His voice belongs not solely to the chart-making pop star but also to another, secret singer, who sang in the margins when practically no one was listening.

Published August 28, 2001 7:45PM (EDT)

"Dear Diary ... DION!!! Oh Help!!! I'm so excited, I think I'll just DIE!!! I was runnin' around, chokin' and cryin' and yellin' and screamin'. Wow wow cute cute CUTE!! you woulda died how he said 'dum didla dum didla dum didla dum.' I was rolling over inside, I was cryin', I love him so much ... "
-- Pamela Des Barres, diary entry, May 9, 1962

"I have always listened to Dion's voice. It's inside my body and my head forever."
-- Lou Reed

One of the great pleasures of pop music is surrendering all consciousness to it: Falling asleep to a voice drifting from the radio, the speakers, the headphones can make you feel as if it's soaking into your very bones. In all of pop music, there are many, many voices I'm happy to fall asleep to. But somewhere at the top of the list is Dion.

As most casual listeners know it, the story of Dion DiMucci goes like this: Born in the Bronx in 1939, he was first the lead singer of the late-era doo-wop outfit Dion and the Belmonts and later a solo rock 'n' roll star with the early-'60s urban-swagger hits "Runaround Sue," "The Wanderer" and "Ruby Baby." He dropped off the map around the time of the British Invasion and reappeared in 1968 with the top-10 hit "Abraham, Martin and John," after which he disappeared again.

If you listen to the story told by the charts -- never a good idea, but we all do it sometimes -- that's pretty much the story of Dion. But the voice that slips into my dreams belongs not solely to the chart-marking Dion but also to another, secret Dion, an artist who sang in the margins when practically no one (in his home country, at least) was listening. This Dion was an Italian-American New York tough guy influenced less by Frank Sinatra than by Hank Williams, who was his earliest and greatest idol. The finger-popping city sound of Dion and the Belmonts is magnificent, but Dion, a city kid by birth, knew intuitively that his sound came from deep in the country. And that's why, when I listen to Dion, even in the dead center of summer, with steaming city sidewalks right outside my window, I always smell fresh air, and I breathe it in.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

What does a city kid ever really know about the country? Dion couldn't answer that question himself. At age 13 he heard Williams on a radio show and fell in love. "I'd sing 'Honky Tonk Blues' or 'Jambalaya' on the stoop," Dion told Anthony DeCurtis in the New York Times. "My friends would go, 'What's honky-tonk blues?' I'd go, 'I don't know.' 'Well, what's jambalaya?' 'I don't know.' I didn't know what they were, but they sounded so good coming out of my mouth."

But you don't need to work too hard to figure out why a city kid like Dion would fall for Hank Williams. Dion lived in a tough neighborhood -- he ran with a gang called the Fordham Baldies -- and he knew the code of the street backward and forward. (He used heroin for 15 years, starting at age 14, and his father, a lackadaisical and largely unemployed puppeteer, taught him how to shoplift.) What kind of music do you make when it's OK to sing about your feelings but not to talk about them? Dion's first hit single, the 1958 "I Wonder Why," made with the incomparable Belmonts (Angelo D'Aleo, Freddie Milano and Carlo Mastrangelo), is by no means a country record, but it holds the answer.

Opening with the fusillade of word-sounds that's the currency of doo-wop -- the rat-a-tat that cupid's bow would make if it were a submachine gun -- "I Wonder Why" busts out of the gate. The Belmonts swing through a few bars of scatted harmony, talking to us partly in words but mostly in pictures of sounds; the clitter-clink of a toylike piano kicks in. The song's charm is instantaneous and vital. And then Dion appears, and forget how fantastically beautiful he looked at the time, with his sea-crest pompadour and daydreamy eyes: Here, he's the sound of a heartthrob.

How could any girl even think of doing him wrong? And yet it's his central worry. "When I'm away, I wonder what you do/I wonder why, I'm sure you're always true." He sings of doubt as if it were the glue that makes love work, and his conviction is strong. "I wonder why I love you like I do/Is it because I think you love me too?" For all the creamy smoothness of his vocals, he approaches this particular problem with the stance of a street tough. His assessment of what's worrying him is immediate and direct, not overwrought. He doesn't milk the song for sympathy -- you can almost see his brow furrowed as he tries to figure the damn girl out -- which is precisely what makes it so affecting.

Like so much of the greatest pop music, and that includes country music, "I Wonder Why" is a simple song about complicated feelings. Although Dion and the Belmonts' later "A Teenager in Love" (1959) and "Where or When" (1960) were bigger hits, it's easy to see why "I Wonder Why" is so often cited as one of the most exhilarating doo-wop records ever made. But it was also one that edged up against the end of the doo-wop era, an era that had been shaped most significantly by black vocal groups of the '40s and '50s like the Ink Spots and the Platters. By 1961 Dion, more interested in exploring the limits of rock 'n' roll than the nuances of vocal harmonizing, split (amicably) with the Belmonts to make rock records on his own. (They would record together again over the years, and the Belmonts went on to make one of the great treasures of doo-wop, the 1973 valentine "Cigars Acappella Candy.")

Dion recorded a string of hits through 1963, among them a tomcat-cool cover of the Drifters' "Ruby Baby" (1963). But before that, he'd hit with the double whammy of "Runaround Sue" and "The Wanderer," released just months apart at the tail end of 1961. These two songs came to define his reputation more than any others, and there are some good reasons for that. "Runaround Sue," a warning about a girl who's no good, served up by a guy whom you suspect might not be much better, is a cautionary rumination on the passions and fickle behavior that devil rock 'n' roll can incite. My earliest response to the song, which I must have first heard as a toddler? Sign me up! "Runaround Sue" is about a very bad girl, one whom Dion, in his velvet tones, paints so deliciously -- a Rubens vixen, a Titian hottie, a Goya go-go girl -- that she's irresistible to men and women alike. What guy wouldn't want to meet her? What girl wouldn't want to be her? (She probably wears eyeliner!) "Runaround Sue" enfolds nothing as lofty as the idea of living a good life or reaching for your dreams. It is simply about the possibility -- so much more delectable than the reality -- of being very, very bad.

"The Wanderer" is "Runaround Sue's" natural twin, a song about the male counterpart to an inconstant girl. This is the kind of guy who'll never settle down; "I hug 'em and I squeeze 'em, they don't even know my name." Dion sings the words brazenly; the melody is pure '50s stripper music, and he's the beefcake on the menu. Dion doesn't allow a scrap of doubt to creep into his vocals. He doesn't need it, with lyrics like "With my two fists of iron, I'm goin' nowhere" -- although Dion has said that the last part of the lyric was supposed to be "and a bottle of beer," which was changed only because the song wouldn't have gotten on the radio otherwise. Even so, the singer is always the butt of the joke -- "The Wanderer" is all self-deprecation, wrapped up with a Chippendale's bow tie. And as a companion to "Runaround Sue," "The Wanderer" is perfect, highlighting the gentlemanly honor of the earlier song. After all, Dion may be tough on his Runaround Sue, but he affords her endless measures of glamour. His Wanderer is a tattooed boy toy, so pumped up on his own desirability that you actually start to wonder: Does he have trouble getting it up?

And still, you love them both. How can you not?

- - - - - - - - - - - -

If we're reckoning by those almighty Billboard charts, Dion's story as one of the most extraordinary singers of rock 'n' roll pretty much ends there, save for his brief resurgence with the 1968 "Abraham, Martin and John," a gorgeous, mournful paean to fallen heroes that resonated with its audience at the time. By 1968, Dion had kicked his heroin and drinking habits. (He also had a spiritual reawakening, returning to the Roman Catholic faith in which he was raised; in the 1980s he recorded several inspirational albums.) He had been recording right along through the '60s, and the material from that era shows that he in no way clung to his old teen-idol image. If anything, he was gunning to escape it.

Dion may not have had hits through most of the '60s and '70s. But I'm convinced that some of his best singing appears on the "lost" records Dion made during those years, the ones that casual followers of rock 'n' roll aren't likely to know. Dion has recorded a wealth of material over the years, and continues to make new records. There are certain albums, like the 1976 "Streetheart" or the 1971 "You're Not Alone" that sound unshaped and undistinguished. The best route to mining the unheralded glory of Dion -- especially considering that so many Dion records are now out of print -- is to pick up either the two-disc retrospective of Dion's years at Columbia (1962 to 1968) "The Road I'm On," or better yet, the three-disc Capitol set "Dion: King of the New York Streets."

To understand the Dion of the '60s and '70s, all you have to do is trace the route back to Hank Williams. Like Williams, Dion could turn out a ballad as smooth as lemon chiffon pie or an egg cream (take your pick), and slip in a jagged, tear-drop-shaped note of melancholy just when you least expected it. Although he was never a country singer, Dion didn't shy away from the raw emotion of country, and some of his blues recordings are equal to (or better than) anything the bands of the British Invasion imported back to these shores.

Dion was recording Willie Dixon blues numbers like the now-standard "Spoonful" in 1965. English musicians may have been noodling around with the blues for years, but in 1965, how many white American pop singers, least of all one who'd been a teen idol just two years before, gave two cents about Willie Dixon? Dion wasn't any sort of blues pioneer, but it's important to note that he didn't change his singing or his choice of material simply to follow trends: He followed nothing but his own internal compass, set in place long before "I Wonder Why" or "The Wanderer" hit the charts. And when he covered Dylan numbers like "Baby, I'm in the Mood for You" (1965), he never made the mistake of imitating him: He always sounded, unmistakably, like Dion.

And his use of drugs and alcohol notwithstanding, he also sounded better and better -- or, at the very least, more seasoned and more intriguing. By 1964, the straightforward confidence of the teen heartthrob was yesterday's news. Against the rubbery chords of "Spoonful," Dion nuzzles right up to eroticism, practically working himself into a dream state. The song's sexual, narcotic and even religious metaphors are indistinguishable and intertwined. "Just a little spoon of your precious love will satisfy my soul," Dion growls, like a man in the desert crawling toward a soda-fountain mirage. Dion was no doubt in the middle of his own personal desert at the time; if this rubbed-raw "Spoonful" is one of its legacies, we should both treasure it, and be happy he got out.

It was only natural that Dion would become a folkie of sorts in the '60s, but his good instincts seemed to keep him away from the messy unctuousness that marked so much of the genre. His 1969 version of Tom Paxton's "I Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound" is trance-inducingly gorgeous. The song is simply but beautifully arranged, with a central motif of Byrds-like guitars that seem to hover and flutter in the air like golden ribbons. Dion's singing, dusky and sweet, is wonderful, but the wholeness of the song is testament to Dion's skill as a musician: In the old days, he had been a teen idol who could not only sing but also play guitar, and he knew how songs should be put together.

If the public wasn't buying the records, there were always a select few who were listening. Dion's lush, jangling 1966 "My Girl the Month of May" reads like a cross between a Beach Boys love song and an old English ballad ("Your eyes are like green water/Your hair is long and flowing"). It seems even more like the latter in the version that Fairport Convention recorded in 1972 -- another case of Englishmen (and women) recognizing the value and beauty of American music while it languishes, washed up, on its own shores.

Thank God, then, for Englishmen who love their Dion. The British label Ace has released a number of long-lost Dion LPs, among them the superb 1975 Phil Spector-produced "Born to Be With You." The record was never released in the states, allegedly because of Spector-related legal tangles. And Dion himself doesn't care much for it. When British journalist Tom Cox, a great fan of the record, asked Dion about the record in the London Daily Telegraph, Dion said, "I don't think we ever really finished that. It kind of majored on the minors. A lot of the focus went on the show-business thing and not enough went on the music."

The downside of working with a megalomaniac genius like Spector notwithstanding, musicians may not always be the best judges of their own work. But sometimes other musicians are very good at spotting the genius in an underappreciated work. For the record, Pete Townshend has named "Born to Be With You" his favorite album, ever.

And Dion's singing on the title track alone is remarkable. The story of a man coming to realize where home is, "Born to Be With You" virtually shivers with tenderness, and not the easy kind -- the kind born of loads of hard living and loneliness.

Dion might have made a similar record if he'd had an easier life -- but it wouldn't have been the same record. Dion, now 62, lives in Florida with his wife of more than 30 years, Susan, recording and performing when the mood strikes him, but no longer allowing his career to determine the rhythm of his life. "I want to rock till I drop," Dion has said. "I love rock and roll music. It keeps you young."

And it can work the same trick on us: In her memoir "I'm With the Band," groupie extraordinaire Pamela Des Barres tells of her first big rock 'n' roll crush. She wore a heart around her neck that said "Dion 4-ever." I don't think Lou Reed ever had one of those (although with Lou, you never know), but he definitely understands the sentiment. Once a singer like Dion gets to you, he's inside your body and your head forever.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

MORE FROM Stephanie Zacharek

Related Topics ------------------------------------------