In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
In 1961, Dion DiMucci, the prototypical doo-wop star, topped the charts with “Runaround Sue,” an extremely fun but also deeply mean-spirited song about a girl. DiMucci co-wrote the song, and while 1961 was a different time, it’s full of what we would now call slut-shaming: “She took my love, then ran around with every single guy in town.” Two years later, he married a girl named Susan. That is some savage shit.
Over the years, DiMucci has maintained that his only #1 is not a vicious diatribe against his future wife. But in 1990, Dion and Susan (they’re still married) appeared on Oprah together, and she set the record straight. Apparently, he was mad that she’d asked some other guy directions to the zoo.
And so once again we’re faced with a conundrum: a truly great pop song that flaunts a toxic viewpoint. And it is a toxic viewpoint. It’s not an aberration, either. In 1962, Dion got to #2 with the even-better rambling-man song “The Wanderer,” which is just as mean: “I kiss ’em and I hug ’em, cuz to me they’re all the same / I hug ’em and I squeeze ’em, they don’t even know my name.” I’m not asking a 58-year-old doo-wop song to be woke, but Dion’s biggest hits are, in their own way, as misogynistic as any rap song that causes present-day pearl-clutching.
Still: What a song! Dion, a former Bronx street-gang kid, had been making hits for a few years already, and a year before “Runaround Sue,” he’d broken up with the Belmonts, his old doo-wop group. (He’d also turned down a seat on the same plane that crashed and killed Buddy Holly.) “Runaround Sue” was the first song he recorded with the Del-Satins, his new backing group. And the jumpy, knuckle-headed beat he came up with for them to sing is just cartoonishly perfect. The slow-building awwwwww bit is the best part. It’s so fun!
The whole arrangement is simple but precise, its saxophone honks just hard enough and its acoustic-guitar intro just sweet enough. Dion’s vocal performance is just remarkable, too. It’s angry and vulnerable at the same time, and it draws out the notes with effortless panache. So: great singer, great song, too bad about the lyrics. That old story again.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Julia Roberts dancing to “Runaround Sue” in the 1991 thriller Sleeping With The Enemy: