Dion DiMucci was just 20 years old but already a chart veteran when he went solo at the dawn of the 1960s. Enduring hits like “I Wonder Why” and “A Teenager in Love” had been recorded with his friends The Belmonts, but when Carlo Mastrangelo, Angelo D’Aleo, and Fred Milano wanted to emphasize doo-wop harmonies and Dion wanted to rock and roll, Dion and the Belmonts split. How would the Italian kid from the Bronx follow that amazing first act? The answer was “Runaround Sue,” the chart-topping record which established Dion as a bona fide solo superstar. More hits followed at his home of Laurie Records, including “Lonely Teenager” and another all-time classic, “The Wanderer,” but it wasn’t long before the siren song of a major label came calling. Dion signed to Columbia in fall 1962 as the label’s first true rock-and-roll star.
Columbia, still under the aegis of Mitch Miller, wasn’t yet fully in the rock-and-roll business; hence, the young artist was assigned to producer Robert Mersey (best known today for his work with Andy Williams, Barbra Streisand, Johnny Mathis, and other top “adult” artists on the Columbia roster). Their pairing was an unlikely one, yet yielded some gold. Ace Records has just collected Dion’s first two, long out-of-print Columbia albums – Ruby Baby and Donna the Prima Donna, both originally issued in 1963 – on one CD in their original sequences.
Dion’s touchstone for Ruby Baby seemed to be the work of another Italian-American kid from The Bronx: Bobby Darin. The former Walden Robert Cassotto had made the transition from upstart rock-and-roller to all-around entertainer and shared a couple other things in common with Dion. Both were occasional songwriters, both played multiple instruments, and both had catholic musical tastes that allowed them to travel from genre to genre with authenticity. The “everything but the kitchen sink approach” to Ruby Baby saw Dion (backed by The Del-Satins) tackle doo-wop, Brill Building pop, standards, showtunes, and beyond.
The unquestioned highlight is the swaggering title track in classic Dion style, a cover of The Drifters’ 1956 R&B hit which Dion made into an even bigger pop crossover hit when it reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. His youthful spirit and ’50s signature sound we’re also in evidence on the originals “Gonna Make It Alone” and “Will Love Ever Come My Way,” while both “The Loneliest Man in the World” and “He’ll Only Hurt You” emulated the gravitas of Roy Orbison’s grandly dramatic Monument sound. (All four songs, as well as the offbeat “Unloved, Unwanted Me,” were co-written by DiMucci with a variety of co-writers including Wes Farrell and the team of Bob Feldman, Jerry Goldstein, and Richard Gottehrer.) The Darin influence – and perhaps that of Robert Mersey, too – was pronounced on the revivals of “My Mammy,” “You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want to Do It),” and “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You” (the latter two years before Dean Martin would go to the top of the AC chart with his version). Covers of Goffin and King’s “Go Away, Little Girl” and Arthur Kent and Sylvia Dee’s “The End of the World” (popularized by Steve Lawrence and Skeeter Davis, respectively) were less exciting though thoroughly respectable.
Dion, this time going by his full if misspelled name of “Dion DiMuci,” followed up Ruby Baby with another album bearing the name of a hit single. Donna the Prima Donna, like its predecessor, opened with the song that most closely captured the style and spirit of Dion and The Belmonts. (The Del-Satins again backed the artist.) “Donna the Prima Donna,” lovingly named for Dion’s little sister, reunited him with co-writer Ernie Maresca (“Runaround Sue,” “Lovers Who Wander,” “The Wanderer”). Placing credit where it was due, DiMucci received an “arranged and conceived by Dion DiMuci” line on the original 45 alongside Robert Mersey’s production credit. Goffin and King supplied the album’s other hit, “This Little Girl.” Flipping the script on many of the era’s hits, the song told of a gal for whom “trouble is her middle name,” leaving Dion to promise to “straighten her out.” Indeed, the emphasis was somewhat more contemporary on Donna the Prima Donna, eschewing the standards that filled out the first album. Instead, Dion revisited the catalogue of fellow doo-woppers The Cleftones for fine romps through “Can’t We Be Sweethearts” and “This Little Girl of Mine,” and paid homage to his late friend Ritchie Valens with a take on the slow, sweet “Donna” (not to be confused with the prima donna). The Donald Koplow/Nancy Reed ballad “Oh Happy Days” predated doo-wop, though not by much. The Four Knights, champagne music king Lawrence Welk, and Don Howard all had hits with the sweet, simple paean. Hank Williams introduced Bonnie Dodd’s “Be Careful of Stones That You Throw,” a cautionary tale that fit into the “death disc” genre; Dion delivered the part-sung, part-recited track with a pleasingly earnest quality.
Perhaps of greatest note, Dion began exploring the blues sounds that he would come to favor. Tracks like “Sweet, Sweet Baby,” co-written with Wes Farrell, could be fairly described as Bronx blues. (A fateful meeting with Mersey’s Columbia colleague John Hammond would soon lead Dion to more fully embrace the idiom of the blues – a strain of which had already existed in his street-honed melodies.) The plaintive “Troubled Mind” was penned by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, the authors of “Teenager in Love,” but couldn’t have been further from that ironically upbeat anthem for the lovelorn. Like “Oh Happy Days,” Dion’s self-penned three-chord blues “You’re Mine” featured a wailing saxophone and a spot-on vocal.
The DiMucci/Joe Sherman original “Flim Flam” was a close cousin to “Ruby Baby,” while “I Can’t Believe (That You Don’t Love Me Anymore),” written with Farrell and Joe Sherman, was more of a departure. Dion adopted a crooner’s voice for this unusual number complete with Spanish guitar, Mariachi horns, and a cooing vocal chorus.
Donna the Prima Donna ended one period in Dion’s career. Plagued with personal demons and frustrated by Columbia’s desire to “legitimize” him as an artist for a more adult audience, the artist largely sat out the British Invasion. While singles initially continued to appear, his next Columbia LP (a collection of outtakes dating no later than 1965) didn’t appear until 1969, by which time he had already bought himself out of his contract and moved back to Laurie Records where “Abraham, Martin, and John” established him, at last, as a powerful and mature voice.
Ace’s two-for-one release of Ruby Baby and Donna, The Prima Donna is a first-class presentation of these two long-overlooked LPs. Duncan Cowell has superbly remastered the original stereo albums, and Ken Burke has provided track-by-track liner notes within the copiously-illustrated 24-page deluxe booklet. A discography for the albums’ sessions (including mention of some tracks not included on the final LPs) has also been included. Dion has been in the news most recently with the announcement of a new bio-musical, fittingly entitled The Wanderer. There’s no better time to rediscover this “lost” chapter of his musical career.
Ruby Baby (Columbia LP CD 8810, 1963)
- Ruby Baby
- The End of the World
- Go Away Little Girl
- Gonna Make It Alone
- My Mammy
- Will Love Ever Come My Way
- The Loneliest Man in the World
- You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want to Do It)
- He’ll Only Hurt You
- You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You
- Unloved, Unwanted Me
Donna the Prima Donna (Columbia LP CS 8907, 1963)
- Donna the Prima Donna
- Can’t We Be Sweethearts
- Sweet, Sweet Baby
- This Little Girl of Mine
- Flim Flam
- Troubled Mind
- This Little Girl
- Oh Happy Days
- You’re Mine
- I Can’t Believe (That You Don’t Love Me Anymore)
- Be Careful of Stones That You Throw