Dion DiMucci was a teenager from the Bronx, New York, when he broke through in 1958 with “I Wonder Why.” He went on to score dozens of Top 40 hits in the late 1950s and early Sixties, on his own and with his group Dion and the Belmonts, including “Teenager in Love,” “Runaround Sue,” “The Wanderer,” and “Ruby Baby.”
For DiMucci, the best part of that success was getting the chance to play on the same stages as his heroes — especially Little Richard, who died today at age 87. “You never forget the first time you hear ‘Rip It Up’ or ‘Long Tall Sally’ – come on! It’s crazy good,” says DiMucci, who’s still making music today (he just announced a new album). Here, one of the last living Fifties rock & roll stars, alongside Don Everly and Jerry Lee Lewis, reflects on getting to know his musical hero.
The first time I heard Little Richard, it changed my life. It went through me like a bazooka. I got to play with him a lot at the Brooklyn Fox [in the late 1950s and early Sixties], and we got together a lot over the years. He was a funny guy. If you look at his stage or television persona, you would think he was outrageously self-centered, or kind of crazy. But for me, he was a very thoughtful, considerate guy. I would walk in, and he was always very focused on me, wanting to know about me: “How you doing? How’s this? How’s that?” — nothing about himself. He could be the other guy, too, like most of us. But he had a very thoughtful, kind of serene side to him.
Before I put out my first record, “I Wonder Why,” those guys [Little Richard and Chuck Berry] were on the jukebox. I would wear the records out, literally. I’d put my head up against the jukebox and keep dropping change in. And who would guess that in a very short period of time, I would be on the same stage with them? At the Brooklyn Fox, there’d be Richard, Chuck, Bo Diddley. Bo would be cooking chicken in the dressing room – he had a rotisserie thing going. Those guys were great.
My favorite Little Richard story, one that’s stayed with me for so long: I was working at the Brooklyn Fox, and I was walking past Richard’s dressing room, and this woman on the couch right near the door said, “Boy, young fella, are you that boy that sings ‘Ruby Baby?’” I said, “Yes, ma’am.” She said, “You’ve got soul.” And it was Little Richard’s mother, Leva Mae. I always told him, “Richard, if you told me that, I woulda forgot it. But your mom told me that.” That’s like hearing from heaven above!
The biggest thing he taught me was, if we were doing a TV show, and the director would say “OK,” Richard would raise his hand and say, “You better get it right. Make sure the cameras are running, because I’m going to do it once.” And the director would say, “So you’re telling me you’re going to get it perfect?” He said, “No. I didn’t say anything about getting it perfect. I said, you better have cameras running.” And then Richard would sing “Long tall Sally…” and go right into it. For me, that was rock & roll. It was free expression. Get on the ledge, jump, capture it, goodbye. They took you on a trip, and it’s not going to be twice. No do-overs.
I’ve been married to my wife, Susan, for 57 years. One time, I was on the road, and Richard had retired. He grew his hair out naturally, wore a suit, and was on the road preaching at different churches. Susan was home. She decided to go see him at the Lutheran church down the street. She said, “Dion. I’ve never seen anything like it.” She said at the end, he started collecting money and he said, “I don’t want to see any change. I don’t wanna see any ones. I want whatever kind of money you got – I want all you drug dealers putting that money in. That money was meant for bad, but now it’s gonna do good, put it in the basket.” She said he could preach chapter-and-verse. He was an ordained minister. He had a lot of sides to him. He was a complicated guy. He was one-of-a kind.
Especially when you’re young and you hear that kind of music, it gets in your DNA very strongly. You never forget the first time you hear “Rip It Up” or “Long Tall Sally” – come on! It’s crazy good. It’s just an expression that’s out of the blue. It’s heaven. It’s earth-shaking. It’s so hard to explain how it goes inside you and makes twists and turns and never leaves. But every time you hear it, it rings that bell.