Frankie Avalon, Johnny Tillotson, Brian Hyland, Fabian, Bobby Rydell: by the mid-1960s many teen idols of the pre-Beatles era were already nostalgia acts, living proof of what our parents told us about the here-today-gone-tomorrow nature of a musical form as lacking in substance as pop.
Dion was a conspicuous, glorious and consistent exception, though you would not know it from studying the US or UK charts since the Sixties. The fabled New Yorker celebrates his 80th birthday on 18 July and even if he never writes or sings another song, he can rest easy in the knowledge that he has an extraordinary body of work to his name.
Don’t take my word for it. The Beatles were fans of Signor DiMucci and put him on the cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band alongside Bob Dylan. Bruce Springsteen reveres him, has covered Dion’s transatlantic hit The Wanderer in live shows and famously hailed him as ‘the missing link between Sinatra and rock ‘n’ roll’. Paul Simon has collaborated with him more than once. Lou Reed was another devotee.
The Wanderer, like its female counterpart about an inconstant lover, Runaround Sue, is what Dion is best remembered for. He had vocal swagger then, which gave way to a lovely, lived-in tone. He cut countless great records, covering Dylan’s It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue brilliantly and making a version of The Drifters’ Ruby Baby which Donald Fagen liked so much that the Steely Dan man replicated it on The Nightfly. Then there was King Of The New York Streets, not to mention Born To Be With You.
To these ears, however, his best composition comes from what was supposedly one of his fallow periods. By 1966, the hits had all but dried up (there was one more to come, Abraham, Martin and John, two years later) and he had been hooked on heroin for 13 years. Everywhere the Brylcreemed boys were giving way to blokes with beards. Revolver, Blonde On Blonde and Fresh Cream were hitting the record racks.
Dion could have become a backward-looking revival act like one of his early heroes, Gene Vincent. On the face of it, by reuniting with his original group for an LP called Together Again he appeared to be doing exactly that. The Belmonts were a trio of DiMucci’s fellow Italian-Americans whose run of eight American hits in a two-year period between 1958 and 1960 included Teenager In Love.
Instead he gave us a love song of astonishing and enduring charm. My Girl The Month Of May – even the title adds to its allure because the words in that form do not appear in the lyric – was lifted from the album to become the B-side (what were the record label thinking?) of the lightweight Brazilian track Berimbau. Dion’s paean to Susan Butterfield, whom he met when he was 15, married at 23 and is still with today, never shifted many units but it is one of the great songs of the Sixties.
Even in that epic year, there can have been few better intros than theirs to My Girl The Month Of May. If Brian Wilson had grown up in the Bronx instead of Southern California and immersed himself in doo-wop rather than the pristine harmonies of the Four Freshmen, Pet Sounds might have sounded like this. Imagine the Beach Boys’ heavenly chorale juxtaposed with the guitars of the Young Rascals’ streetwise soul and topped off by some incredible scat singing and it may give you an idea.
A musician friend tells me it’s the modulations – changes in key – that make the song. I know where’s he coming from, though I love the words, even if, after more than half a century of trying (latterly with the help of Google), they remain indecipherable in parts. There’s no disguising the feelings DiMucci seeks to articulate, and if they don’t look good on paper – especially the ‘green water’ bit – they sound wonderful on vinyl.
Your eyes are like green water
Your hair is long and flowing.
Little girl of mine
Like the flowers of springtime
In the month of May
The song sounds like a forerunner to the sunshine pop of groups such as The Association, whose 1968 hit Everything That Touches You was surely inspired by it. Dion & The Belmonts’ reunion proved commercially unsuccessful but it left us a magical piece of music. Happy birthday and thank you very much, Mr DiMucci.
Jess Roden on The Alan Bown's classic cover