I was about as cold as I’d ever been. The Midwest was in the midst of a bitter winter in February, 1959. The wind was punishing, trees were freezing up and snapping, and the little yellow school bus I was riding in with Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper had been breaking down. After our “Winter Dance Party Tour” appearance in Duluth, Minnesota, our bus broke down again. Buddy had had enough. He talked the club manager into chartering a plane to fly the headliners to our next show in Fargo, North Dakota, and tried to recruit us to get on board. The more people on the plane, he told us, the lower the cost per person. The Big Bopper agreed, as did Ritchie, who had a bad case of the flu. When Buddy came to me, I thought about the $36.00 price. My parents paid $36.00 a month for rent back in the Bronx. I just couldn’t bring myself to spend the same amount on a 45 minute plane ride, so I told him no.
The next day, I stood in the lobby of the hotel in Moorhead, Minnesota. There was a television on the wall, announcing that the plane carrying Buddy, Ritchie and the Big Bopper had gone down in the storm. There were no survivors.
From that moment on, I knew God had a plan for me.
I was born and raised in Bronx, New York City. Mount Carmel Catholic Church, which was the hub of our neighborhood, is where I was baptized and confirmed. Though my parents have many wonderful qualities, I came from a highly dysfunctional family that wasn’t too interested in religion and found the Church unnecessary.
Frances, my mom, has never had a day in her life when she isn’t worrying about something, looking out for someone or taking charge somewhere. She was born to bear responsibility, and the heavier it got, the more long-suffering she got. In most important ways, she held the family together, sewing hats and making ends meet at home.
My dad, on the other hand, was always somewhere else making puppets or down at the local gym lifting weights. My parents would constantly argue about our money shortage, and the need for my father to get a job. Mom would chew him out in front of the family with my uncles helping, and it was her feelings towards him, more than anything I guess, that made me lose respect for my old man. What was there to look up to, I thought, when he lets her treat him that way? In this macho Italian neighborhood, the code of the street was respect, and reputation was everything.
In this environment, Catholicism seemed suited for old women and sissies. Real men didn’t need it. It looked to me, as a kid, like the world was divided into things that were my size and things that were way over my head. God was a million miles away in Mount Carmel church, somewhere up above those stained glass windows. The priests and nuns could give you the fear of God, all right, and the guilt that came from not following the rules, but they couldn’t breathe life into the words and rituals. Still, I remember going to Mass occasionally with friends or relatives on those cold, snowy Christmas nights when our parish seemed to be overflowing with everyone in the Bronx. The choir voices, singing, flickering candles, ringing chimes, the church organ bellowing sounds from the third tier — all this filled me with awe. I guess somewhere in me, the music, the worship, the sense of reverence struck a chord that said there was Someone great up above who cared and we were nestled in His unconditional, loving arms.
At the age of twelve, my uncle purchased a secondhand guitar as a gift for me. I was soon caught up in the music of Hank Williams and some rhythm and blues, which was odd for a city boy in the 1950s. Hank Williams knew what it was like to have folks in the palm of his hand simply through the sound of his voice. It was something I was learning too. At the age of thirteen, in those vulnerable years when a boy starts making the transition to manhood, the call of the streets, the gangs, being cool and running my own life seemed the way to go. With music, I felt part of something. I felt connected. By the time I was a teenager, I was beginning to realize the limits that were put on me by my family and the neighborhood. After a while, I lost that sense of belonging that carried me through my childhood. Without even realizing it, I started looking for a way out.
Music offered that way. Maybe it could rescue me — maybe my whole family, too. By 15, I was a rebel. Then I met Susan, the most beautiful girl in the world. She’d moved to the Bronx from Vermont. I had no idea they grew anything as gorgeous as Susan up there. She had a clean, country air about her that followed her down the street. I fell head over heels in love. I approached her like I approached everything else in my life: with a mixture of sheer bravado and quaking fear. I wanted her to love me back, even just a little. But more than that, I wanted her to look up to me, and admiration was something I thought I knew how to get. So I sang. I used to play school dances at the parish hall, where Susan would come to hang out. In doing that, I hoped to catch her attention.
With the help of a seasoned songwriter who heard me rocking out at the local Friday night dance, I landed a recording contract. He took me to Manhattan and introduced me to Bob and Gene Schwartz, who ran a record company. Things were different in those days; you could put out real records without a whole lot of money. I auditioned for the Schwartz brothers, singing Wonderful Girl. It was my favorite song at the time — kind of a dedication to Susan. They loved it and wanted to give me a try.
“You want to hear some stuff?” I asked Gene. “I’ll round up some guys from the Bronx, and show you some stuff.” The next day, I was back with three of my friends, the best doo-wop singers I knew. That was the beginning of Dion and the Belmonts. I Wonder Why was our first song and it went Top 10. I was on my way.
One of the first gigs we did was Dick Clark’s American Bandstand right after it had gone from a local broadcast to the national airwaves. At this time, I was going steady with Susan. I bought a Ford Thunderbird and we acted like the neighborhood king and queen. The next five years were an amazing rush of hit records, movies, concerts, television shows and worldwide tours with Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison and others. The music seemed like it would never end.
I was a Bronx kid in a very elite club, rubbing shoulders with people who seemed very sophisticated and savvy. The fears in my life, the doubts and insecurities and pain, had been pushed back into some dark corner. It was like I was a child again and everything was brand new and shiny.
Now, I knew how life was supposed to be — just like in the movies. By the age of 21, I was a millionaire twice over. I’d been on the Ed Sullivan Show, bought my parents a home and could give my girl the best time in New York City. When I went to parties, I was the center of attention among all the beautiful people. I was in front of audiences all the time and their applause was my drug of choice. Sure, I’d gotten into other drugs, and was even shooting heroin, but my real narcotic was all the adulation. I believed it all. I needed it all.
The song Teenager in Love went top five, as did Where or When. Still, because of musical differences, the Belmonts and I split up. They wanted to sing with smooth harmonies and I wanted to rock. On my own, I recorded The Wanderer and Runaround Sue. They were the biggest efforts yet, and both topped the charts in the early 60s at number one. That’s more like it, I thought. I was at the top of my profession and all the time, I had Susan at my side, watching everything with her big green eyes. She’d be there running the gauntlet of flashbulbs and fans as I soaked up the fame.
Then one night, out of the blue, she asked me, “Dion, is this all you want? I mean, is this it?” She could see through the act, past the airbrushed pretty boy and into the part of me, hidden and hurting, that I was trying so hard to deny. If I’d been able to — if I could have remade myself in her eyes as the glamorous golden boy that everyone else saw, I don’t think we’d have lasted much longer. The truth is, I’m not sure she even liked the superstar who was trying so hard to sweep her off her feet. The guy she loved was simple, more genuine, nurtured in the neighborhood, part of a family. I’d lost touch with that guy and all Susan could do was hang on and wait.
It was 1963, and I was spinning my wheels, trying to get a grip on something that would last after Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens went down in that plane. I tried to hide from my fears by partying even harder.
Still, I didn’t want to lose Susan. I asked her to marry me, swearing to change and vowing to love and cherish her forever. We married and things went from bad to much worse. I had no idea drug and alcohol abuse was a progressive disease. The day I snorted that first white line and walked like a king through the tenement streets was the day I cut myself off from ever facing what was wrong with me, Dion, the man behind all those masks. Inside me, I never made it past 13. It was like I just stopped growing, stuck there on the trembling edge of manhood like my dad. It was drugs that sucked me into thinking only about myself, got me addicted to blaming others for my problems, or simply turned me away, to pretend they didn’t exist. Hope and joy and childlike faith withered and died, too. If I had to bow to my weakness and powerlessness, I’d lose respect. Maybe I’d start getting treated like my father, like something less than a man. I’d have to face my own weakness, the helpless feeling. I’d have to ask for help. I was truly lost and I knew it. The pain, humiliation, fear and emptiness were terrifying; if I let go, I’d look like the hole in a doughnut.
I was the first rock and roll artist signed to Columbia Records and naturally, expectations ran high. No expense was spared and no excuses accepted. This was the big time. I was getting $100,000 a year guaranteed — whether I sold a record or not. Ruby Baby and Donna the Primadonna were a great down payment: they went Top 5.
Still, even with that success, I was at an all time mental and spiritual bottom. Out of depression, we moved to Miami, looking for a fresh start. There, I would have the surprise of my life: I got to see God work through my father-in-law, Jack. Jack helped fan into flames the gift of God that was in me through the laying on of hands at my confirmation. I said a prayer one night there in Jack’s home: “God I need your help.” I was delivered from the obsession to drink and drug; it was just lifted off me like a weight. On that day, April 1, 1968, I became aware of God’s power, even before I became aware of His reality.
I entered a spiritual-based 12-step program and grew in these disciplines. Six months later, at the age of 28, I released one of the biggest records of my career — Abraham, Martin and John. It became an anthem.
But my biggest moment was to come. On December 14, 1979, I went out jogging, like I did every morning. It was a time when I could be alone with my thoughts — thinking about the past, thinking about the future. There was a lot going on in me then, a mid-life crisis, or something. My emotions were everywhere. In the middle of that confusion, all I could pray was “God, it would be nice to be closer to you.” That’s all it took.
I was flooded with white light. It was everywhere, inside me, outside me — everywhere. At that moment, things were different between me and God. He’d broken down the wall. Ahead of me, I saw a man with His arms outstretched. “I love you,” He said. “Don’t you know that? I’m your friend. I laid down My life for you. I’m here for you now.” I looked behind me, because I knew I’d left something behind on that road. Some part of me that I no longer wanted. Let the road have it; I didn’t need it anymore.
God changed my life that morning, and things have never been the same. I started writing and recording these wonderful gospel songs in the 1980s and started touring again. In the following years, I experienced many different approaches and forms to faith which were new and exciting. I went to Israel with Gregg Laurie and Calvary Chapel in 1981. It was the most beautiful trip Susan and I have ever had. Great teaching, precious people — a lot of love for our Lord. Jack Hayford’s Church on the Way was a place I’d visit when working in L.A. But in some circles, I started hearing attacks on the Catholic Church and anti-Catholic teachings which confused me. My belief system was being threatened; my insides felt like they were being torn apart. It was affecting my relationship with Susan, also. My wife is very deep and loving. She’s also totally genuine.
Sometimes, as we’d sit in the pew at our latest Evangelical Church, she’d lean over and whisper in my ear, “I wonder what this Church is going to look like in 2,000 years.”
I started regularly attending a Protestant church where there was much exuberance and volume in the worship and teachings. Having a mild Catholic upbringing and not knowing exactly what I was leaving, I drifted away from the Church. The last 18 years, going through different denominations, there was always something missing and incomplete. Now, I know it’s the Eucharist, the fullness of the Faith, the communion of saints, the beauty of Truth. I was missing 2,000 years of family history and rich tradition.
It seemed to me that each individual believer has to acquire enough knowledge on his own in order to know which church can bring him to eternal life. Instead of accepting the Church on God’s terms, I’d have to choose a church of my liking, a church that agreed with me. In those years, I did come to love God’s Word and met some wonderful pastors. But with a new church opening every week with a little different doctrine, it became increasingly difficult and confusing to know what the truth really was.
In late 1997, I came upon a television program called The Journey Home on the Eternal Word Television Network. John Haas, a former Protestant clergyman, was Marcus Grodi’s guest. He was talking about the question of authority in the Church. As a Protestant, his final authority was “the Faith and practice of the early, undivided Church.” However, there was a problem. He saw there was no living voice of authority to really settle and resolve disputes or controversies in the church he was in.
This started my inquiry into some of the teachings I’d accepted and believed from a Protestant standpoint without serious study.
When I looked, I found that St. Paul called the Church the “pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15) and said to hold to the traditions passed on, “either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess. 2:15). I saw how the early Church recognized the bishop of Rome as the earthly head. I discovered that the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit to make decisions without error. This promise by Jesus — this infallible divine guidance — gave us the Bible.
I discovered that Jesus is present in the Eucharist. Not symbolically present. Not kind of present. He is really there, under the appearance of bread and wine. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch in the first century, wrote about the truth of the Real Presence in the Lord’s Supper. And he sat at the feet of St. John who penned John 6:25-69.
Little by little, God helped break through my defiance and ignorance. My misconceptions about the Church were falling away fast. All the questions I had as a Protestant were being answered, as I finally felt those deep parts of me satisfied.
And so I went back to Mount Carmel Catholic Church — where it all began. I went to confession and let it out to Father Frank. I told him where I’d been and what I’d done. When I finished, he stood up, stretched his arms out and said, “Dion, welcome home.” I tried to be a man, I tried to stifle myself, but I couldn’t do it. I broke down right there. At last, I met the God who is a Father — a Father who is strong, but loving; tough but gentle. I met a Father who took this wanderer in His mighty arms, and led him home.