Dion's popularity waned in the mid-1960s. Toward the end of the decade, he shifted his style and produced songs with a more mature, contemplative feeling, such as "Abraham, Martin and John." He became popular again in the late 1960s and into the mid-1970s, and he has continued making music ever since. Critics who had dismissed his early work, pegging him as merely a teen idol, praised his later work, and noted the influence he has had on other musicians.
Dion was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1989.
Early yearsDion was born to an Italian-American family in the Bronx, New York. As a child, he accompanied his father, Pasquale DiMucci, a vaudeville entertainer, on tour, and developed a love of country music – particularly the work of Hank Williams. He also developed a fondness for the blues and doo-wop musicians he heard performing in local bars and on the radio. His singing was honed on the street corners and local clubs of the Bronx, where he and other neighborhood singers created a cappella riffs. In early 1957, he auditioned for Bob and Gene Schwartz for their short-lived Mohawk Records label. They asked Dion to sing a song which had been arranged by Hugo Montenegro and recorded featuring Vic Damone doing vocals. At first Dion refused, stating the song would sound like something his old fashioned parents would listen to, but the Schwartzes convinced him to give it a try. The backing vocals were by a group called "The Timberlanes", whom Dion had never met. The resulting single, "The Chosen Few," was released under the name Dion and the Timberlanes, and became a minor regional hit. Dion himself stated in 2019 during an interview at "Crashing the Party" (a Radio Show related to Norton Records, Brooklyn, New York) that "The Chosen Few" hit the Top Ten locally in Boston and enabled him to perform this song on "American Bandstand" where the kids at the show started screaming during his performance, which gave him his first impression of being a record star. Writing about this experience later, in his autobiography, The Wanderer, Dion said that he had never met the Timberlanes and didn't even know who they were. "The vocal group was so white bread, I went back to my neighborhood and I recruited a bunch of guys – three guys – and we called ourselves Dion and the Belmonts."
With the Belmonts: 1957–1960
Bob and Gene Schwartz also signed Dion's friends, the Belmonts (Carlo Mastrangelo, Fred Milano, and Angelo D'Aleo), a vocal group named for the Belmont neighborhood of the Bronx, and teamed them with Dion singing lead. The new group's breakthrough came in early 1958, when "I Wonder Why" (on their newly formed Laurie Records) made No. 22 on the U.S. charts. Dion said of the Belmonts; "I'd give 'em sounds. I'd give 'em parts and stuff. That's what 'I Wonder Why' was about. We kind of invented this percussive rhythmic sound. If you listen to that song, everybody was doing something different. There's four guys, one guy was doing bass, I was singing lead, one guy's going 'ooh wah ooh,' and another guy's doing tenor. It was totally amazing. When I listen to it today, oftentimes I think, 'man, those kids are talented.'"
Their initial hit was followed by "No One Knows" and "Don't Pity Me", which also charted the Billboard Top 100. This success won a place for Dion and the Belmonts on the ill-fated "The Winter Dance Party" tour with Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson), Frankie Sardo, and other performers. On February 3, 1959, after a concert stop in Clear Lake, Iowa, Holly and others decided to charter a flight to the next venue rather than travel on the tour bus. Dion was invited to accompany the group but decided that he did not want to spend $36 for the flight, as it was the same monthly rent his parents paid for his childhood apartment and he couldn't justify the indulgence. The plane crashed, killing all on board: Holly, Valens, Richardson, and the pilot Roger Peterson. Dion and the Belmonts continued on the tour, along with Frankie Sardo, while Bobby Vee, then an unknown artist, performed in Holly's place at the very next concert. Later, Jimmy Clanton, Frankie Avalon, and Fabian were added to replace the other now-deceased headliners.
Dion and the Belmonts' next single, "A Teenager in Love", was released in March 1959, eventually hitting No. 5 on the U.S. pop charts and No. 28 in the UK. The group's biggest hit, "Where or When", was released in November of that year, and reached No. 3 on the U.S. charts. However, in early 1960, Dion checked into hospital for heroin addiction, a problem he had had since his mid-teens. Further single releases for the group that year were less successful. There were musical, personal and financial differences between Dion and members of the Belmonts, and in October 1960, Dion decided to quit for a solo career. By the time of their breakup, all eight Laurie releases had charted on the Hot 100.
Solo stardom: 1960–1964By the end of 1960, Dion had released his first solo album on Laurie, Alone with Dion, and the single "Lonely Teenager", which rose to No. 12 in the US charts. The name on his solo releases was simply "Dion". Follow-ups "Havin' Fun" and "Kissin' Game" had less success, and the signs were that Dion would drift onto the cabaret circuit. However, he then recorded, with a new vocal group, the Del-Satins, an up-tempo number co-written with Ernie Maresca. The record, "Runaround Sue", stormed up the U.S. charts, reaching No. 1 in October 1961, and No. 11 in the UK, where he also toured. "Runaround Sue" sold over a million copies, achieving gold disc status.
For the next single, Laurie promoted the A-side, "The Majestic", but it was the B-side, Maresca's "The Wanderer", which received more radio play and climbed swiftly up the charts to reach No. 2 in the U.S. in February 1962 and No. 10 in the UK (the 1976 re-release made the UK Top 20). "The Wanderer" has been used in the post-apocalyptic role-playing game Fallout 4, both in-game and in a trailer of the same name released in 2015.
By the end of 1961, Dion had become a major star, touring worldwide and making an appearance in the Columbia Pictures musical film Twist Around the Clock. In 1962, he followed with a string of singles he wrote or co-wrote including "Lovers Who Wander" (No. 3), "Little Diane" (No. 8), "Love Came to Me" (No. 10). He also had successful albums with Runaround Sue and Lovers Who Wander.
At the end of 1962, Dion moved from Laurie to Columbia Records; he was the first rock and roll artist signed to the label, which was an anomaly considering that its then-A&R director, Mitch Miller, loathed that particular genre of music. The first Columbia single, Leiber and Stoller's "Ruby Baby" (originally a hit for the Drifters) reached No. 2, while "Donna the Prima Donna" and "Drip Drop" (another remake of a Drifters hit) both reached No. 6 in late 1963. (Dion also recorded an Italian version of "Donna the Prima Donna" using the identical backup vocals.) His other Columbia releases were less successful, and problems with his addiction and changing public tastes, especially The British Invasion, saw a period of commercial decline.
Changing fortunes: 1965–1968Following a European tour, Dion returned to the U.S. and was introduced to classic blues by Columbia’s John Hammond. To the consternation of his management, he began recording more blues-oriented material, including Willie Dixon's "Hoochie Coochie Man" and "Spoonful", but these releases – some produced by Tom Wilson, with Al Kooper on keyboards – were not commercially successful. In 1965, still with Columbia, Dion formed a new group to back him, The Wanderers, composed of John Falbo on guitar, Pete Baron (Pete Falciglia) on bass, and Carlo Mastrangelo of The Belmonts on drums. They made national appearances on Dick Clark's, Where The Action Is, and The Lloyd Thaxton Show. A number of self-penned tracks were recorded and released unsuccessfully as singles, and did not appear in album format until years later. In June 1965 he recorded fellow Columbia Records's contemporary Bob Dylan's composition "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" a half-year before Them (featuring Van Morrison)'s hit version.
In 1966–67, Dion briefly reunited with The Belmonts, recording the LP Together Again for ABC Records. The album was unsuccessful, despite one classic self-penned song, "My Girl the Month of May". Two singles were released from the LP. While neither charted in the United States, they fared better in the UK. "My Girl The Month of May" entered the "Radio London Fab 40" top ten at No. 9 the week of December 25, 1966. An 'turntable' hit at London underground clubs like Middle Earth, the disc received a lot of play from pirate radio DJ's John Peel and Kenny Everett. The follow up, "Movin' Man", reached No. 17 on the "Radio London" charts on Easter Sunday, March 26, 1967. "My Girl The Month of May" was later covered by English artists Alan Bown in 1967, and Island Records artists The Bunch (featuring Sandy Denny and other members of Fairport Convention) in April 1972. During their brief mid 60's reunion, Dion and the Belmonts appeared on the popular "Clay Cole Show" performing "Berimbau" and "My Girl The Month of May", and occasionally performed at local New York City clubs such as "The Mardi Gras" on Staten Island (April 29, 1967) before disbanding. While Dion's career appeared to be nearing an end, he still retained enough credibility to be, along with Bob Dylan, one of only two rock artists featured on the album cover of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967.
In April 1968, Dion experienced what he identified as a powerful religious experience. After getting clean once again from heroin addiction, an experience he documented in his 1970 song "Your Own Backyard", he approached Laurie Records for a new contract. They agreed on condition that he record the song "Abraham, Martin & John", written by Dick Holler (also the writer of the Royal Guardsmen's "Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron") in response to the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 and those of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy during the spring of 1968. The success of this song – released by Dion in August 1968 and later recorded by many others including Marvin Gaye – which reached No. 4 in the US charts and No. 1 in Canada, resuscitated Dion's career. It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc.
Mature and Christian period: 1969–1986For the next few years, Dion's music became radically different, moving to more contemplative and mature material. He released several albums essentially as a singer-songwriter, to moderate sales, moving to the Warner Brothers label in 1969.
There followed a live reunion show with the Belmonts at Madison Square Garden on June 2, 1972, which was recorded and released as a live album by Warner. A year later, in 1973, Dion and the original Belmonts performed once more, doing a sold out concert at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island, New York. However, no recording of the 1973 reunion was ever released. This was followed in 1975 by the album Born to Be with You produced by Phil Spector. The album was a commercial failure, but has been subsequently praised by such artists as Jason Pierce of Spiritualized and Pete Townshend of The Who and the track 'Only You Know' was sampled by Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker for his single "Don't Let Him Waste Your Time" from his 2006 solo album Jarvis.
In 1978, Dion released an album drawing on many of his teenage influences, Return of the Wanderer, another commercial failure.
In December 1979, there was a radical spiritual change in Dion, who had become a born-again Christian. Thereafter, his recordings for several years were in a contemporary Christian vein, in which he released five albums on the DaySpring Records label, a division of Word Records in Waco, Texas. These albums reflecting his evangelical Christian convictions were Inside Job (1980), Only Jesus (1981), I Put Away My Idols (1983) which charted at No. 37, Seasons (1984), Kingdom in the Streets (1985) and Velvet & Steel (1986). Several singles were successfully released to Christian radio, notably "Still in the Spirit" from Kingdom in the Streets.
In 1984, Dion won the GMA Dove Award (Christian Music Award) for the album I Put Away My Idols. He was also nominated for Grammy Award for Best Gospel Vocal Performance, Male for the same album.
On September 24, 1985, Dion was a guest on 100 Huntley Street.
Return to secular music and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction and controversy: 1987–1999In 1987, Dion agreed to do a concert of his old hits at Radio City Music Hall in New York. The two disc CD of this concert was released in 2005, featuring concert photos by Dion's friend, Michael J. Friedman. This concert helped free him to celebrate both his past and his future, and led to a series of special appearances, including a fundraiser for homeless medical relief. There he shared the stage with fans such as Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon and Lou Reed, all of whom cited Dion as one of their prime influences.
In 1988, Dion's autobiography (co-authored by Davin Seay) titled The Wanderer: Dion's Story was published.
In 1989, DiMucci returned to rock music with the contemporary album Yo Frankie, which included appearances by Paul Simon, Lou Reed, k.d. lang, Patty Smyth and Bryan Adams. Produced by Dave Edmunds (who also played guitar on the album), "Yo Frankie has a sharp sound while never losing sight of Dion's soulful, doo-wop voice." Overall, "the relevant and nostalgic statement from an artist who helped forge rock & roll's first wave" found his way back on radio and in music videos during this period (both on VH1 and MTV), as well as touring.Dion was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989 (with a moving introduction by Lou Reed). Controversially, when Dion's solo induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame occurred, the other original members of the Belmonts (Carlo Mastrangelo, Fred Milano, and Angelo D'Aleo) were not inducted, and as of 2019, have yet to be. In a Billboard Magazine article, dated January 3, 2012, it was stated: "There was strife between DiMucci and Belmonts members, who were not pleased when DiMucci was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame without them in 1989."
In the late 1990s, Dion visited his old Bronx parish, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and returned to Catholicism. Sparking Dion's reversion to Catholicism was "a chance viewing of the Journey Home program on EWTN." On May 1, 2006, Dion appeared on The Journey Home program and discussed his wanderings from Catholicism to Protestantism and back again.
DiMucci joined Scott Kempner and Frank Funaro of the Del-Lords and Mike Mesaros of the Smithereens in a short-lived band called Little Kings. A live album was later released, but not widely circulated or promoted.
Most recent work: 2000s–2010sDion has released several albums with contemporary rock artists. His Déjà Nu album in 2000 found him covering Bruce Springsteen, a major follower over the years. He joined Bruce Springsteen onstage in Miami in 2002 for a performance of "If I Should Fall Behind" from Dream on Fire.
In 2002, Dion was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame for "Runaround Sue". He continues to perform songs from his albums live; one concert in 2004 was recorded for release on DVD.
In January 2006, Dion released Bronx in Blue, an album of blues and country standards, which was nominated for a Grammy. In November 2007 he issued a follow-up in similar vein, Son of Skip James.
In October 2008, DiMucci released Heroes: Giants of Early Guitar Rock, an album of his covers of early rock and roll songs he considers seminal to the genre. The album includes versions of songs originally recorded by Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, Ricky Nelson, Johnny Cash and many other early rock guitarists.
In October 2009, Dion performed "The Wanderer" with Paul Simon at the 25th Anniversary Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Concert.
Now a practicing Roman Catholic, Dion pursues prison ministry and reaches out to men going through addiction recovery. He was a member of the American board of directors of Renewal Ministries in 2004. He currently lives in Boca Raton, Florida, and New York City.
On January 24, 2012, Dion released a new album, Tank Full of Blues.
As of 2015, Dion was still touring. On April 5, 2015, Dion performed "Donna the Prima Donna" live in Las Vegas. On July 11, 2015, he held a concert in Westbury, New York.
In 2015, he released a single, New York Is My Home, with Paul Simon. Dion had previously worked with Simon on his 1989 hit Written on the Subway Wall. The single was followed by the album New York Is My Home, released February 12, 2016.
A February 2016 performance at the intimate Grammy Museum in LA demonstrated the enduring power of Dion's voice. Many great singers begin to lose their "range" with age; flexibility and phrasing can suffer. By contrast, Dion's voice sounded almost unchanged from his early years. His high tenor, his attack and his ability to imply subtle pathos in apparently macho songs like 'The Wanderer' demonstrate that, like Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell, he has the soul of a Blues singer.
Dion planned four concerts in the U.S. during early 2016. Dion was invited as a keynote speaker for the 2016 SXSW in Texas. He spoke on the topic A Conversation with Dion: Rock's Enduring Voice on March 17, 2016.
In May 2017, Dion released Kickin' Child: The Lost Album 1965, songs recorded in 1965 when he was with Columbia, who did not release them; the current album is from Norton Records.
Also released in May 2017 was Richard Barone's Sorrows & Promises: Greenwich Village in the 1960s on which Dion performs a duet of his 1964 song "The Road I'm On (Gloria)" with Barone. The album is a celebration of the New York City scene that Dion was part of during that pivotal era.
The Wanderer musicalOn October 13, 2011, an industry-only reading of a new play about Dion's life was performed in New York City.
In a December 9, 2011 article in The New York Times, Dion and his collaborator, writer/director Charles Messina, discussed details about the project, titled The Wanderer: The Life and Music of Dion, revealing that it will focus on the years between 1957 until the late 60s and will feature more than 20 songs from that era as well as new, original music. In the article, Dion gave his perspective on the story: "You know, I always saw my story as a young Sopranos with great music and a Rocky Graziano Somebody Up There Likes Me ending. It's a story of redemption. A rock and roll redemption story!"
On December 16, 2017, DiMucci revealed that Michael Wartella would be starring in The Wanderer. There was a reading of the musical on November 2, 2017 and it continues to be worked on. On December 4, 2019, it was announced that former New Kids on the Block member Joey McIntyre will star as Dion, starting May 28, 2020, in the initial run at the Paper Mill Playhouse.