According to Dion, he started to put the song together at an informal party for a friend's birthday, where he started improvising lyrics and encouraged his friends to add doo-wop background harmonies to a clapping rhythm. He then took the idea to his friend, budding songwriter
Ernie Maresca, and they developed the tune and lyrics together. Having recently split with
the Belmonts, Dion then discovered another vocal group,
the Del-Satins, and they rehearsed the song. The co-owner of
Laurie Records (Gene Schwartz) liked the song, and it was recorded in summer 1961 at
Bell Sound Studios in New York City.
The lyrics are sung from the point of view of a man whose former girlfriend, named Sue, was extremely unfaithful. He warns all potential lovers to avoid her at all costs, as Sue "runs around" with every guy she meets and never settles down with any man in particular. He advises: "now people let me put you wise, Sue goes out with other guys" and suggests that potential suitors should "keep away from Runaround Sue".
Dion stated in his autobiography The Wanderer, that although his wife's name was Susan, "Runaround Sue" had nothing to do with her. Elsewhere he stated that the name Sue was of a girl he had admired from a distance, and that "her name fit the lyric line perfectly." However, during a 1990 interview with his wife on The Oprah Winfrey Show, they presented the story that the song was indeed about her. In the same autobiography, he stated that the inspiration for the song came from the song "
Quarter to Three" by
Gary U.S. Bonds, which had recently been released.
"Runaround Sue" was covered by then 15-year-old
Leif Garrett in 1977. The song was the second of four releases from
his debut album, all of which became U.S. chart hits. All four songs were covers of major hits from 1959 to 1963, including
Dion's two biggest hits. Of the four, "Runaround Sue" was the most successful for Garrett. In early 1978, his version reached No. 13 on Billboard and No. 18 on Cash Box. The song also reached No. 15 in Canada.
WLS in Chicago, "Runaround Sue" reached No. 1 for one week and was ranked at No. 42 for the year.
Garrett was born during the chart run of Dion's original version of "Runaround Sue," in the fall of 1961. Garrett's cover of the song hit the charts the week of his 16th birthday.