Before brevity was king, before Madonna, Sting and Cher, there were other famous one-name rock stars. When people were liking Ike back in 1958, Elvis was already “The King” and Dion was beginning his rock career with what has become known as the ultimate doo-wop song, “I Wonder Why.”
But that was then. Now, Dion DiMucci is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, or living in Boca Raton, Fla., or coming to the Ventura Theatre on Saturday night, or all of the above. Opening for him will be another singer, but one with a smaller bank account, Michael On Fire.
Dion and his group, the Belmonts, set the tone for the Angst -laden teen with blockbuster hits such as “Lonely Teenager,” “Runaround Sue” or “A Teenager in Love.” And at the same time, he defined the flip side, the swaggering teen who couldn’t spell “ Angst " or even care, with such tunes as “The Wanderer.”
Dion, his Bronx accent intact despite more than two decades in Florida, discussed his lengthy and illustrious career in a recent telephone interview.
Have you ever stopped touring since 1958?
I’ve never stopped touring, but it’s never been a grind, you know? I don’t get burned out and I just enjoy myself. I like to balance out my life. I spend a lot of time at home, which I like. I’ve lived in Boca Raton, Florida, for 23 years now. I’ve got a 17-year-old daughter--we went to the Lollapalooza tour and hung out backstage with Living Colour and Nine Inch Nails. I really like that Jane’s Addiction--they’re great. My daughter keeps me abreast of the new stuff.
Haven’t lost your accent in 23 years, huh?
No, it’s worse. There are more people from the Bronx in Florida than there are still in the Bronx.
How many Dion albums are there?
I don’t know. Maybe 50, something like that.
What happened to the Belmonts?
The Belmonts are scattered about. A couple of them live in Long Island. I think they work together sometimes. It’s been 30 years. We might do something together. I did a show in Fort Lauderdale not long ago and I had a chance to sing with Carlo Mastrangelo, who lives in Florida too, and we did some a capella stuff that made me feel like a 17-year-old again, standing on a street corner with a spaghetti-stained T-shirt. Some people put down our old music as being simple and stupid, but that stuff was genuine. . . . Doo-wop had an attitude as heavy as rap, not stupid stuff like Sha-Na-Na, who put doo-wop down.
How has the music biz changed over the years?
Everything seems to have gotten bigger and better. We never even had monitors. Now there are synthesizers. But basically, rock ‘n’ roll has stayed the same: A band has two guitars, a bass and a drummer. That was popular 30 years ago; it’ll be popular 30 years from now. I think that it’ll be difficult for the fourth generation of rock ‘n’ rollers to appreciate the stuff we went through--no rules, no expectations, no legal protection and parents who thought we were degenerates and infidels one step from the gutter. We were just winging it.
What was it like being a teen idol?
It was fun, but a little distracting. The fun of being recognized and all the girls--it was a real rock ‘n’ roll ego trip. The emphasis got off the music sometimes, but I got the opportunity to make more music.
How did you get started in all this?
Anger. It’s just frustration, feeling separated and the need to communicate. It’s just an internal thing that became external. It was the search for an inexpressible need, an emptiness that I felt inside. But people have to change. I’ve seen too many guys die. There’s five things you can do: Die, burn out, get out of the business, get 100% into the show business or realize that you’ve stumbled onto something that’s an art form. For myself, I feel I have more to say now. Some say that rock ‘n’ roll is for the chronologically young--but rock ‘n’ roll isn’t about age, it’s about attitude. I mean, Pablo Casals was still making music in his 90s.
What’s the best and worst thing about your job?
The best thing is making the music and getting in front of the people and seeing the response to your sharing. It’s hard to explain. When somebody likes your work and you connect in the middle of a song, and you wrote it and you know exactly who you are . . . well, that’s it. The worst thing is traveling and being away from home.
When you play, do you do the hits or the newer stuff?
I do the hit records. That’s the stuff the people want to hear. Also, I like those songs. They work well.
AM oldies station KRLA has called “I Wonder Why” the best doo-wop song ever made. Do you still perform that song?
Oh, yeah. I’ll do it out there. I just wish Carlo was out there to do it with me. I usually do it a capella and everyone usually stands up.
Your most recent album, “Yo Frankie,” was produced by guitar guru Dave Edmunds. How did that come about?
I met him in Los Angeles and we hit it off because we both liked the same kind of music. It was fun hanging out with him. He’s very close to Mark Knopfler, Eric Clapton and George Harrison. I’ll be going into the studio in a few months to record my next album.
Has your induction in the Hall of Fame changed you?
I’ll tell you, it certainly made me feel good. It just gave me a lift. To be inducted with guys like Dylan and Springsteen and to have all those guys come up to you and say, “You touched us and we like what you’re doing,” it was a major moment for me. I was inducted by Lou Reed, a good friend of mine. It was truly a blessing.