It was the swaggering, swinging exuberance and old-fashioned excellence emanating from the big cities that lifted Rock-N-Roll out of the hole it had fallen into after a series of devastating losses in the late 1950s and 1960s.
The state of Rock-N-Roll was in a state by the middle of 1961. February of 1959 witnessed the “Day The Music Died,” when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper all went down on that notorious plane in a snowy field in Iowa.
For the want of $35, Dion, who was touring with the others, would not get on the plane. (Nor would Waylon Jennings, then a member of Holly’s backing band.) Dion returned to New York.
The next month, “A Teenager In Love” by Dion & The Belmonts would rocket to #5 on the charts, establishing Dion as a bona fide star. That success was followed by a remake of a dreamy 1930s number, “Where Or When,” which reached #3. But there was trouble in the paradise of the Little Italy of The Bronx, the Belmont section Dion and his back-ups called home. (The group was named for Belmont Avenue there.)
Most significantly, even while the hits were flying high, Dion checked into rehab after a heroin intervention, something hushed up for many years so as not to tarnish his teen idol image. It was an era of less-talented teen idols, quasi-manufactured types, handsome and usually sporting pompadours, who were called up from the reserves to fill the void created by the infamous plane crash and the gaping hole left when Elvis Presley was inducted for military service. Dion was the real deal.
When he left his professional intervention and successful treatment program, Dion was a different man. He and the Belmonts broke up and he set his sights on a solo career. “Runaround Sue” was the first stop on Dion’s express to the top. It was released in September of ’61 and by October it was #1 in the U.S. It gained gold record status (1 million sales) in early 1962.
“Runaround Sue” is sung from the position of a jilted lover giving others (listeners or perhaps even real-life acquaintances) the low down about a cheating lover. Because it is about a real girl and a real experience, the song is delivered with great conviction despite its very polished stylization.
That we know there is a real Sue (forever unidentified, though) enhances the enjoyment. Queerly, Dion’s wife, whose name happens to be Susan, is not the Sue of song fame. Yet, according to Dion in a 2009 interview, “”She goes around telling everybody, ‘Yeah, I’m Runaround Sue.’ I said, ‘Why do you tell people that?’ She says, ‘They remember me.’ She said, ‘If I don’t tell them that, they won’t remember me.'” The former Susan Butterfield and Dion have been married since 1963.
Soulful innocence, pain and a drop of revenge percolate through from the mournful, slow, almost spoken start.
Here’s my story, it’s sad but true
It’s about a girl that I once knew
She took my love then ran around
With every single guy in town
The opening is immediately followed by a powerful vocal jam and sass-filled handclapping executed by the whole group that runs through the whole song, bulldozing all the conventions of Doo Wop. Dion’s voice literally soars over, in, and out of the arrangement. He’s a kid at this point with a seriously distinguished voice. He’s part Jazz, part Sinatra, part street tough, part soul singer and part almost-cheesy nightclub act. All the notes seem effortless and totally natural, like a bird singing in a forest, in this case the urban forest. Although we know he rehearsed obsessively, no matter – he sounds like a natural and it works to his great advantage.
He claims he learned about singing – phrasing and dramatics – from sitting on a fire escape or in hallways listening to Italian immigrant men singing opera on the sidewalk below on hot Bronx summer nights. What he had to learn about love, jealousy and the put-down by an ex he learned all by himself on the street corner.
The Belmonts continue their vocal jam on the ridiculously upbeat song – they all sound so happy giving the word on Sue – backed up by Carlo Mastrangelo’s drumming that deserves unreserved praise for its simplicity and precision.
The lyrics, too, remain simple… simple and heartfelt.
I should have known it from the very start
This girl’d leave me with a broken heart
Now listen people what I’m telling you
A-keep away from-a Runaround Sue
I miss her lips and the smile on her face
The touch of her hand and this girl’s warm embrace
So if you don’t wanna cry like I do
A-keep away from-a Runaround Sue
When he says he misses ol’ Sue, he means it with every fiber. But he can’t resist the indictment that comes with a brilliant music change. Betwixt and between are sufficient ooohs, aaahs, dit-dits and laddle-laddles to fill a cargo ship. For some reason, corny as they are 60 years after the recording, they don’t get old.
Ah, she like to travel around
She’ll love you and she’ll put you down
Now people let me put you wise
Sue goes out with other guys
As the song draws to its close, we get the moral of the story. In case you couldn’t figure it out, it’s: keep away from Runaround Sue.
The sublime beauty of the great Doo Wop classics lies in their honesty, the complete absence of irony or afterthought. “This is what I feel,” they say, “Take it or leave it.” And, even in their darkest moments, there is something in short supply currently: hope. The songs are overflowing with enthusiasm and hope. Tomorrow comes. Maybe the world isn’t an oyster but it is a big steaming pile of calamari in marinara and there’s a cute girl at the next table.