Hello there! This week we will discuss the great doo-wop song I Wonder Why. We will first review the original song recorded by Dion and the Belmonts. The song appeared in the pilot segment of the TV show The Sopranos, and we will summarize that episode. Next we will consider covers of this song by Sha Na Na and by Showaddywaddy.
Dion and the Belmonts and I Wonder Why:
Dion DiMucci was born in the Bronx in 1941. When Dion was signed to a record contract, he recruited three of his childhood friends Carlo Mastrangelo, Fred Milano and Angelo D’Alea.
Two of the members lived on Belmont Avenue in the Bronx, and the other two had grown up nearby. The group adopted the name Dion and the Belmonts.
Doo-wop music originated with pickup groups who would sing on streetcorners for money from pedestrians. New York and Pittsburgh were early centers of doo-wop music. The resulting harmonies were complex, and often incorporated stylistic elements borrowed from jazz.
The song I Wonder Why was written by Melvin Anderson and Ricardo Weeks. In 1958, it became the first song released by Laurie Records. Although it peaked at only #22 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, it nevertheless identified Dion and the Belmonts as a group to watch.
Below is a photo of Dion and the Belmonts from the late 50s. From L: Fred Milano; Carlo Mastrangelo; Dion DiMucci; Angelo D’Alea.Embed from Getty Images
In I Wonder Why, the singer ponders the reasons why his lover is so appealing to him (here I have included in parentheses some of the solos from the bass singer).
(Dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun d-d-duh-duh-duh)
[Don’t] know why I love you like I do (D-d-dun d-d-dah), [don’t] know why I do
Don’t know why I love you, don’t know why I care
I just want, your love to share
I wonder why, I love you like I do
Is it because I think you love me too?
I wonder why, I love you like I do, like I do
Here are Dion and the Belmonts in a “live” performance of I Wonder Why.
The group is appearing on the Dick Clark Beech-Nut Hour in 1958. As usual, we put “live” in air quotes, as Dion and his cohorts are simply lip-synching to their record.
When I would watch interviews of Dick Clark, it was never clear that he understood the difference between live performance and the lip-synching that was so common on his show. He would speak of the “energy” and “great voice” of his guest artists, without acknowledging that in reality they were actually not singing a note.
However, you can immediately see why I Wonder Why is such an iconic ‘oldies’ tune. It prominently features a bass solo from Carlo Mastrangelo, and also the falsetto accompaniment so typical of doo-wop.
In addition, Dion DiMucci has a terrific voice for rock music. When Dion was paired with the close harmonies of the Belmonts, it made a potent combination.
In the late 50s I played electric bass in a rock band, Johnny Dee and the Kings. Our band played covers of the hits of the day, including Elvis, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Little Richard, and of course songs from several doo-wop groups.
I Wonder Why was one of the favorite tunes on our playlist. We referred to it using the politically-incorrect term ‘the Italian national anthem’ (“Wop, wop, wop wop wop wop wop,” get it, hahaha).
Many doo-wop groups were ‘one-hit wonders,’ with a single bit hit followed by obscurity. However, Dion and the Belmonts released a number of hit records. As a result, they became headliners in various traveling revues, appearing alongside groups like The Coasters and Bobby Darin.
In late 1958, Dion and the Belmonts were headliners on the Winter Garden Party tour along with Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. On Feb. 2, 1959, they played a concert at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.
Buddy Holly and others chartered a plane to take them to the next stop on their tour. Dion was offered a place on the plane, but felt that the $36 fee was too expensive. The plane subsequently crashed, killing Holly, Valens and ‘Big Bopper’ J.P. Richardson; this tragedy became known as ‘the day the music died.’
Over the next couple of years, Dion and the Belmonts continued to score pop hits. However, the group subsequently fragmented over disagreements about musical directions.
The group’s biggest hit had been a cover of the Great American Songbook standard Where or When. While the other Belmonts wanted to focus on doo-wop versions of old pop standards, Dion felt that they should concentrate on rock music.
The situation was complicated by the fact that Dion had recently spent a stint in rehab, trying to kick a long-time addiction to heroin. After leaving rehab, Dion split with the Belmonts, and then began a successful solo career that included hits such as Runaway Sue, The Wanderer, and Ruby Baby.
Dion and the Belmonts reunited briefly in the mid-60s and then again in the early 70s. Their records did not manage to crack the charts, but they had a couple of successful concert tours.
In 1989, Dion DiMucci was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but his Belmonts compatriots were not. This was not a completely unreasonable move, as Dion had a number of solo hits after leaving the Belmonts. But as might be expected, this caused considerable friction between DiMucci and his old mates.
Then in 2012, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted several groups whose lead singers had been enshrined while the other group members had not. The following six groups were inducted:
the Miracles (Smokey Robinson), the Crickets (Buddy Holly), the Midnighters (Hank Ballard), the Famous Flames (James Brown), the Comets (Bill Haley) and the Blue Caps (Gene Vincent) .
It seemed reasonable to assume that the Belmonts would join this group. After all, it is hard to argue that the Comets and the Blue Caps were more deserving than the Belmonts; however, the Belmonts were stiffed once again.
Dion DiMucci has continued to perform until very recently. Here he is live at the Tropicana Hotel in Atlantic City in 2004, performing his hit I Wonder Why.
Isn’t this fun – ole Dion can still bring it! What a really enjoyable song, and one that can immediately take me back to my days as a teenager.
I Wonder Why in The Sopranos:
The song I Wonder Why appeared in the pilot episode of the blockbuster HBO crime drama The Sopranos. An advertisement for Season 2 of that series is shown below left.
In this first episode, Mafia chieftain Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) has begun seeing psychiatrist Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) after Tony has suffered a panic attack; the panic attack is shown at the end of the video clip.
With Dr. Melfi, Tony is coy about the nature of his business operations, but it is apparent that Dr. Melfi understands what he is up to. Tony next appears in a car with his nephew Christopher Meltisanti (Michael Imperiole), whom Tony is grooming as a potential future leader of the clan.
Tony sights a man who owes him money. Upon seeing Tony, the man takes off running. Tony jumps into Christopher’s car and drives after him. The resulting chase takes place over city streets, down a sidewalk, and through a park before Tony eventually catches up to the man and sideswipes him with his car, breaking the man’s leg in the process.
Here is the scene. The song I Wonder Why plays throughout the chase.
I Wonder Why stops suddenly, after Tony gets out of the car and assaults the defenseless man. Here is a description of the scene from the Web site vialogues.
the juxtaposition of violence to this upbeat song “I Wonder Why” seems to magnify the brutality of the scene. The sounds of the car door slamming, the feet running, the car screeching and crashing, are all coinciding with the music, until Tony physically assaults him and it stops. The abruptness of the music stopping also amplifies the violence and turns from a scene of quasi-humor to a scene of raw physical violence.
The Sopranos was the brainchild of David Chase, who conceived the series and wrote many of its episodes. The show ran from 1999 to 2007 and garnered great acclaim. In 2013, the Writers Guild of America called The Sopranos the best-written series of all time.
The show provided complex insights into the life of a New Jersey criminal family. It followed a sprawling cast of family and business associates, providing riveting details that were mixed with Machiavellian power struggles and scenes of shocking brutality.
The music used in The Sopranos was carefully chosen by Chase, in consultation with Steven Van Zandt. Van Zandt, a guitarist in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band (and who had never before acted), played Tony Soprano’s partner and best friend in the series.
Apparently the subtle relationships of Tony Soprano to his mother (Nancy Marchand) and his psychiatrist were referential of events in David Chase’s own life. Chase was undergoing analysis at the time, and he also had a complicated relationship with his mother.
Sha Na Na and I Wonder Why:
Sha Na Na is an American rock and roll group that formed in the late 1960s. They were initially members of an a capella group at Columbia University called The Kingsmen.
In 1969, Columbia grad student George Leonard formed a band, and they began giving concerts in the New York City area. They concentrated on covers of 50s and early 60s songs.
The band quickly achieved cult status when they performed at the Woodstock Festival in August, 1969. Sha Na Na appeared immediately before Jimi Hendrix on the program. The group was also featured in the concert film Woodstock, performing a frenetic version of the Danny & the Juniors song At The Hop.
Below is a photo of Sha Na Na in live performance, in 1975.Embed from Getty Images
Here is Sha Na Na in a live performance of I Wonder Why.
My understanding is that this appeared on German TV in 1973. The audio and video are strictly so-so, nevertheless this is an energetic performance of I Wonder Why. It features the group’s leader Jon “Bowzer” Bauman singing bass.
As you can see, most of the ensemble appear in “50s greaser” attire, while three of the members (mostly off-camera in this video) are dressed in tight-fitting gold lame outfits. Bowzer shows off his physique (or lack thereof) in a black muscle T-shirt.
Sha Na Na had a dramatic impact on popular culture. Their focus on fifties rock and roll
helped spark a 1950s nostalgia craze that inspired similar groups in North America, as well as the Broadway musical Grease, the feature film American Graffiti and the TV show Happy Days.
Sha Na Na appeared in the 1978 movie Grease, as the (fictional) band Johnny Casino and the Gamblers. There, they sang two songs from the Broadway play of the same name, and also versions of four 50s oldies.
The group hosted a self-titled TV variety show from 1977 to 1981. The show had high ratings, and generally featured a series of 50s songs, sketches and guest artists.
Former Sha Na Na members include physicians (notably a sports medicine physician who served on the medical staff for our national soccer team), lawyers (e.g., the VP for production and features at Columbia Pictures), and professors (faculty in linguistics, English, and religious studies).
Sha Na Na still continues to perform today, although they have now undergone dozens of changes in personnel.
Showaddywaddy and I Wonder Why:
Like the group Sha Na Na, Showaddywaddy was a band that specialized in covers of 50s and 60s songs. While Sha Na Na dressed up as greasers or in gold lame costumes, the members of Showaddywaddy appeared dressed as the early British rockers called Teddy Boys.
Showaddywaddy was formed from the amalgamation of two bands from Leicester, England. Their original incarnation was as an octet, comprised of two vocalists, two guitars, two drummers and two bass players.
Below is a photo of the octet Showaddywaddy from the mid-70s.Embed from Getty Images
The band first appeared on a British singing competition TV show called New Faces. After they were runners-up in that competition, they released their first single in 1974. This was an original composition titled Hey Rock and Roll, which went to #2 on the UK singles charts.
The group was initially produced by Mike Hurst, a former member of the folk-rock group The Springfields. Working with Hurst from 1974 to 1977, the band released a number of covers of 50s and 60s ‘oldies’ rock tunes that became hits in the U.K. To the best of my knowledge, they never charted in the U.S.
Following that period, Showaddywaddy began to produce their own records. In 1977 the band released a single of the iconic 50s doo-wop tune I Wonder Why.
Here are Showaddywaddy in a live rendition of I Wonder Why.
This was an appearance on the Dutch TV show Top Pop. The group gives a reasonably faithful copy of the Dion & the Belmonts original, with lead vocals from Dave Bartram. I find this a really enjoyable cover of this classic doo-wop song.
Showaddywaddy was an example of a group that had great success in Britain, while never cracking the American market. Over roughly an 8-year period from 1974 to 1982, they racked up ten singles in the Top Ten of the British pop charts.
Furthermore, over their career Showaddywaddy appeared on TV in Britain and Europe an astonishing 300 times! Apparently there is a big market for ‘oldies’ songs, and this group fulfilled that craving for British fans.
Although the pop hits dried up more than three decades ago, Showaddywaddy continues to perform and tour. Two of the original members from the group, drummer Romeo Challenger and bassist Rod Deas, are still in the current ensemble.
Showaddywaddy apparently give roughly 100 performances per year in Britain and Europe. In 2014, the band went on tour with old rockers The Bay City Rollers, David Essex and The Osmonds (they could have been called “the Metamucil Tour”?). Rock on, lads!