by Michael Gilmartin
It's 1959. I live on Belmont Avenue in the Bronx. I guess I'm a teenager in love, but I ain't gonna tell NOBODY that. Besides, a bunch of guys from the neighborhood are saying it for me and thousands of guys like me. It's unbelievable. Carlo, Freddie, Angelo and Dion are guys you would see around. They're older than me, but not that much older. Just a few years before, they hung on the same corners, stoops and candy stores as I do now. They played stickball in the same streets. Their mothers shopped in the same Italian markets as mine does. They probably went to Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church like I do now. The same temptations are out there and the same gangs: Imperial Hoods, Fordham Daggers, Fordham Baldies, Golden Guineas, Red Wings and Scorpions. Like most of us now, they would have been thinking about getting jobs after high school or joining the Marines or the Navy, instead of waiting to be drafted.
As I am writing this review, I've got the LP on the record player. This is the same LP I got when it came out in 1959 so it's scratchy as hell and the album cover is dinged all over. Probably, it's been played a thousand times, even though I've got all the songs in other, "better" formats. My aunt gave me this album for my 15th birthday. It's probably worth squat in the collector's market, but it's priceless to me. This is the music of my time and place.
To begin with, it's worth noting that the album didn't happen as a result of one hit. There are all kinds of chart tunes on it: "I Wonder Why," "No One Knows," "Where or When," "Don't Pity Me," & "A Teenager in Love." By today's standards, this would be a Greatest Hits album, yet, back then, when 45s ruled, albums were more of an afterthought and probably record companies wouldn't put one out unless they were pretty damned sure that the market had already been established. Put it this way, Dion and The Belmonts had made their bones and the album was a result, not a cause, of that.
Second, the album cover itself is classy. Professionally taken black and white photographs are set against gold with white trim. (By the way, now's a good time to clarify some confusion about those photographs. Each set of photos was taken at separate American Bandstand Saturday night performances and I remember seeing those shows live on TV. The photos on the FRONT of the album are of the group singing "No One Knows." Angelo, in Navy dress blues, got to the show just before the guys went on. The photos on the BACK of the album were after the group performed "A Teenager in Love" and Angelo was not present for the performance.)
I also would note the title of the album. PRESENTING Dion And The Belmonts suggests that the album is a gift, not a hope. Clearly, the concept of the album is to make us all feel grown up, not just teenagers in love. The liner notes are fairly good in that they suggest the musical diversity and personalities of the group members and the album's selections. Much has been written subsequently by Dion and others about the varied tastes and influences upon Dion and The Belmonts, but we certainly get a solid taste of that from the song selections.
Now let's take one man's tour through the music itself.
1. "I Wonder Why": an all-time uptempo doo wop classic (forget the white/black distinctions currently in vogue). Great improvised intro by Carlo, great chime singing, strong, but not too strong, lead by Dion, tremendous falsetto soaring through and over it all by Angelo. GROUP singing at its finest. By the way, does anybody else hear Carlo's momentary screw-up about two-thirds through the song?
2."Where or When": an all-time classic ballad. We know now it was done as a favor for their record company president, but, man, it's got soul. Definite whiff of doo wop, but not truly doo wop. Dion in great form gliding in and out of the group harmony (four part harmony, not three part). Some minute, but distinct, moments provided by Carlo and Angelo. Adult music sung well by young adults who were unlikely to have actually experienced the events of the song.
3. "You Just Better Not Do That": Strictly filler. I have always felt that Dion And The Belmonts were able to connect with guys, as well as gals, and that was a key to their enormous popularity. This song misses that balance and is the worse for it.
4."Just You": Nice tempo. Good for slow dancing. Solid, professional performances that are overshadowed by other numbers on the album. Great song to practice singing with your buddies.
5."I Got The Blues": Fairly juvenile in that I'm not sure white kids can legitimately sing the blues. Still, I like what this song predicts in terms of where Dion would go with his music (I do think white adults can legitimately sing the blues). I like the Belmonts' work in this one and when the group re-united in the 1966 album, TOGETHER AGAIN, you can hear mature fusion of blues and doowop in songs like "Loserville" and "Jump Back Baby." (Speaking of that album, am I the only one who thinks "Berimbau" is fantastic?) Ernie Maresca wrote this one.
6."Don't Pity Me": A bit whiny, but I really dig this song. The Belmonts do beautiful, subtle things here and Dion does some great line readings. In his own liner notes to the KING OF THE NEW YORK STREETS anthology, Dion calls this song "dangerous." He's right on. It's rare to read anything about Freddie's contributions to the group's singing. For sure, he doesn't hurt it any and I suspect he was the solid mooring that the rest blasted off from in various songs.
7."A Teenager in Love": A big money maker. A big hit. A great example of marketing to teenagers. A memorable chorus line. Well sung. Doesn't hold up over time that well. Wouldn't make anyone's Top 100 Rock & Roll ballads. Perfect for oldies shows.
8."Wonderful Girl": A knockout. A real tribute to The Five Satins, not a rip-off of them. Dion at his best during this period of his career. I love the way Angelo trills the word, "spine." Sends chills up mine. Time to correct another common error. Dion and The Belmonts NEVER did a cover of "In The Still of The Night" by The 5 Satins and written by Satins' lead singer, Fred Parris. Instead, they did a nice and nice-selling version of "In The Still of The Night," written by Cole Porter and recorded in 1940 by the Glenn Miller Orchestra!
9."A Funny Little Feeling": Most forgettable song on the album. Bouncy beat that belongs in a Bobby Vee or Frankie Avalon song. May be the only doowop era song that refers to beatniks.
10."I've Cried Before": Decent bluesy number. Nice saxophone weaves through the song. Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman number (as is "Teenager in Love). Another excellent song to sing with your buddies. Dion sounds a bit hoarse in this one, but that adds to the mood. You believe here that he has cried before. If we could go back in time and make a video of this song, I see it in black and white, sung at night in the summertime. The guys are on a tenement rooftop. We see the old TV antennae there. There's a quarter moon hanging in the city night. Off to the side is the sax player. As he solos out at the end of the song, his notes ooze towards the stars.
11."That's My Desire": Let me be outrageous about this one: best make-out song ever, most neglected great doo wop ballad ever. I know…it's unlikely that Dion, The Belmonts or I were sipping little glasses of wine back then in our secret rendezvous so, in a way, this song is like "Where or When." Still, musically, this is the best piece of singing the group ever did. When you listen to the Madison Square Garden Reunion album, you'll note that the audience goes nuts when they begin this song. It's a killer. All the guys get a piece of the action. Carlo gets to riff, Freddie gets to anchor, Dion gets to come in and out of the harmony and Angelo, my God, soars with the angels. The apartment buildings in the neighborhood were somewhat run down by the 1950s, but retained some of their former glory. The vestibules were made of tile…absolutely great acoustics for doo wop. Without knowing it as fact, I know it in my bones that this treatment of "That's My Desire" was born in those hallways. I would have loved to be in the recording studio when they nailed this sucker. You can't argue with the decision to make "Where or When" the "A" side, but this is the one song I would use to demonstrate to a novice why doo wop is sacred music.
12."No One Knows": Solid, but not as good as "Just You" or "I've Cried Before." Classic piece of teenage guy angst and worthwhile as a period piece. None of us gombahs would ever SAY what the song says, but all of us THOUGHT what the song says. Dion is in good form, but too little of The Belmonts for my taste.
So, there you have it. A four-star album. Enough great performances to cement the importance and excellence of Dion And The Belmonts in Rock & Roll history. Enough of a period piece to give it museum quality. Enough of an indicator of where Dion, The Belmonts, and Dion And The Belmonts would head musically. Enough sophistication worthy of a professional studio. Enough soul worthy of the streets of The Bronx. Not bad for a $2.98 record.