Four guys are standing on a street corner. One of them begins to quietly sing to himself. Pretty soon he is singing the words to a song he barely knows. He sings just loud enough for the other three to hear.
His buddy standing next to him knows that song too, and begins to sing along. They both know the words and the tune, and they sound pretty good together. Another one of the guys is staring out at the street, watching the cars drive by, and hears his friends begin to sing together behind him. His friends don’t see him as he snaps along and mouths the words. A sound escapes, and he realizes his voice is higher than the other two. He sings along in what he thinks must be harmony.
The fourth guy takes a drag on a cigarette, and his sneer turns into a smile. He takes a deep breath and lets out a low base vocal, singing along with his other three buddies. They sound great together. They share a smile. They talk about what song to sing next.
I can’t promise you that this is how every male doo-wop group of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s began, but it makes for a good story. I’m sticking with it, and I’ve decided this is how Dion and The Belmonts must have formed in The Bronx in 1957. Four guys standing on a street corner, singing together in harmony, singing about cars and girls.
Though Dion and The Belmonts lasted only a few years, and they had already broken up so lead singer Dion DiMucci could start his solo career, “Runaround Sue” is the perfect embodiment of that street corner trope. Young kids standing around a fire hydrant under a lone street lamp, singing about girls who won’t give them the time of day.
“Runaround Sue” starts simply and quietly, almost as a lonely lament. A sole voice, bemoaning his poor lot in life. A guitar strums a chord. A chorus of voices sings a sad “woo” in the background.
“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 snare drum then kicks the song into gear, the sad voices becomes the choir of buddies standing around the fire hydrant clapping and replacing the sad “woo” with a buoyant “hey, hey, bum de hey de hey de hey, hey.” Dion’s sad lament turns into something like Tarzan swinging through the jungle. He has found his strength and his edge. He found his anger.
“Yeah, I should have known it from the very start
This girl will leave me with a broken heart
Now listen people what I’m telling you
A keep away from a Runaround Sue yeah”
He who was at first the victim has now become the teacher, advisor and guru. He has the scars of experience and hurt on his skin and in his voice. He is a tough guy, and he has a thing or two to teach you.
“I might miss her lips and the smile on her face
The touch of her hair and this girl’s warm embrace
So if you don’t want to cry like I do
A keep away from a Runaround Sue”
Nothing in this song stops. Hand claps continue throughout, and you can just imagine the guys smiling at each other as they provide the background singing in perfect harmony, on the street corner.
This is what cool sounds like. Toughness and compassion. Braggadocio and sympathy. Empathy and pride. And that awesome street corner voice carries us through to the bridge.
“Ah, she likes 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”
“Runaround Sue” is a song of its time. Pop and Doo Wop singers were advisors, therapists and gurus. They were the angel on the shoulder, and the voice from above. If there was something to be learned, it was taught in song.
“Here’s the moral and the story from the guy who knows
I fell in love and my love still grows
Ask any fool that she ever knew, they’ll say
Keep away from a Runaround Sue”
Dion DiMucci is the rarest of performers. A teenage idol who was able to sustain his career to become an excellent singer songwriter, whose career is still going strong today at 80 years old. Dion is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and is inspiration to performers from Paul Simon to Bruce Springsteen to Bono. They all sang on a street corner, they all wanted to be cool. They all wanted to be Dion.
Written by Dion DiMucci and Ernie Maresca
Performed by Dion
Released September 1961