Like many teenagers who came of age in New York City in the late 1950s and early 1960s, my Dad was reared on rock ’n’ roll. He was particularly fond of the harmony and melody of doo-wop music.
Dad wasn’t the only Goldstein enamored with doo-wop. For many years, my Aunt Sharon has hosted a radio program in California under the alias Sista Soul devoted to doo-wop called “Sista’s Place.” Many years ago, during a visit to his “sista,” Dad appeared on the show as “Brother Rajeev.”
So I thought it would be appropriate to spend the night before Father’s Day with Dad at the Seventh Annual Ultimate Doo Wop Show in New York City’s Beacon Theatre. The lineup included the Soul Stirrers featuring Willie Rogers, Shirley Alston-Reeves of the Shirelles, Charlie Thomas’ Drifters and rock ’n’ roll’s wanderer — Dion.
Although Dion has never stopped making music, his live performances are as a rare as a $2 bill these days. Dion DiMucci might be a teenager at heart, but it doesn’t change the fact that he will turn 75 next month. Opportunities like this simply do not come by everyday and they must be taken when they present themselves.
The evening began with a short set by the Soul Stirrers. Although primarily known as a gospel group, their harmonies were instrumental in the popularity of doo-wop music. Their most well-known member was Sam Cooke. Their set was a tribute to Cooke. December will mark the 50th anniversary of his murder. The Soul Stirrers with Willie Rogers on lead did a stirring rendition of “A Change is Gonna Come,” “If I Had a Hammer,” and “Chain Gang.” There were some people behind us who preferred to talk than listen. After a few minutes of this, Dad turned around and glared at them. They stopped talking and started listening.
The Shirelles were rock ’n’ roll’s first girl group — black or white. Shirley Alston-Reeves represented this pioneering group ably with songs such as “There’ll Be Days Like This,” “Baby It’s You,” “Tonight’s the Night” (which Alston-Reeves co-wrote), “Foolish Little Girl,” “Soldier Boy,” and “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.” There was also banter between Alston-Reeves and her back-up singers. One of them jested that Alston-Reeves had been singing since 1776. Alston-Reeves replied, “Martha Reeves is looking for a new Vandella.” Actually, Alston-Reeves turned 73 earlier this month and showing no signs of slowing down.
The Drifters have included the likes of Clyde McPhatter and Ben E. King. Charlie Thomas spent nearly a decade with the Drifters and was with them during the height of their success. At 77, Thomas might not move around like he once did, but his tenor is still rich and powerful. He led his Drifters through a set of their greatest hits — “On Broadway,” “This Magic Moment” (this song prompted a couple near the front of the audience to start slow dancing), “There Goes My Baby,” “Save The Last Dance for Me,” “Up On the Roof,” and “Under the Boardwalk.” Dad was struck by the sheer quantity of their hits. But perhaps the biggest applause Thomas received was when he admonished young African-American men “to pull up their britches and listen to some real music.”
After intermission came the moment we were all waiting for — Dion. Graying and sporting a goatee with dark glasses, he was recognizable in his trademark beret. While Dad enjoyed the previous acts he told me they were living in the past whereas Dion performed his songs in a contemporary manner while staying true to their original essence. Indeed, he began the show with “I Got My Eyes on You,” a song he did not record until 2007. There would be more ’50s rock classics — Buddy Holly’s “Rave On,” Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues,” and Big Joe Turner/Bill Haley & The Comets’ “Shake, Rattle & Roll.” The last would get many in the audience dancing on their feet.
Of course Dion performed plenty of his own hits including “Donna the Prima Donna,” “Love Came to Me”, “Ruby Baby,” and “Always in the Rain.” Before performing the Dion & The Belmonts’ classic “Teenager in Love,” he spoke to the audience about it. “I put this song together when I was 17,” said Dion. “Everything you want to know about love is in this song.” Now Dion didn’t actually write “Teenager in Love.” It was co-written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman. But given Dion’s association with the song he can be forgiven for saying he “put this song together.” Pomus’s words and Shuman’s music would not have been complete without Dion’s voice.
Dion spoke of his love of Wrangler jeans, stating that he was “a Wrangler guy.” However, after recently buying some Wranglers and trying them on, he came to the conclusion, “I’m not a Wrangler guy anymore.” This comment resonated with the mostly Baby Boom and pre-Baby Boom audience. Despite his youthful exuberance even Dion has had to make some concessions to age. Yet Dion will never forget about the days he and the Belmonts spent at the Apollo listening to Big Al Sears play the saxophone and how it would influence the music they would make.
Dion has been married to a woman named Susan for more than 50 years and she keeps him grounded. As Susan says, “If two people agree on everything then one of them is unnecessary,” and “Go fast, go alone. Go far, go together.” Clearly she’s no “Runaround Sue.”
Dion performed a two song solo acoustic set (Howlin’ Wolf’s “Built for Comfort” and his own seldom heard “A King Without a Queen”) before his band returned to the stage to perform “Abraham, Martin & John,” which he dedicated to a fallen soldier who was named after him.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Dion’s band. I didn’t catch their names, but they are all exceptionally good professional musicians, especially the saxophone player. The sax guy had one of the worst toupees I’ve ever seen. But who needs hair when you can play that horn with such power?
Like any good showman Dion saved his best for last. The moment the first notes of “Runaround Sue” played, the audience jumped to its feet. This is exactly where they would stay when he ended the night with “The Wanderer.” And then Dion wandered offstage. When he might return is anyone’s guess. What I do know is that I, my Dad, and about 2,900 other people wandered out of the Beacon Theatre happy.