Dion DiMucci will never forget the day the music died. He still has a copy of the poster, dated Monday, Feb. 2, 1959, calling all teens to the Winter Dance Party at the Surf in Clear Lake, Iowa. For a mere $1.25, the kids could hear the Big Bopper and crowd close to the stage for sets by rock and roll’s youth brigade: Buddy Holly, 22, Ritchie Valens, 17, and 19-year-old Dion, of Dion and the Belmonts, whose ode to adolescent angst, “A Teenager in Love,” would soon be at the top of the record charts.
Three of the principals on the tour had been spending the long, frigid nights between gigs jamming on their new electric guitars. “We all came on the tour, Buddy and Ritchie and I, with the Fender Stratocasters that had just come out,” Dion says. “I had a white one and Buddy’s had a big sunburst. We got in a competition—who could hit a chord and make it ring the longest.”
But the tour itself was a third-class operation, says Dion. The bus kept breaking down, and the musicians had to sleep on overhead luggage racks and huddle together under blankets to keep warm. At one point, Holly’s drummer got frostbitten feet, and the Belmonts’ Carlo Mastrangelo had to fill in for him. After the Clear Lake concert, rather than face another all-night freeze on the ride to the next evening’s gig in Fargo, N.Dak., Holly decided to charter a plane.
“I was one of the first guys Buddy came to,” says Dion. “He wanted three guys to help him split the cost, and it came to $35 apiece.” Any other amount and Dion would have ended up dead in a frozen cornfield along with Holly, Valens and J.P. Richardson, the Big Bopper. But $35 had special meaning for Dion—that was what his family had had to scrape together each month for rent while he was growing up in the Bronx. Though Dion was now well on the way to his first million, “$35 still seemed like an awful lot of money to me,” he says. He told Holly no.
The memory haunts him still. Dion vividly remembers arriving in Fargo, hearing the news—”no survivors”—and seeing Buddy’s sunburst Stratocaster there among the band’s luggage.
It wasn’t DiMucci’s first brush with death. Hooked on heroin for 15 years, starting at the age of 14, Dion laid his life on the line every time he smacked a needle into his arm. That’s why, when he is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in January, no one will be happier about it—or more pleasantly surprised—than Dion himself. “Yeah, how about that,” he rasps in a friendly whisper befitting one of the godfathers of rock and roll. “I feel like I contributed something; like I took people on the right trip, you know?”
Never a good bet to make it out of his 20s, Dion is 49 now and 20 years clean. His newly published autobiography, The Wanderer: Dion’s Story, written with Davin Seay, is a survival guide for aging rockers. It is also a remarkable source of rock history. Remembering that on the night after the Iowa crash, bubble-gum rocker-to-be Bobby Vee filled in for Buddy Holly in Fargo, Dion adds a mind-bending footnote: “Vee’s keyboard player was a young kid named Zimmerman from Hibbing, just across the state line in Minnesota.” That kid, of course, was Bob Dylan.
But Dion wants to be more than just a source of rock lore. Eager to prove that he has “still got the chops,” he is in the studio making a comeback album with English rock doctor Dave “Rockpile” Edmunds. The album, as yet untitled, for Arista Records, will be out in time for the 30th anniversary of the plane crash that almost made him a legend before his time. Heaven will have to wait, says Dion, while “I show rock and rollers how to grow old gracefully. I want to rock till I drop. I love rock and roll music. It keeps you young.”
Of course, actually being young wasn’t so hot. Dion confesses he grew up ashamed of his father, Pasquale, a seldom-employed puppeteer and full-time free spirit who commanded little respect in a neighborhood that put great stake in being a good provider. Dion’s mother, Frances, granddaughter of an Italian symphony conductor, seemed to enjoy taunting Pasquale, reminding him that her true love had proposed to her and died in a car wreck on the same day, two years before she met Dion’s father.
Named in honor of the Dionne quintuplets, Dion grew up believing Pasquale’s joke that his name came from the last syllables of accordion. Though Dion’s father instilled an appreciation for nature, art and whimsy in his son, as a role model, Pasquale was a disaster. He taught Dion to shop-lift and to shirk responsibility and filled him with a lifelong sense of fear and insecurity. Dion says he has finally made peace with Pasquale, now 76 and living with Frances in Miami. “He told me he doesn’t care what I write or say about him,” Dion says, “as long as I take him to lunch.” Still, the bad memories linger.
“I left my home on a rural route/Told my folks I was steppin’ out/I got the Honky Tonk Blues.” Dion was 10 when he turned on the radio and heard that urgent, rocking wail by country king Hank Williams. “The day I heard Hank Williams for the first time, my life changed,” Dion says. “It was like I went on a four-minute trip with that song. Before that, music was boring—Patti Page, Frankie Laine, Perry Como. Rock and roll didn’t exist in my neighborhood before that. Hank was the dawn of creation for me.”
Inspired, Dion discovered that he had something of Williams’ gift, too. “I’d sing, and my friends would say, ‘Play another one!’ ” he says. “It was like/could take them on a trip. For the first time in my life, I felt good about something.”
With his father passing the hat, Dion was singing in local bars at 12. But when Pasquale dressed him up in a cowboy suit and tried to package him as a honky-tonk kid, Dion balked. “I refused to be my dad’s meal ticket,” he says. “I was headstrong.”
And macho. In the ’50s, when “the dago street kid was the epitome of cool,” he says, Dion worked out with weights, slicked his hair into a waterfall DA and hung out on the corner, where he worked on his swagger. He also joined the toughest street gang around—the Fordham Baldies. “They weren’t too impressed by my singing,” Dion says. “If you could wipe the street with five guys, that impressed them.”
Dion just said “yo” to drugs when he was barely a teenager. After turning on to 7-Up and wine spritzers, followed by a syrupy gin-and-Bosco concoction, he began smoking reefer at 13 and a year later took his first sniff of heroin. Soon he was into skin-popping, then mainlining the stuff. “Instant courage,” he calls it.
Or instant death. Dion overdosed when he was only 16. “We were on a roof, shooting up, and I OD’d,” he says. “Everybody else split but this one junkie, who carried me down and took me to some girl’s house, where they filled my drawers with ice cubes—to wake me up. Then they shot me up with salt to counteract the heroin, and he walked me around the park for a couple of hours. I don’t know why. With junkies, one guy passes out, it’s ‘Let’s get outta here before we get caught.’ But this guy, who I stay in touch with, saved my life.”
When Dion wasn’t toying with death, he was perfecting his singing with three doo-woppers from the neighborhood; they took their name from a local thoroughfare—Belmont Avenue. After much rehearsing on subways and rooftops, Dion and the Belmonts signed with Laurie Records.
“I Wonder Why” hit the charts in the spring of 1958, when Dion was 18. “We used to run around the studio, rapping pencils on cardboard boxes, beer bottles, anything to get a sound,” he says. “Now you got the simulator and the emulator that’s worth 50 grand and it costs $30,000 to make a record. Kids today have trouble understanding there was a time when it all used to happen at once; there were no rules, no requirements. It was just ‘create.’
“It was a very exciting time. I remember the first time I saw Little Richard—it blew my mind. And the Cadillacs! They’d spin around and do splits. I went crazy. I went home and—one thing a stocky Italian guy shouldn’t do is splits. I haven’t been able to walk the same since.”
Instead, Dion and the Belmonts made the finger snap their contribution to rock and roll choreography. The group’s brand of Bronx soul culminated in “A Teenager in Love,” and “Where or When,” both of which hit the charts in 1959. The backup group began to go its own way in 1960 without acrimony. “They wanted to get into their harmony thing, and I wanted to rock and roll,” Dion says.
By the early ’60s, Dion was a solo star, thanks to “Runaround Sue,” “The Wanderer” and a rocking version of “Ruby Baby.” By age 25, he was a millionaire twice over. He had several hit records and a jones for heroin so fierce that Dion would cover for his dealer—a midtown parking-lot attendant—so the guy could run up to Harlem for more horse. There was Dion, the millionaire teen idol in a sharp silk suit, parking cars for a fix.
“The mid-’60s was a real bleak period in my life,” says Dion. “You know that saying, ‘If you remember the ’60s, you weren’t there’? That was me.” Daily heroin injections were chased by speed, pot and wine. But when friends gave him LSD, he says, he was terror-struck.
“I was in hell,” he says. “My life was a nightmare. I had all this stuff bottled up inside, all these feelings, and I couldn’t talk about them. Say how you felt about something in my family, you got smacked in the mouth. It wasn’t the macho thing to do. So it eats you away on the inside.”
Torn between suicidal despair and drug-induced visions of divine harmony, Dion finally got control of himself when his wife, Susan, announced she was pregnant. Dion tried to kick heroin in 1966, the year the first of three daughters—Tane, now 22—was born. But he didn’t get off drink and drugs entirely until April 1, 1968.
It was on that day, Dion says, that he found God while praying in a Baltimore hotel room. “Drugs drove me to my knees,” he says. But Jack Butterfield, his late father-in-law, had pointed the way. “He was a very spiritual man,” says Dion, “but he wasn’t a wimp. He talked straight to me. He said flat-out, ‘You don’t know s—about life. You might have made a couple of million, but you’re the dumbest sonofabitch. You’re gonna die.’ He saw right through me. But I was like ‘Who’s this guy think he’s talkin’ to?’ I wouldn’t take that from anybody. But I knew he was right. Inside I was wondering, ‘What’s wrong? Why am I so empty?’ ”
Dion went straight and found he had another hit in him: “Abraham, Martin and John,” his eulogy for a generation, sold more than a million copies in 1968. But after that he seemed to drop out of sight. Though he performed regularly as a solo folk act, a series of mellow rock albums failed to generate any hits and a mid-’70s comeback attempt—in which he was paired with production whiz Phil Spector—fizzled.
Then, in 1979, out for his daily run in a Miami park, Dion had a vision. He saw God, he says, in a burst of light on the jogging path. For Dion, the sighting was merely confirmation of what he considers a simple fact of life: God exists. That same day he decided that God just might appreciate his kind of music. “I used to think God only liked organ music,” says Dion, who recorded five gospel-oriented rock albums between 1980 and 1986, “but religion puts God in a box. From what I read in the Bible, God doesn’t like religion. God talks about having a personal relationship with him. I feel comfortable with that.”
A Floridian since 1968, Dion shares a modest three-bedroom house in Boca Raton with Susan and his youngest daughter, August, 14. (Tane is a college senior in Tampa, and Lark, 19, is a drama student in New York.) “This house is the smallest guy on the block, but I like it here,” he says. “I feel like I’m always on vacation.” Dion does volunteer work at a local hospital, counseling heroin addicts. (“The only way to help,” he says, “is to give these kids time—listen to them. All the rest—Kill the dealers! Burn the fields!—that’s not helping the kid who lives in a house where no one listens to him.”) Dion also attends Christian fellowships, makes surprise appearances at music clubs on the boardwalk in Hollywood Beach—and writes songs. “Yo Frankie,” one of the numbers on his new album, has the old Wanderer beat. Sure, it’s about settling down, but even when he’s celebrating domesticity, Dion does it with a certain swagger.
“There’s a real enjoyment I get out of life today that I never had before,” says Dion, who usually hides a thinning head of hair under a hat of one kind or another. Now, doffing a Mets cap, he squints into the blinding sunlight dancing on the surface of his yin- (or yang-) shaped swimming pool. “It’s great, really knowing my children,” he says. “They love me, they sit down next to me, they put their arms around me, they trust me. I got a woman that loves me and friends that seem to feel the same way about their families.”
Dion knows he can still fly to New York and make rock and roll records whenever the spirit moves him, but he rarely feels the urge. The guy who went “round and round and round” in the ’60s “was Mr. Macho, yeah, but he was also lost in a way,” says the one-time Wanderer. “Now he’s home.”