Thursday, June 23, 2005


A Dion Mystery is Solved


by Wayne Robins

The first album I ever bought, in 1959 or 1960, was "Presenting Dion & the Belmonts," on Bob Schwartz' Laurie Records label. Dion & the Belmonts were one of the great doo-wop groups, ruggedly handsome boys from the Italian-American neighborhood around Belmont Avenue and the more famous Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. (They decided against calling themselves Dion & the Arthurs: Good call.)

Angelo was first tenor, Fred second tenor, and the secret sauce, Carlo Mastrangelo, sang bass. In addition to the tricky tongue-twisting uptempo swing of "I Wonder Why," the album contained Dion & the Belmonts four top 40 hits: The mid-tempo lament "A Teenager in Love," and two songs of true teenage angst: "Don't Pity Me" (which of course, all but insisted on pity), and "No One Knows." Their biggest single nationally, though, (peaking at No. 3 in 1960), was "Where or When," a dazzling harmony take on a tune from a 1937 Rodgers & Hart musical.

There was also, a song out of left field, called "You Better Not Do That," which opens with the lines, "I'm just a country boy...," Dion twanged away (as much as he could get away with), and was definitely not Grand Ole Opry material. As I recall, the Belmonts mostly sat this song out. The liner notes claimed that Dion was indeed a country music fan, which I thought to be about as likely as scuba diving in the Bronx River. Later, as a solo artist, Dion would prove those liner notes reasonably accurate, as he showed himself to be quite a decent folk and blues singer.

I had always wondered where Dion had even heard the song, since country music was not a favored format in the New York area circa 1960. Now I know at least whose version he learned the song from: a country musician named Tommy Collins. A collection of Collins' recordings, "The Capitol Collection," has been released by Koch Records and EMI music's Special Markets division.

Collins was raised in Oklahoma, and, like many of his fellow Okies, emigrated in 1952 to Bakersfield, Calif. He met up with the Bakersfield brigade, people like Ferlin Husky, Merle Haggard (who became a good friend and recorded a number of Collins' songs) and Buck Owens, who plays guitar on Collins' "You Better Not Do That," which hit No. 2 on the country charts in early 1954. Collins was a progenitor of the Bakersfield sound: Owens, Haggard, Wynn Stewart and others would take it from there. The style was given a shot of adrenalin when Dwight Yoakam came along 20 years ago, with sassy singing and smart lyrics, playing guitar too hard and loud for Tennessee, but just right for Bakersfield.

Collins eventually dropped out of music, unable to reconcile the honky-tonk life with his religious beliefs. But we can thank Tommy Collins for bringing a little bit of country fun, through Dion, to the Bronx.

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