Dion was the original punk. Stand him up next to his contemporary male teen idols — Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Bobby Vee, Brian Hyland, Bobby Rydell, Adam Wade, Paul Anka, Neil Sedaka, Mark Valentino, etc. — and the difference is obvious. They were all simpering, heartstruck, crybabies, with the possible exception of Fabian, and the best he could come up with was “yay yay yay I’m like a tiger” which, needless to say, was somewhat less than convincing. But when Dion sang “I love ’em and I leave ’em, they don’t even know my name!” there was no doubting him. He was tough, arrogant, not really dangerous like Elvis, but unquestionably mean. A punk.
And in 1960-62, he was the best thing we had. Not only did he have the image, he also had a succession of great songs perfectly suited to his style, written by himself and Ernie Maresca; and to top it off he had the very best voice around, kinda rough but capable of all kinds of intonations, and a sure, instinctive sense of style and delivery that elevated his records to a plane far above the ordinary. He never had to reach or strain for a note, never sounded forced or contrived. His records were smooth, natural, honest, earthy, and vastly appealing.
He started out with the Belmonts in 1958, one of the very first Italian groups to join the streetcorner doo-wop scene. Their records together were mostly traditional ballads like “In the Still of the Night” and “When You Wish upon a Star,” and their biggest hit, “Where Or When.” Their only other Top Five record was “Teenager In Love,” which was the closest Dion ever came to the whining Philadelphia sound.
When Dion broke away in 1960 his first record was “Lonely Teenager,” which found him alone in the world, a rebellious runaway, at age 16. As “The Wanderer” he ran into Runaround Sue, Little Diane, Sandy, Donna the Prima Donna, Ruby Baby, and countless other girls whom he loved and left without telling his name. And thus the legend of Dion continued through 1963, when he left his original label Laurie for Columbia, and on into 1964, when his hits stopped coming. He got one more in ’68 with “Abraham, Martin & John” but as a singer-songwriter he was not only ahead of his time but also always a bit out of phase. With his voice and songwriting ability I’m surprised he hasn’t had a hit recently, especially after Nelson and Berry, but I guess he has his reasons.
I was always a fan of Dion’s, but even so my respect for him went up several notches when I heard his Reunion album with the Belmonts, recorded live at Madison Square Garden (the first live recording of his career). The reasoning behind “Garden Party” always eluded me; Dion would never be enough of a wimp to accept money for appearing at an oldies show where people had paid up to $10 for tickets, and then rip them off by playing hokey folk songs. Dion’s proud of his new stuff, but he’s proud of his old stuff too, and rightly so.
It really shows in Reunion. It’s rare to hear anyone sound so exuberant, so fulfilled and happy to be alive. He sings the old songs like it was the first time, getting into the spirit, extemporizing on the words and the phrasing, spurring the audience and the band on to sharing the excitement he so plainly feels. Listen to him there between cuts, calling out, “Let’s hear it for the Bronx!” basking in the New York grease he was born in, obviously in his element.
All factors considered, this album is more fun than even Chuck Berry’s recent live one. Dion’s just as much into the songs, fooling around with the arrangement on “Teenager In Love,” throwing in a chorus of scat-singing in “The Wanderer” and so on, and the Belmonts are right there, harmonizing better than ever. But the crucial factor is the band.
The big problem faced by all Fifties acts on the road these days is finding proper backing. Chuck Berry seems to have worse fortune than most, with a more incompetent, wet-eared pickup band behind him every time I see him. I’ll never understand how bands who probably consider themselves “sophisticated” in relation to Fifties rock can fail so badly at the 4/4 rhythms and basic three-chord changes required at these shows, but fail they do and nostalgia is usually all the shows end up being good for. The rare exceptions, like the live album Jerry Lee Lewis did with the Nashville Teens in Germany, prove that the old stuff hasn’t lost any of its power. This album, featuring Billy Vera’s band, is one of those.
That said, I shouldn’t have to add that I think Dion’s old stuff deserves the most lovingly assembled repackage the record industry is capable of. In fact, I was involved in just such a plan. Laurie was cooperative, but Columbia said no, they were doing one of their own. End of project. Now Columbia’s contribution is out, with ten songs, one photo and insultingly inane liner notes. What a joke. All the big hits are here, and it’s the only place you’ll find the Columbia stuff, but Laurie still has several albums in print and they are all better investments than this album, for any but the true novice. If you’ve never heard Dion, this will do as a starting place, but if you want to recapture the spirit of those days, and see some great old photos as well, the Warner Bros. package is what you’re after.
After Dion went out on his own, the Belmonts went on to the Sabina label where they had an album and two fairly big hits with “Tell Me Why” and “Come On Little Angel.” Then they did a “reunion” album with Dion and dropped from sight. Now, by the strangest coincidence, they have a new album out. As indicated by the cover, which shows them harmonizing on a street corner, this album is a product of the phenomenal oldies revival that’s been growing in New York over the last few years. It appears that nostalgia in the Big Apple is getting so thick you could bottle and sell it — which is what this album attempts to do.
For starters, it’s all acappella. Acapella records were big during the first New York oldies revival in the early Sixties, and it appears they’re coming back, this time with old groups like the Five Keys and the Belmonts working out in that purest of Fifties idioms. Acapella can be abysmally bad or, as the Persuasions have proved, very very good. The Belmonts are pretty damn good.
The album includes an odd selection of songs, among them “My Sweet Lord,” “Rock and Roll Lullabye” and “Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)” as well as such standard oldies as “That’s My Desire,” “We Belong Together,” “Da Doo Ron Ron” and an early Dion & the Belmonts hit, “Where Or When.” They show their stuff on “Rock and Roll Lullabye,” with a beautiful blend of falsetto, bass and background harmony, but the real showcase is “Street Corner Symphony,” which is a medley of favorite oldies including a lot of songs they did with Dion, plus stuff from the Moonglows, Five Satins, Fleetwoods, Del Vikings and others. This is the sound that ruled New York 20 years ago, made a comeback ten years ago, and is driving ’em wild again today. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it back again ten years from now, and if it sounds as good as this and Dion’s live album, you won’t hear me complain.