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Angela Alaimo O’Donnell pictured with Dion DiMucci (photo courtesy of Fordham University)Angela Alaimo O’Donnell with Dion DiMucci (photo courtesy of Fordham University)

​This essay is a Cover Story selection, a weekly feature highlighting the top picks from the editors of America Media.

Catholic that I am, I must begin by confessing: I was more than a little bit starstruck. As a child growing up in northeastern Pennsylvania, about 100 miles from New York City, sitting on the floor of my family’s living room and listening to the records my older brothers and sisters would play on the big Magnavox stereo—records like “The Wanderer,”“Tell Me Why,”“Teenager in Love,”“Runaround Sue” and, later, the record that broke all of our hearts in that heartbreaking year of 1968, “Abraham, Martin and John”—I never imagined I would share a stage with the singer-songwriter who performed those songs.

But this is exactly what happened at Fordham University recently, when the Curran Center for American Catholic Studies hosted the legendary Dion DiMucci. I introduced him to the sold-out audience, who were eager to hear an evening of storytelling, conversation and music. The rock star who has gone by the singular name of Dion for the past 65 years had loomed larger than life for my siblings and me, as did so many of the great music idols of that era—Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke, Roy Orbison, Chubby Checker and Buddy Holly, to name a few. He was an artist who made music that expressed the angst and the energy, the agony and the ecstasy of being a young person in America during a time of enormous social upheaval and change.

Dion’s music and that of his contemporaries shaped the experience and imaginations of a whole generation of young people, in much the same way that current artists like Taylor Swift have shaped the current generation of young listeners. Dion not only gave us great tunes that told our stories; he lent a voice to the voiceless, particularly in a pre-internet, pre-social-media era. Dion’s songs acknowledged young people, and the seriousness and the challenges of growing up in America. His music made young people feel seen and gave us a kind of agency we did not have before.

Fast-forward a few decades and I find myself with a much fuller and richer sense of who Dion DiMucci is, both as an artist and as a person, thanks in part to his terrific memoir, Dion: The Wanderer Talks Truth (2011). I discovered this book through a mutual friend, the writer Mike Aquilina, who collaborated with Dion on the writing of the memoir and also co-writes songs with him. I knew that Dion was a gifted musician and songwriter, a great artist who continues to create and record music even now, at the age of 85. What I hadn’t known was that he is a devoted Catholic, having returned to the faith of his childhood in midlife in a deliberate and serious way.

For someone like me, whose interest as a scholar, professor and writer focuses on the myriad ways in which Catholicism is present in American arts and culture, this was Good News I had to follow up on. Thus began a relationship with Dion that culminated in his return to his old neighborhood (the Belmont section of the Bronx, still known as Little Italy) and to Fordham University, an institution he has had a lifelong relationship with, though not of any conventional kind.

Dion’s history

In addition to reading his memoir, I also learned much about Dion from a number of long phone conversations he and I shared over the course of about 15 months. (Dion prefers to communicate via actual, real-time conversation rather than the less personal avenues of email and texting.)

Proud of his roots, Dion acknowledges that being born in the Bronx was a gift. At the time, the borough already had a history as a hotbed of musical invention and innovation. The Big Band sound, Afro-Caribbean music, jazz and R&B music all flourished in the Bronx during the first half of the 20th century. In addition to these contemporary influences, Dion’s grandfather would take him to the opera performances where he heard such classics as “La Traviata,” “La Bohème” and “Turandot.” He tells stories of his 7-year-old self standing on a chair at family gatherings to sing the heartbreaking aria “Nessun Dorma” to a captive audience of adult listeners.

Dion began adding to that rich musical history at the age of 10, when he first heard Hank Williams on the radio and shortly thereafter received his first guitar from his parents. Despite growing up in New York amid all of this musical variety, listening to the radio gave him access to artists and kinds of music he had never heard before. It opened up a new world for him and gave to the young Dion, in his own words, “a first taste of transcendence and a hint of salvation.”

Dion would pursue his passion for music, forming the group Dion & the Belmonts in 1958, thereby putting a Bronx stamp on the music he would contribute to American culture. Dion found success early, perfecting the doo-wop sound that American audiences loved. In the course of his long career, he would branch out into many musical genres, including classic rock ’n’ roll, gospel, folk music and, perhaps most compellingly, the blues—a genre he describes as “the naked cry of the human heart longing to be in union with God.” He would travel, perform and collaborate with many of the greatest musicians of his era.

In fact, this whirlwind of collaboration nearly cost him his life. On Feb. 3, 1959, a day immortalized by Don McLean in his 1971 classic “American Pie” as “the day the music died,” Dion was supposed to board the single-engine plane that would tragically crash, killing all on board, including Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. As Dion tells the story, he chose to ride on the tour bus with the rest of the band to avoid paying $36 for his plane seat, the exact amount that his parents struggled and saved to pay for the monthly rent on their Bronx apartment. It has sometimes been said by friends of Dion that he has had nine lives. This was one of several brushes with death.

Shortly after making his mark on American music, barely out of his teens, Dion moved himself and his family out of the Bronx, first to the suburbs and eventually to Florida, where he has lived ever since. His recent return to the Bronx constitutes a genuine homecoming—to his neighborhood and to his borough, but also to Fordham University.

One of the many fascinating things I learned in the course of our conversations is that Dion was actually born on the Fordham campus. The area of campus where the parking garage is currently located used to be the site of the Fordham Hospital, a public medical institution that offered free services to the people of the Bronx. This is the place, a stone’s throw from great Bronx institutions such as the Bronx Zoo and the New York City Botanical Gardens, where Dion came into the world on July 18, 1939.

He would live for the first two decades of his life just a few blocks from the university, a campus surrounded by a forbidding wrought-iron gate that loomed in his imagination as a place that was august, mysterious and inaccessible to working-class people of the Bronx like himself—many of whom did not complete high school, let alone aspire to attend college. Dion’s fame and accomplishments as an artist would eventually bring him back to the campus where he was born. In 2013, he received an honorary degree from the university he felt shut out of for so many years.

Dion’s Catholic imagination

Dion’s Catholicism has been another constant in his life. He grew up Catholic, as did most of the people in Belmont. Though he was not particularly observant as a young man, his life was permeated by the presence of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church on 187th Street, originally founded as a mission church in 1907 to serve the growing Italian-American immigrant community. (The church now serves the burgeoning community of Spanish-speaking immigrants from South and Central America.)

Dion tells stories of the charismatic pastor of Sicilian origins, Monsignor Pernicone, who would challenge the young Dion when he would see him strolling by the church, posing philosophical and theological questions about virtue, prudence and St. Thomas Aquinas. Dion admits he had no answers to these questions at the time. He was busy pursuing a life of music, pleasure and survival on the gritty streets of the Bronx. But they provoked him into thought. This is, of course, what Catholicism does best: invite human beings into contemplation of eternal questions. These are the questions he would come back to as an older, wiser man.

After years of success—which were also challenging years wherein Dion, like so many artists and musicians, dealt with the dark side of fame, particularly the twin curses of alcohol and drug addiction—he would set out on his own search for answers. Dion credits his wife of 61 years, Susan Butterfield, whom he met at the Bronx high school they both attended, with saving his life. Susan essentially told him she could not stay with him and watch him destroy himself. Terrified by the prospect of the loss of the love of his life, Dion sought help through 12-step programs. As he notes, those programs certainly have a strong affinity with St. Ignatius of Loyola’s program for discernment, which enables people to surrender their will to God’s.

Thus began the journey to recovery that would lead to his rediscovery of and his embracing of his faith. In his memoir, he states this eloquently: “I am a ferocious Catholic who loves the Church and its teaching.” This love of Catholicism manifests itself in his music, as well as in his life.

For example, one delightful discovery in recent months has been Dion’s blues song about St. Jerome, called “The Thunderer”—a song Dion wrote after seeing a statue of St. Jerome in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, learning about Jerome’s mighty voice and contributions to Christianity as a church father and translator of the Bible, and reading a marvelous poem about St. Jerome written by the Catholic poet Phyllis McGinley. The song sets McGinley’s verses to music—and features verses written by Dion, as well. It is a powerful tribute to one of Dion’s hero saints.

Another recent song that reflects his faith is “Angel in the Alleyways,” a piece Dion recorded with Patti Scialfa and Bruce Springsteen (another Catholic American music legend) that attests to the presence of the divine in the least likely of places. This is a theological vision Dion shares with many a Catholic artist, including St. Ignatius of Loyola, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Flannery O’Connor. In Dion’s work, we see the Catholic imagination at work.

Dion’s legacy

Most readers who grew up listening to Dion are aware of his extraordinary accomplishments, but it is worth highlighting just a few of them for those who might be less familiar with his work.

Dion has been making music for over six decades, producing over 40 albums in a wide variety of genres. He has recorded many million-seller hits and has sold 28 million albums worldwide. Dion has been nominated multiple times for Grammy Awards, including a nomination for his gospel album I Put Away My Idols” and for his blues album Bronx in Blue. In 1989, he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Bob Dylan particularly honors Dion’s contributions to the blues, dubbing him “a bluesman from another Delta.” Only two American musicians are featured on the ground-breaking, pop-psychedelic cover of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album: Dion and Dylan, acknowledging the influence two of America’s greatest voices had on the Beatles’ music and the British Invasion of the 1960s.

Bruce Springsteen once noted that Dion is remarkable in that he continues to produce new music, decade after decade, rather than simply falling back on the music that he produced when he was young. When asked why he continues to create new songs, Dion links his vocation as an artist with his vocation as a Catholic:

You don’t have to go through the trouble of making new music—because it is a lot of trouble. You can just show up and sing the old hits, and you’ll get what you want out of them. But it’s different if you think your art is not for you. If you believe your art glorifies God, you’re going to keep doing it as long as you can still breathe. When I make music, I feel like I’m crazy King David dancing before the Ark of the Covenant, singing a new song just because I’m still newly in love, or belting out the blues as a psalm of lament. As long as I can still breathe, I hope to be newly in love with the God who made me. He always gives me something to sing about.

In the coming months, a new musical will be opening on Broadway about Dion’s life, titled “The Wanderer.” A tale of transformation and redemption, the play tells his story and also demonstrates the ways in which music and the arts can save a person’s soul. In addition, the newly founded Bruce Springsteen Archives & Center for American Music, at Monmouth University in New Jersey, recently honored four musically, culturally and politically significant artists—John Mellencamp, Jackson Browne, Mavis Staples and Dion.

These four iconic artists were celebrated because, according to Springsteen, they “have contributed mightily to the American music canon and have demonstrated how the power of song can act as an agent for positive change in our country.”

Dion DiMucci is an American artist whose music is relevant to each and all of the eras in which he has lived. One can only hope that the adage about his having nine lives proves true. If so, we can enjoy the inimitable voice of this Bronx bluesman and American Catholic troubadour well into his ninth decade and beyond.

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