Del-Lords and Cracker. Déjà Nu is a collection of new songs written in the style of his earlier material and recorded, according to the Wanderer himself, "with the same techniques and equipment" used on his early classics. Dion continues to perform.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
Listen to the singer's tribute to Rolling Stone