Dion & The Belmonts (part
The following years saw two excellent LP albums that have achieved legendary status, but were both mostly forgotten at the time and original issues are almost impossible to find today. The first featured the original four members of the group on a series of modern more mature song treatments on an album called "Together Again" for ABC Paramount in the mid sixties. The second was the existing Belmonts (without Dion) called "Cigars, A Capella, Candy" recorded for the Buddah label. That album's elongated "Streetcorner Symphony" is a marvel of musical history and seemed to sum up the entire era in melody. The group hung on in various lineups into the 80s with one more modest hit with none other than Freddie "Boom Boom" Cannon on lead in 1981 called "Let's Put The Fun Back In Rock 'n' Roll" for the MiaSound label.
During these years Dion was essentially a solo performer, but was he ? When he split from The Belmonts he was immediately on the charts with a solo effort called "Lonely Teenager" on Laurie #3070 in late 1960. Follow ups "Having Fun" and "The Kissing Game" barely charted at all, and the thought was that what was missing was a backup harmony group - sort of like the, uh, Belmonts. Enter The Del-Satins consisting of Stan Ziska, Les Cauchi, Bob Fiela, and brothers Fred and Tom Ferrara. The first effort of the unit (with The Del-Satins uncredited on the label) was a jump tune with a sound borrowed heavily from (whether or not intentionally) the sound of Norfolk,Virginia's Gary (U.S.) Bonds and The Church Street Five. The song was "Runaround Sue" on Laurie 3110, which exploded on the scene in October of 1961 and went right to the number one position on the best seller charts. The floodgates were now open - "The Wanderer", "The Majestic". "Lovers Who Wander", "Little Dianne", and "Love Came To Me" all made it easily into the top ten pop chart best sellers. The last charted record for Laurie was #3153 - "Sandy" which got into the top twenty. A cover of The Del-Vikings "Come Go With Me" on #3171; "Lonely World"on #3187; and "Little Girl" on #3240; all failed to do much in the way of sales or airplay. It was at this time in early 1963 that Dion made another change. After a five year run on Laurie, with and without The Belmonts, he moved over to Columbia Records and along with him came The Del-Satins (who on their own had a hit called "Teardrops Follow Me" for Laurie #3132, and extensive TV appearances with Clay Cole in New York).
In early 1963, Dion's first try for the Columbia label was a cover of a mid fifties R & B tune called "Ruby Baby" on #42662. Slowing the tempo some from the Drifters version, the rocking version was a winner from the bass run into the third line of the opening verse, the "hey - hey" mid section, and the close were all superb, and the listening public thought so too, being kept out of the top spot only by Paul & Paula. The record was so dominant that today most people think that this was the original version of the song. Two lesser charted records followed - "This Little Girl" made the top twenty for a week in the spring, and "Be Careful Of Stones That You Throw", did not do as well. But - the Bronx bomber did it again with his next for Columbia right around Labor Day of 1963 with "Donna, The Prima Donna" on #42852. He was back in the top ten once again. And - there was one more hit to come for Columbia, and again Dion went to a cover of a Drifters tune. This time the song was "Drip Drop", which was not one of the better known recordings by the original group, but Dion and The Del-Satins again made the tune their own and once again a top ten smash hit was the result. Then- Beatlemania struck, and Dion like so many other rock 'n' rollers, was left behind and became yesterday's memory. Complicating matters at that time was a personal battle by Dion against the ravages of heroin addiction.
Fast forward to 1968, and out of that most calamitous and politically charged year came a song of sensitivity and understanding from none other than Dion himself, now in the guise of a troubadour. His song with its uplifting lyrics and a hope for a better tomorrow, struck many people as a true sentiment, and one of the chance for a new start among the wreckage of a divided country. "Abraham, Martin, And John" was a huge success for Laurie #3464, selling multiple millions and being a solid top five seller and a long standing feature on the charts. Thus ended a run of more than a decade on top for the singer as his days as a big national hitmaker were over, but he has continued to perform into the new century. He is one rocker from out of the fifties that has never been ashamed of his early work and willingly continues to feature his early songs wherever he appears.
There are two existing live recordings of performances by Dion & The Belmonts that serve as a fitting tribute to the group and their place in history. The first was issued by Warner Brothers and was from the 1972 appearance for Richard Nader at Madison Square Garden. All four original members were on stage, and was their first in person show in at least twelve years. With Dion setting the key on guitar, they opened up by launching into a ripping version of "I Wonder Why" which immediately brought down the house. Dion, at first hesitant and unsure of how the group would be received, warmed up to the adoration of the twenty thousand on hand, and every song was done wonderfully. "The Wanderer". "Drip Drop", "Where Or When", "That's My Desire", "A Teenager In Love", "Ruby Baby" (complete with false start), and of course a monumental version of "Runaround Sue" all done to perfection including the Belmonts doing justice to the backing done on record by The Del-Satins on some of the tunes. My personal favorite is a rare live take on "No One Knows" that is absolutely perfect.
The second live performance is from an air check of a concert broadcast live from radio City Music Hall in 1986 celebrating WCBS-FM's fifteen year anniversary of their all oldies format. They were the first to show the country it could work in a major market, and the format is copied all over the country. Dion is joined by Carlo from the original Belmonts, session singers and musicians, and midway through by The Del-Satins who opened the show which also featured Johnny Maestro & The Brooklyn Bridge (who of course included some tunes from his days with The Crests). This time Dion is in a relaxed expansive mood and includes some poignant commentary about growing up in the Bronx, and some humorous lines about his relationship with his parents and the early days in the business with The Belmonts. Beside the usual big hits, there is a nice version of "Love Came To Me", and some Dion originals like "I Used To Be A Brooklyn Dodger". Unfortunately, a live version of a personal favorite of mine "Lover's Who Wander" was not forthcoming, but there is always next time.
So ends the story (up to the year 2000) of Dion & The Belmonts, one of the more influential vocal groups to come out of the nineteen fifties. They led the way in showing how to achieve success by a White group in absorbing the style and sound of the pioneer Black vocal groups of the early and mid fifties. This became the sound that was dominant in the final years of the doowop era in the late firties-early sixties. Their songs of life and love of teenage America in those years were the stuff of memories that would last a lifetime. That is the legacy of these legends of song - Dion & The Belmonts.
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