For culturally starved middle schoolers in Chatham in the 1950’s Fantasyland was the afternoon TV show American Bandstand. Here we could hear the latest teen hits, and take in the latest styles in hair and clothing from the largely Italo-American kids who were the unpaid regulars doing dances like the Stroll, the Continental, the Bop and many others under the watchful eye of Dick Clark. So popular were these bandstand kids that they became celebrities in their own right—some of them attracting as many as 15,000 fan letters a week. Teenaged girls would discuss the various dance partners and speculate about their romancesArlene Sullivan and Kenny Rossi (arguably the best dancer on the show), Carole Scaldeferri and Nick Gaeta,–the list went on and on.
Bandstand emanated from an old TV studio in Philadelphia that, far from the exotic images it conjured for us, was actually more or less in a Ghetto made up of Blacks and Italian Americans. It was from this collision of cultures in Philly and indeed all the large American cities that the musical phenomenon “Doo-wop” arose. The late 1950s, young Italian American men from New York City and the surrounding areas emerged on the burgeoning rock and roll scene. Groups like the Crests, the Regents, the Mystics, and, of course, Dion and the Belmonts, to name just a few, took African American-created vocal harmony known as doo-wop and flavored it with techniques learned from bel canto-inspired singers Mario Lanza and Frank Sinatra. Music historians have dubbed this sound “Doo-Wop” or “Italo-American Rock.” For a few years, Italo American teen idols dominated the teen music scene: Frankie Avalon (Francis Thomas Avallone). Bobby Rydell (Robert Louis Ridarelli, Fabian (Fabiano Antony Forte) were the prominent Philadelphia stars of the genre. In New York it was Connie Francis (Concetta Rosa Maria Franconero), Johnny Maestro (Mastrangelo) of the Crests and numerous other Italian groups with names like the DuPrees, the Mystics, Vito and the salutations and, a little later the Four Seasons.
Usually rated among the very best of these performers was Dion DiMucci from the Bronx. During the late 50’s and early 60’s Dion, with the backup group the Belmonts and later as a solo act, recorded more than 3 dozen top 100 songs before his career fell victim to the British Invasion and his growing drug addiction. He came out of rehab a born-again Christian and in 1968 made a comeback with the topical ballad Abraham Martin and John. He recorded a number of Christian themed albums over the next few year before making a second comeback. More recently Dion has returned to the Catholic Church and has become something of a Christian scholar. In 1987, Dion agreed to do a concert of his old hits at Radio City Music Hall in New York. The two disc CD of this concert was released in 2005, and led to a series of special appearances, including a fundraiser for homeless medical relief. There he shared the stage with fans such as Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon and Lou Reed, all of whom cited Dion as one of their prime influences. Since then he has been in demand, although he does not tour much. So it was a special occasion last month at the glitzy, gaudy Beacon theatre on New York’s upper west side that approximately 3,000 fans flocked last month to see one of DiMucci’s rare performances. The audience gave a warm welcome to opening acts—a Shirelle’s group with original Shirley Alston, A drifters band with one survivor of the originals and so on; but it was the show that came after the intermission that all were really there to see.
One’s biggest fear when attending a concert by an old teen idol is that they will be a shadow of their former self. But in the case of DiMucci who turns 75 this month, from the time he walked out on stage with his Martin guitar, the more than 5 decades of show business kicked in. Backed by” an outstanding combo of session men, Dion put on a rock n roll clinic. While many of his hits were of the teenage angst genre, Dion has subtly updated his repertoire, with harder guitar solos and even the addition of jazz elements like scat lyrics. New Yorkers have always had a love for doo-wop harmonies and the crowd was soon on its feet clapping and singling along to the lyrics of their youth. Rather than nostalgia the show emanated professionalism, coolness and joy. As for Dion trim, with his goatee, shades and trademark cap—his voice was no different than when he sang “why must I be a teenager in love” nearly six decades ago.