An ode to Dion & The Belmonts’ streetcorner symphony
On Dion’s 1989 album Yo Frankie (a project I was involved in and that is dear to my heart), he takes a reflective journey into the past: “Remember the wonder of it all,” he sings, “written on the subway wall.”
The “wonder” he’s referring to could be the first chart single by Dion & the Belmonts, “I Wonder Why,” which recently celebrated the 60th anniversary of its release. The sound of “I Wonder Why,” one of the most exhilarating records by a white rock ’n’ roll singing group from that era, the interplay of the four voices, is head-spinning: it’s percussive, melodic, acrobatic. Sometimes a vocal imitates the sputtering of an R&B saxophonist like Big Al Sears or Red Prysock, sometimes a singer is banging away like a verbal jackhammer, and at a couple of points in the record, four different wordless-vocal things are going on at the same time for fifteen, twenty seconds, and the effect is dizzying. Dion DiMucci and his three associates–Carlo Mastrangelo, Fred Milano and Angelo D’Aleo–were obviously influenced by other vocal groups, like the Cleftones, the Drifters, and the Harptones, but they were a bunch of Italian kids from the Arthur Avenue section of the Bronx, and their music had a Bronx attitude. They were like the kids you’d see hanging around the recruiting stations in the middle of the Grand Concourse, near Fordham Road, smoking cigarettes, checking out the girls from Aquinas High School, looking like trouble.
There were other white R ’n’ R singers in groups (it was all rock ’n’ roll until, much later on, it was determined retroactively that “doo wop” would be a catch-all for the harmony groups, the only case where a musical style was named long after it went out of fashion), like Johnny Maestro in the Crests, Danny Rapp in Danny & the Juniors, the guys in the Diamonds, but even though “I Wonder Why” was not as big a hit nationally as it was in New York City (where it hit the top 10 on WMGM’s chart), the impact of Dion & the Belmonts was seismic. They stood out. The name, to start with, was perfect (Dion always says that a good group name could also be used for a gang or a bowling team). And there was something about them that was appealing to young women and men.
They stood out. The name, to start with, was perfect (Dion always says that a good group name could also be used for a gang or a bowling team). And there was something about them that was appealing to young women and men.
Like other Italian teen idols—Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell—Dion had the look that would make him prime pin-up material in Dig and Teen Scene magazines (and 16, where he was helped by a romantic involvement with its editor, Gloria Stavers). But there was, especially on “I Wonder Why,” a pronounced swagger, a toughness. That’s why you hear “I Wonder Why” in the pilot episode of The Sopranos; why Dion’s music is a thread that runs through Richard Price’s book The Wanderers, Chazz Palminteri’s play and film A Bronx Tale, Floyd Mutrix’s movie American Hot Wax, and Francis Ford Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married.
Immediately, Dion & the Belmonts became fixtures at Alan Freed’s Brooklyn Paramount shows (leaping from near the bottom of the pack at the ’58 Christmas Jubilee to fourth-billed at the Freed’s Fifth Anniversary Show less than a year later), and they toured with Buddy Holly & the Crickets and Bobby Darin on The Biggest Show of Stars for ’58, not long before the brutal, ill-fated Winter Dance Party tour of early 1959. And suddenly, it seemed, groups that might well have been inspired by them popped up from all corners of New York City: the Bronx (the Earls, the Regents), Queens (the Capris, Randy & the Rainbows), Brooklyn (the Mystics, the Tokens), even Staten Island (the Elegants). Most were Italian (the Tokens were Jewish, which is kind of the same thing), and most of them made records that still would get spun on oldies stations, if there are still oldies stations. And there were others: Nino & the Ebbtides, Donnie & the Del Chords…
Nothing Dion & the Belmonts recorded after “I Wonder Why” had the same type of manic energy, but they did go on to even greater popularity with a series of ballads. “No One Knows,” cowritten by Ernie Maresca, who became a valuable Dion collaborator, and “Don’t Pity Me” both hit the national top 40. Then Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman gave the group “A Teenager in Love,” which Dion wasn’t wild about initially, but it became a smash hit and a signature tune for him (once, at Madison Square Garden, he sang it with fans Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Lou Reed, Paul Simon, James Taylor and Ruben Blades as fill-ins for the Belmonts). At the urging of Laurie Records’ boss, the group cut a swoony-teen version of Rodgers & Hart’s “Where or When” that was their biggest-charting single, and then it was decided that standards were the way to go, leading to the Wish Upon a Star with Dion and the Belmonts album, featuring the Disney song that gives the LP its title, Cole Porter’s (not the 5 Satins’ “In the Still of the Night”), and other songs of similar vintage (“Swinging on a Star,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon”). Dion, again, not thrilled. He didn’t stick around much longer with the Belmonts.
You can hear in scattered Dion & the Belmonts tracks a hint of where Dion would wind up as a solo artist. There’s a little growl in his voice on Pomus & Shuman’s “My Private Joy” when he sings “There’s a wall of love around her so you can’t break through” (another cool line: “She wears gold polish on her fingernails”), and the same writing team’s “I’ve Cried Before” is a precedent of his self-pitying solo ballads. Leiber & Stoller’s “Will You Love Me Still” has a pretty Latin lilt; Maresca’s “I Got the Blues” is a step in the right direction; and the group’s version of the standard “That’s My Desire” is doo wop perfection, a true representation of their musical foundation.
Dion & the Belmonts’ time in the spotlight together was relatively brief: From the time “I Wonder Why” entered the Billboard singles chart in the spring of 1958, to their last appearance on that chart (“In the Still of the Night”) was just a little over two years. But as Dion sang on another Yo Frankie cut, “the legend sure has grown,” to the extent that a lot of people think it’s the Belmonts singing on hits like “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer” (it’s not; it’s the Del- Satins). “Dion and the Belmonts” has a flow to it, a resonance that far outlasted those years they sang together. Like a gang, or a bowling team, wearing the same jackets, it’s about unity and harmony, collective identity, banding together in the neighborhood, convinced you’re the kings of the New York streets.