Panama Francis: The Story Behind ‘Runaround Sue’
The Story Behind ‘Runaround Sue’
Dion DiMucci recalls how a basement party in the Bronx in 1960 inspired ‘Runaround Sue’

Dion DiMucci: We used to have these parties in the Bronx in the late 1950s and early ’60s. They were held in the basement of an apartment building at 2308 Crotona Ave., where a friend was the superintendent.

We had a portable phonograph, but we soon turned it off and began making up our own songs. I was 21 and had recorded a few hits with the Belmonts, like “I Wonder Why” and “A Teenager in Love.”

That night, I got everyone to lay down a beat on boxes and bottles and to clap hands rhythmically in time.

I then came up with background vocal harmony parts and had everyone sing them over and over. It went like this [Dion sings]: “Hape-hape, bum-da hey-di hey-di hape-hape.” With this going on, I made up a melody and lyrics….

When I left the party that night, I couldn’t let go of that riff and melody.

The next morning I called my friend Ernie Maresca, who was writing songs…and asked him to meet me at…Laurie Records…in Manhattan

The bones of the song were already in place when Ernie got there.

Ernie heard where I was going with the song, we went to work on the melody and lyrics. I had my guitar and Ernie was banging on the desk with his palms.

When we finished, I needed a solid vocal group behind me….

One night, around this time, I was up in the Yorkville section of Manhattan and ran into these five guys singing on the street. They sounded great. I introduced myself and said I wanted to use them on a record. They called themselves the Del-Satins.

Panama Francis

Panama Francis

I called in [Laurie’s co-owner] Gene Schwartz, and we ran it down for him.

…Gene had brought in some of the city’s best studio musicians. We had Teacho Wiltshire on piano, Milt Hinton on bass, Panama Francis on drums, Buddy Lucas on tenor sax, Mickey “Guitar” Baker on lead guitar and Bucky Pizzarelli on rhythm guitar.

After the guys looked over the music, they made suggestions.

There were timpani drums in the corner of the studio covered in canvas. Panama played on top of those, giving the drum a thud factor and primitive vibe. He also put his wallet on the tom-tom so it had a deeper sound.

…I wanted “Runaround Sue” to start slow and sort of pained.

Then Panama took a few sharp shots on the snare and the arrangement became pure street rock ‘n’ roll, …with handclapping by the Del-Satins.

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