#199: Lonely Teenager by Dion
Dion Francis DiMucci was born in the Bronx, NY, in 1939. His parents named him Dion in honor of the French Canadian Dionne quintuplents who captured the interest of millions around the world after the five infants were born in May 1934. Dion’s dad, Pasquale DiMucci, was a vaudeville performer and Dion accompanied him to see his dad on stage. As a child he was given an $8 dollar guitar by his uncle while he lived on 183rd Street. Dion’s childhood was set in the midst of conflict between his parents. In an interview with New York Magazine in 2007, Dion remembers “…There was a lot of unresolved conflict in my house… My pop, Pasquale, couldn’t make the $36-a-month rent on our apartment at 183rd and Crotona Avenue.” He was a dreamer, a failed vaudevillian, and sometimes Catskills puppeteer. He’d talk big and lift weights he’d made from oilcans, while Frances, Mrs. DiMucci, took two buses and the subway downtown to work in the garment district on a sewing machine. “When they’d start yelling, I’d go out on the stoop with my $8 Gibson and try to resolve things that way.”
Dion began singing in Bronx bars at 13, doing a Hank Williams nasal twang imitation fused with street-corner aesthetic. As a teenager growing up in the Bronx, Dion DiMucci began singing on street corners at the age of 13. By 1954 Dion had dropped out of high school. He made a demo record that heard by producers of a Philadelphia teen variety show called the Teen Club. Dion appeared on the show and released some singles with his group the Timberlanes. In 1954 Dion also began to do drugs. In an interview in 2007 with the New Yorker Dion said he began hanging out at the Apollo Theatre on 125th Street in Harlem at the age of 14. It was there he’d hear group like the Cleftones singing “Little Girl Of Mine” and the Cadillacs singing “Speedoo“. From these black doo-wop groups Dion got some ideas for making harmony and choreography moves.
In 1957 Dion and the Timberlanes single, “The Chosen Few” made it to #7 in Boston on WCOP, spending three months on the Boston pop charts. Later that year Dion DiMucci joined a Bronx group called The Belmonts. The group was named after a street in a Little Italy named Belmont Avenue. They released “Santa Margherita,” a tune with a more traditional Italian-American sound. A follow up single, “Tag Along”, had a rockabilly influence. They kept on experimenting with their “sound” as a group. The next single, in 1958, was “I Wonder Why” which peaked at #8 in Vancouver and #22 on the Billboard Hot 100. They fused doo-wop with a Johnny Mathis piano sound with their Top 30 follow up, “No One Knows.” Next, Dion and his group had their first Top Ten hit in America in 1959 with “A Teenager In Love.” The song climbed to #5 in Vancouver and on the Billboard Hot 100.
Dion and The Belmonts were soon on stages shared with Gene Vincent, Bobby Darin and Eddie Cochran. In January 1959 Dion and The Belmonts were part of a fall tour in 1958 with Buddy Holly titled “The Biggest Show of Stars.” Buddy Holly and Dion got along well and Holly invited Dion and The Belmonts to join him on his upcoming “Winter Dance Party” tour. Dion and the Belmonts, Buddy Holly and His Crickets, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper were the headliners. After enduring bus travel with poor heating systems, Buddy Holly arranged for a flight to get three people from Clear Lake, Iowa, to Moorehead, Minnesota. Dion and The Big Bopper both won a coin toss to join Buddy Holly on the small three-seater. But when Dion learned from Buddy Holly that the plane ticket would cost $36 dollars, Dion let Ritchie Valens have his seat on the plane. The flight ended in tragedy and Dion was the only headliner that was still alive at the end of February 3, 1959. At the time he was 19 years old.
While their second Top Ten hit in the USA, “Where Or When,”climbed to #3 in the USA Dion’s drug dependency worsened, and he was in the hospital detoxifying from heroin when “Where or When” peaked.
Released from hospital, Dion pursued a solo career. His first solo release was “Lonely Teenager”.
“Lonely Teenager” was written by by Alfred DiPaola, Silvio Faraci, and Salvatore Pippa. It was their only successful effort at songwriting. They tried their hand at another song, and after that quit the music industry.
Though “Lonely Teenager” is not autobiographical, Dion’s rough upbringing, with his parents arguments, and his doing drugs from the age of 15, the lyrics were convincing: “when I was sixteen, ran away, all alone, on a stray…. Now I’m seventeen, still alone. Wondering if I should go home. Or maybe stay out on my own.”
In “Lonely Teenager”, Dion is singing about youth who are from broken homes. Things are so difficult that these teens choose to leave the family home, and run away. This may mean they are living on the streets, or shacking up with other teens in temporary shelter. Running away from home means they likely can’t go to school. Most schools would require a teenager to have parents for them to contact. And, with no financial support from the broken home they’ve left, the teen would have to get money somehow. In 1960, it would be possible for a teenage boy, or girl, to get work. Maybe as a busboy, waiter or waitress, Or some other marginal, temporary work, And then if things got desperate enough, though not mentioned in the song, resort to prostitution.
In “Lonely Teenager” the narrator contemplates going back home and thinks they’ll “be alright, if I just stay out of sight.” But, what kind of household environment is this lonely teenager coming back to if they know the only way to be safe, to be alright, is to “stay out of sight.” Much as Dion sings “I wanna go home where I belong,” the choice to return carries the implied risk of punishment. How does a teenager live in a home with their parents when the way to cope is to just stay out of sight? This is a home of tension, possibly violence, corporal punishment, anger and uncomfortable silences.
“Lonely Teenager” was part of a theme reflected more in films of the time about juvenile delinquents and teens in trouble. James Dean’s Rebel Without A Cause and Glen Ford and Sidney Potier’s Blackboard Jungle, were chief among the films reflecting a generational upheaval.
In our present time, an article on “Raising Troubled Kids” advised “Most rebellious teens do not run away because they may have better survival instincts. If a teen is emotionally behind their peers, using drugs or alcohol, and part of a risky crowd that encourages them and undermines their parents’ authority, it’s likely they’ll run….Mental health problems magnify any or all negative aspects of rebellion and immaturity. They also disrupt a teen’s thought patterns and cause irrational ideas and fantasies. They have a high likelihood of running. And 65% name the top reason for running away is conflict in the home.
Currently, in most American states and Canadian provinces it is the case that: “If you leave home without permission or stay away longer than you’re supposed to, and you are under the age of 18, your parents can file you as a runaway with the police. If the police find you, you will be taken home or to police headquarters, and your parents will be called to pick you up.” However, in “Lonely Teenager”, the teen has left home at age sixteen. And at age seventeen, they are still out on their own. So, in the case of the song, the parents haven’t opted to call the police and have their teenager brought back home by the police. So, it’s likely that the parents in “Lonely Teenager” are either glad their child has run away (and not welcome under my roof) or indifferent.
More recently, most jurisdictions state that “If a teen goes to a youth shelter, generally they have to contact their parents within a certain amount of time to obtain consent for their stay. Often, youth are allowed to stay only 72 hours (3 days) before they must return home. This gives the son or daughter and their parents time to cool off.
It’s useful to know that in at least one study, “85% parents reported that the issues that led the youth to run away were somewhat, mostly, or completely resolved within a month.”
“Lonely Teenager” peaked at #1 in Oxnard (CA), Davenport (IA), #2 in Vancouver (BC), Denver, Chicago, Cleveland, and Hartford (CT), #3 in Ventura (CA), Toronto, and Phoenix, #4 in Los Angeles, Fort Wayne (IN), Sacramento (CA), Kenosha (WI), San Francisco, and Wilkes-Barre (PA), #5 in Milwaukee, #6 in Dallas, Saint Charles (MO), and Boston, #7 in Ottawa (ON), York (PA), Minneapolis/St. Paul, and New Haven (CT), #8 in Fort Dodge (IA), Kalamazoo (MI), Akron (OH), Newport News (VA), and New York City, #9 in Philadelphia, and Springfield (MA), #10 in Erie (PA), and Des Moines (IA), and #11 in Montreal. “Lonely Teenager” charted in just over half the states across the USA and stalled at #12 on the Billboard Hot 100.
He teamed up with Ernie Maresca to write “Runaround Sue,” which became one of the top selling singles of 1961. The song was inspired by Susan Butterfield, who he married in 1963. In the winter of 1961 “The Wanderer” put Dion back on the top of the charts. Vancouver made his B-side, “The Majestic” also a Top Ten hit. Dion appeared as himself in the 1961 film Twist Around The Clock, along with Chubby Checker and the Marcels. In the film Dion sings “Runaround Sue”, “The Wanderer” and “The Majestic”.
Almost all of Dion’s solo singles were more mainstream rock ‘n roll than some of the doo-wop ballads he sang when he was with The Belmonts. Dion’s solo career garnered two more Top Ten hits in 1962: “Lovers Who Wander” and “Little Diane”. He appeared again in the Top Ten in 1963 with “Ruby Baby”, “Drip Drop” and “Donna The Prima Donna”. The latter song, written as a song about a romance was inspired by Dion’s sister Donna DiMucci. Part of the lyrics described his sister’s interests: “She always wears charms, diamonds, pearls galore/She buys them at the five and ten cents store/She wants to be just like Zsa Zsa Gabor/Even though she’s the girl next door.” Only, in the real life Donna’s case, she was actually the girl in the bedroom down the hall in the family home.
Dion DiMucci married Susan Buttefield on March 25, 1963. He recalls, “things went from bad to much worse. I had no idea drug and alcohol abuse was a progressive disease.” In 1964, the combination of the British Invasion and a growing heroin addiction began to derail Dion’s music career. Nine of ten single releases between 1964 and 1967 failed to crack the Billboard Hot 100. He went on tour to the UK in 1965 and appeared on Dick Clark’s Where The Action Is. In 1967 Dion, along with Bob Dylan, were the only rock ‘n roll recording artists to appear on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, besides the Fab Four. It was a nod to the impact Dion’s music had across the Atlantic.
In 1968 Dion recorded “Abraham, Martin and John”. The song was a tribute to the memory of four assassinated Americans. Abraham Lincoln was president of the United States during the Civil War and abolished slavery. Martin Luther King Jr. was a civil rights leader whose “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington D.C. in 1963, inspired the nation to pass the Voting Rights Act and other social legislation in the mid-60’s. John F. Kennedy worked to find a diplomatic solution to avoid a nuclear war with the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis in the October 1962. On August 5, 1963, after more than eight years of difficult negotiations, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Robert F. Kennedy was a champion of civil rights and ran to become the Democratic candidate for President in the 1968 election, promising to end the Vietnam War. The song was written in response to the assassination of King on April 4th and Robert Kennedy on June 5. The song marked what music critics considered a maturing of his subject matter.
In 1970 Dion wrote and recorded “Your Own Back Yard”, his final appearance in the Top Ten in Vancouver (BC). The song was about kicking his addictions. In one of his autobiographies, Dion recalled, “There was never a word of praise in my house… A lot of demeaning talk and criticism. I never felt good about myself – and the success didn’t change things. I made $2 million by the age of 22 . . . had 10 Top Ten records… was at the height of my profession, I had all the bases covered… Fame, fortune and romance. I had even married my childhood sweetheart. But I was empty. I was looking out the penthouse window and saying, ‘What the hell is wrong?’ What I finally discovered was that I had others’ esteem, but I didn’t have self-esteem.”
Dion was a perfect example of someone who might have ended up doing drugs in the 50’s and 60’s. He lived in a troubled household. He was out on the streets to get away from the demeaning, critical tone from his parents each time he went home from school. He dropped out of high school and spent a lot of time on the streets and got involved in a gang in the Bronx by the age of 14. He became famous and was making $500,000 a year and had more money than he could ever imagine. After all, when he was 19, he decided not to get on a plane with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper on February 3, 1959, because the plane ticket cost $36. With all that disposable income, Dion knew he had some extra cash to support his addiction to heroin.
In 1972 Dion and The Belmonts played to a sold out audience at Madison Square Gardens in New York and another sold out reunion show on Long Island at Nassau Coliseum in 1973. In 1979 Dion became a born-again Christian and proceeded to record five contemporary Christian albums into the late 80’s. In 1983 his album, I Put Away My Idols, climbed to#37 on the Billboard 200 Album chart. The album earned Dion a Grammy Award nomination for Best Gospel Performance, Male.
In 1987, DiMucci sang “Teenager in Love” at Madison Square Garden with an impromptu backup group that included Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Lou Reed, Ruben Blades and Billy Joel. In 1989 he co-wrote an autobiography with Davin Seay titled The Wanderer: Dion’s Story. Bruce Springsteen has called Dion “the bridge between Frank Sinatra and rock ‘n roll.” Jerry Lieber, a songwriter for Elvis Presley, The Coasters and others said of Dion was “the best white blues singer he had ever heard.”
Dion and Susan will celebrate their 59th anniversary in 2020. They’ve lived in Boca Raton, Florida, since 1968 and have grandchildren. A play about Dion’s life called The Wanderer, was scheduled for preview at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Milburn, New Jersey, on May 28, 2020. But it was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
February 18, 2020
“Dion DiMucci” 1950s-2012, The Pop History Dig.com
John Lombardi, “Dion DiMucci, Teen Idol: A Seminal Bronx Rocker, Inspiration for Lou Reed and Springsteen, is Coming Back to His Roots.,” New York Magazine, New York, NY, December 30, 2007.
Dion – bio, Dion DiMucci.com
DiMucci, Dion with Aquilina, Mike. Dion: The Wanderer Talks Truth. St. Anthony Messenger Press, Cincinnati, Ohio, 2011.
“Celebrating Seniors – Dion DiMucci is 76,” 50 Plus World.com, July 18, 2016.
DiMucci, Dion and Seay, Davin. The Wanderer: Dion’s Story. Quill Press, 1989.
Dave Hinckley, “Fred Milano, Tenor with Dion and the Belmonts, Dead at 72,” New York Daily News, January 2, 2012.
Margaret Puckette, “Raising Troubled Kids,” Washington D.C.
“C-FUN-Tastic 50,” Vancouver, BC, December 24, 1960.
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