The Wanderer returns … to the Catholic Church
Dion DiMucci was about 15 years old, walking down Crotona Avenue in the Bronx’s Little Italy neighborhood, thinking he was one cool character.
“It was right after the movie Rebel Without a Cause had come out with James Dean and Natalie Wood,” said DiMucci, who remembers his parish priest seeing him on the street and asking him about the movie.
“He said, ‘Dion, why don’t you rebel for the truth? Why rebel without a cause? Rebel for the truth, and you really got something.’ I didn’t know what he was talking about,” DiMucci recalled. “But it stuck with me, because nobody said these things on the street corners.”
That bit of priestly street wisdom stayed with DiMucci, 77, as he went on to a successful and legendary career in rock ’n’ roll — and during his struggles with substance abuse and his 18 years spent searching for the fullness of Christian truth — until he returned to the Catholic faith of his childhood.
DiMucci, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame who is known for hits like “Runaround Sue,” “The Wanderer” and “Abraham, Martin and John,” will perform with his band at the 2017 Legatus Annual Summit, which will be held Jan. 26-28 at the Ritz-Carlton in Naples, Fla.
“Yeah, we’re gonna rock out,” DiMucci said. “It’s gonna be awesome. We’re gonna have some fun. We’re gonna party a little bit.”
At the Summit, DiMucci said he will also share his testimony and spiritual journey, which began at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, an Italian parish in the Belmont section of the Bronx. His parents were not particularly religious, but DiMucci said attending Mass with his aunts on special occasions, like midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, imbued him and his friends with a sense of beauty and harmony.
“Catholicism gets in your DNA and growing up with it, it gets into your bones, even when you’re not going to church,” he explained.
That innate sense of harmony served DiMucci well as he and his neighborhood friends began singing a capella on street corners and under streetlamps. The group became The Belmonts in 1957, and their early hits included “I Wonder Why” and “A Teenager in Love,” a doowop classic.
In 1960, DiMucci struck out on his own to pursue a solo career. He developed a swaggering style that yielded some of his best-known hits, especially “The Wanderer,” which Millenials have discovered thanks to a popular video game, Fallout 4, that features the song.
“I also see parents and grandparents letting their kids hear some of the classic songs that came out in the ’50s, the first generation of rock ‘n’ roll songs. A lot of the kids take to it. You get a lot of young people at concerts,” DiMucci said.
“It’s very encouraging,” he added. “It’s a real compliment.”
DiMucci admitted that the truth of his parish priest’s street advice became apparent when he became successful and made a few million dollars, married Susan, the beautiful girl of his dreams, bought a fancy car and got the guitar he had always wanted.
Those were the things a teenage DiMucci had one day told the priest he believed would make him happy. The priest responded by quoting St. Thomas Aquinas: “No, Dion. The virtuous man is the happy man.”
“I made it to the top of my profession, and something was definitely missing,” DiMucci told Legatus magazine. “I had no idea what it was, but something was missing.”
DiMucci sought solace in drugs and alcohol, and became addicted by the time he was 28. He had also experienced heartbreak a few years earlier when on Feb. 2, 1959, he gave his airplane seat to Buddy Holly for a flight to Fargo, N.D. They were on tour with fellow rockers Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson, also known as The Big Bopper. Feeling guilty about the price of the ticket, DiMucci let Holly fly with Richardson and Valens. That night, the four-seater plane crashed, killing everyone on board.
Struggling with addiction, DiMucci recounted getting on his knees one night in 1968, praying and telling God that he needed help. He described being overcome by a spiritual awakening.
“I got up off of my knees and I was changed,” he said. “I was never the same. It was as if I was hurled into the fourth dimension.”
Almost 50 years later, DiMucci has not had a drug or drink since that night.
“I became aware of God’s power and his presence before I became aware of His reality,” DiMucci said.
For almost 20 years, he wandered through various Protestant denominations — Assembly of God, Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian, to name a few — studying their teachings, and having to unlearn their theology whenever he and his wife moved and began attending a different denomination.
The Wanderer’s restlessness grew during those years in the Protestant world.
“What got me frustrated was I was thinking and reading. Then you start reading Scripture and you start seeing things. You start reading the early Church Fathers and about the first 300 years of the Church, and that’ll change you. That will show you what the early Church looked like,” he said.
DiMucci said he was particularly drawn to the question of authority in the Church and the truth of the Real Presence in the Eucharist. After years of study, he rejoined the Church in 1997, and went to Confession at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, back in the old Bronx neighborhood.
He has since developed friendships with several high-profile Catholic scholars, evangelists and figures in the United States, including Scott Hahn, Mike Aquilina and Tom Monaghan, the founder of Legatus. DiMucci recalled a trip to Rome he took with Aquilina and Hahn where his faith deepened.
“It just opens your eyes to the fullness of the faith,” DiMucci said. “It takes you to a higher reality that is much more richer, broader, deeper and wider than you thought was possible.”
Since his sobriety and return to the Church, DiMucci has been a prolific song writer and performer. After getting clean, he developed an introspective, folk-based style that returned him to the top of the charts with “Abraham, Martin and John.” He released a folkish version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze,” and recorded an album that included covers of Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan songs.
DiMucci was welcomed into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, the same year that the Rolling Stones and Stevie Wonder were inducted.
In recent years, DiMucci has shown his versatility by recording several blues albums. He released a new disc, New York Is My Home, in February. The title track features fellow New Yorker Paul Simon. DiMucci said the song was inspired by a documentary about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“It’s my love song to my city,” said DiMucci, who splits his time between New York and Florida. Asked how long he plans to keep performing and writing, DiMucci said he takes life one day at a time and tries in the meantime to go about the Father’s business as best he can.
“I’m 77, and I feel relevant and more creative now than when I was 28,” DiMucci said. “And I know that’s because of God in my life.”
BRIAN FRAGA is a Legatus magazine staff writer
Dion DiMucci Timeline
July 18, 1939: Born in the Bronx, the eldest of the three children of Pasquale and Frances DiMucci
1954: Performs live for the first time on The Teen Club, a Philadelphia-based television program
1957: Records four rock songs as a Valentine’s Day present for his mother
1957: Forms The Belmonts with Carlo Mastrangelo, Freddy Millano and Angelo D’Aleo
1958: Records his first single: “Tag Along” b/w “We Went Away”
1958: Performs on The Dick Clark Show on CBS-TV
1959: Dion and The Belmonts release their first Top 10 single, “A Teenager in Love”
1959: Dion gives up his seat on an airplane, which crashed killing Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper
1960: The Belmonts disband; Dion begins recording with The Del-Satins
1962: Has a string of Top 10 hits: “Runaround Sue,” “The Wanderer,” “Lovers Who Wander” and “Little Diane”
1963: Marries Susan Butterfield
1963: Drops The Del-Satins
1967: Reunites with The Belmonts for the album, Together Again
1968: Hits the Top 10 with “Abraham, Martin and John”
1972: Dion and The Belmonts play Madison Square Garden, recording a live album, Reunion
1980s: Records a series of Christian albums
1984: Dion’s album I Put Away My Idols wins a Gospel Music Award
1987: Plays a string of sold out concerts at Radio City Music Hall
1988: Publishes his autobiography, The Wanderer: Dion’s Story
1989: Records his first rock album in years, Yo Frankie
1989: Inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
2017: Plays the Legatus Annual Summit in Naples, Fla.