Dion – Greatest Hits

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I’ve been going through the D section and the T section at the same time, and wow, do I have a lot of compilations. They really slow me down in doing this work. Work which no one asked me to do, I realize. Still, every now and then I need to complain a little. Dion’s music was something I first encountered probably in middle school, but maybe elementary school, very likely on oldies radio that a bus driver played. At some point, I started listening to oldies radio on my own, and at one point, even immersed myself in the American Graffiti soundtrack. By the time I got this disc, I really only knew “Runaround Sue,” “A Teenager In Love,” and “The Wanderer,” but it seemed enough to justify the purchase. Dion DiMucci was born in New York in 1939 and as a teen, sang on street corners and in social clubs with friends. He found some early professional success on his own and then recruited three neighborhood friends to join him and they became Dion and the Belmonts. The group was part of the Winter Dance Party tour in 1959 with Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens; Dion turned down an opportunity to fly with those two on the plane that ended up crashing. He embarked on a solo career in 1960, though by 1964, that was on the slide. There were a couple of reunions with the Belmonts, and he cut an album with Phil Spector in 1975, and then he turned to recording Christian music in the late ‘70s. By the 1980s, other artists began to acknowledge him as an influence – Springsteen, Lou Reed, and Paul Simon, for example – and he recorded a comeback album in 1989 produced by Dave Edmunds (Rockpile). He has since worked with various artists, including Richard Barone (the Bongos).

What I Think of This Album

Obviously, this is way too much Dion. Less obviously, there is more here than “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer” to enjoy. It should be noted that this is a poor career overview:  it focuses on his ‘60s work and has a couple of songs (one a cover) post-1988, but all his ‘70s material is missing. Whatever – sometimes you just have to accept what life gives you.

If you listen to “The Wanderer” and “Runaround Sue” together, the songs’ regressive gender politics (or the era’s regressive gender politics or, you know, the country’s regressive gender politics) become very clear. Dion the peripatetic lover boasts of carrying on with multiple women about whom he cares nothing (“I kiss ‘em and I love ‘em / ‘Cause to me they’re all the same / I hug ‘em and I squeeze ‘em / They don’t even know my name”); Dion the cuckolded suitor, on the other hand, bitterly drags his ex’s name through the mud because “Sue goes out with other guys.” If you can get past that, the songs themselves are marvelous.

Dion’s gritty lead on “The Wanderer” is cushioned by the smooth backing harmonies of the Del-Satins, and the sax solo is appropriately raunchy. Springsteen and Dave Edmunds have covered this song. There is some suggestion that the “I’m going nowhere” line is supposed to convey the narrator’s self-awareness of his empty existence – and the fact that the backing vocals and the instruments drop out at that moment, leaving Dion exposed, lends some credence to that interpretation – but if that’s the case, then Dion blows it with his delivery, which doesn’t communicate any change in attitude as compared to the rest of the song. “Runaround Sue” was the earlier hit, from 1961. The handclaps, the backing vocals, and Dion’s scatting place this firmly in the doo wop tradition. Dion’s rapid-fire delivery against a backdrop of the Del-Satin’s vocals and a much more subtle sax part help make this a monster song. “Sue” was co-written by Dion and Ernie Maresco, while Maresco is solely responsible for “The Wanderer.”

The early tracks on this compilation are very much doo wop, the best of which is the classic  “A Teenager In Love,” though bass workout “I Wonder Why” certainly has its charms. “Teenager” was written by the Brill Building team of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman (who also wrote “Save the Last Dance for Me,” “This Magic Moment,” and “(Marie’s the Name of) His Latest Flame”). This song has been covered by Lou Christie and Bob Marley. “Lonely Teenager” is thoroughly enjoyable, with uncredited female backing vocals.

Dion also had hits with “Lovers Who Wander” (with more doo wop scatting, and not all that different from “Runaround Sue”); toxic “Little Diane” (“I wanna pack and leave and slap your face / Bad girls like you are a disgrace”)  – is that a fucking kazoo in there? – and “Love Came to Me.” As an aside, am I surprised that Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo covered “Little Diane?” No, because Pinkerton is one of the most misogynistic albums I have ever heard.

Dion likewise had success with Leiber and Stoller’s “Ruby Baby” (on which he does a sort of Elvis impersonation) and with the awkwardly titled “Donna the Prima Donna” (which itself is a reworking, at least thematically, of “Runaround Sue”).

The orchestral pop of “Abraham, Martin, and John” is a surprise in the context of all this doo wop. This was a hit for Dion in 1968 (also covered by Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye). The hokey and misguided lyrical conceit – a tribute to Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy – could only have come out of 1960’s America. That song was written by Dick Holler, who as a member of Dick Holler and the Holidays, released the first recording of the excellent “Double Shot (of My Baby’s Love),” which was a 1966 hit for the Swingin’ Medallions.

Dion does a very credible cover of Springsteen’s “If I Should Fall Behind” (which reminds me a little of “Stand By Me”). Dion raided the Brill Building in 1963 for Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “This Little Girl.”

Dion worked with studio musicians for his songs. Among them were drummer Panama Francis (who played on hits by the Platters, the Four Seasons, Jackie Wilson, and, uh, Bobby Darin); MacHouston Baker, who was part of Mickey & Sylvia; and jazz bassist (and photographer) Milt Hinton (who worked with Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, and Paul McCartney).

The Best Thing About This Album

Dion’s voice.

Release Date

October, 2003

The Cover Art

Weird color choices, but the font is good and the pic is sort of standard for a record company collection like this.

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