Del Shannon - Biography
Despite a productive career that produced several top 40 hits and a catalog of ambitious albums, the brilliant and multi-talented singer-songwriter-guitarist Del Shannon has remained curiously underestimated. Today his reputation rests mainly on his first and biggest hit, 1961’s indelible No. 1 single “Runaway.”
Shannon produced a distinctive repertoire of self-penned material distinguished by its darkness and intensity, and his skills are commensurate with those of another titan of the era, Roy Orbison. Yet he is inexplicably lumped together with the disposable teen idols who held sway in the early ‘60s. He stands virtually alone as a versatile American rocker who carried the torch for the music in the days preceding the British Invasion. He appeared poised for a commercial renaissance when he took his own life in 1990.
He was born Charles Weedon Westover in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on Dec. 30, 1934, and was raised in the nearby rural town of Coopersville. He grew up a country music fan. His mother taught him to play the ukulele, and he compulsively picked the guitar throughout his high school years. Drafted in 1954 and stationed in Germany, he performed on Armed Forces radio and worked in a servicemen’s band.
Following his tour of duty, he settled in Battle Creek, Michigan – home of the Kellogg and Post cereal companies – and began working with local groups. One of these, Charlie Johnson and The Big Little Show Band, included among its members a keyboardist, Max Crook, whose arsenal included a keening electronic instrument he had invented called the Musitron.
Crook handed some demos he recorded with Westover to Ollie McLaughlin, a well-connected Ann Arbor DJ, who in turn passed the songs to Harry Balk and Irving Michanik, a Detroit management team who handled the instrumental group Johnny & the Hurricanes. Balk and Michanik scored a recording contract at Big Top Records, The Hurricanes’ New York label, for their new signee, now rechristened Del Shannon.
Shannon’s first single was a flop, but Crook’s friend McLaughlin heard potential in a snippet of a minor-key number on a new demo tape. The song, featuring Shannon’s hair-raising falsetto vocal and a piercing Musitron solo by Crook, was recorded in January 1961; by early spring, “Runaway” was the top single in the country, selling a reported 80,000 copies a day. It became Shannon’s career signature (he would re-record it twice), and set the template for the many brooding, romantically desolate numbers he would write in the future.
A sound-alike single, the vengeful “Hats Off to Larry,” rose to No. 5, but, except for 1962’s No. 12 entry “Little Town Flirt,” Shannon couldn’t replicate his initial success. For more than two years, he was hamstrung by largely inferior material and a tumultuous relationship with his managers (which led Shannon to briefly form a label of his own). He managed to tour successfully; after meeting The Beatles during a 1963 trek in England, he became the first US artist to place a Lennon-McCartney song on the American charts with a remake of their No. 1 British hit “From Me to You.”
Shannon enjoyed his last spurt of top 40 stardom in 1964-65 with several popular singles: an exuberant version of Johnny Jones’ 1960 hit “Handy Man” (No. 22), the powerful, soaring “Keep Searchin’” (No. 9), and the harrowing, paranoid “Stranger in Town” (No. 30). But he was frustrated by the failure of such hard-rocking singles as “Break Up” and “Move It On Over,” while LPs like his labor-of-love 1964 Hank Williams tribute did nothing commercially. The British duo Peter & Gordon, and not Shannon, scored a top 10 hit in 1965 with his composition “I Got to Pieces.” In 1966 he moved to Los Angeles and signed to Liberty Records; that year, his cover of Toni Fisher’s 1959 hit “The Big Hurt” became his last chart entry for 15 years, scraping the bottom of the Hot 100.
His best work of the late ‘60s was in the baroque-pop mold. In 1967, The Rolling Stones’ manager and producer Andrew Loog Oldham, who was impressed by Shannon’s cover of the Stones’ “Under My Thumb,” cut an entire album with him in England; the set, which included a slow, elaborately arranged reworking of “Runaway,” was only belatedly issued in the late ‘70s as Home and Away. Back home, Shannon recorded a similarly dizzying collection for Liberty, The Further Adventures of Charles Westover (1968).
Shannon managed some successes as a producer, crafting hits for the band Smith (“Baby It’s You”) and Brian Hyland (“Gypsy Woman”), but his own career went nowhere in the late ‘60s. His best work of the ‘70s – the 1974 collaboration with British producer-musician Dave Edmunds “And the Music Plays On,” his ‘74 cover of Shades of Blue’s “Oh How Happy,” his ’75 rendition of The Zombies’ “Tell Her No” – either went unreleased in America or sank without a trace. He worked the oldies circuit in the US and abroad – his LP Live in England (1973) captures a typical show -- but his alcoholism hampered his recording career; he finally got sober in 1978.
In 1981, Shannon returned to the limelight briefly after Tom Petty, a devoted fan, produced the album Drop Down and Get Me; the punchy collection contained “Sea of Love,” a remake of Phil Phillips’ 1959 hit, which rose to No. 33 and became Shannon’s last chart single. The album produced no long-term benefits for Shannon, who lost his bassist Howie Epstein to Petty’s Heartbreakers. Except for a couple of flop country singles for Warner Bros., he remained quiet for most of the decade. In 1986, he cut a rearranged and slightly rewritten version of “Runaway” as the theme for Michael Mann’s TV series Crime Story.
After Roy Orbison died in 1988, rumors began to surface that Shannon would take his place alongside Petty, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and Jeff Lynne in the supergroup The Traveling Wilburys. Though the Wilburys ultimately made their sophomore album as a quartet, Lynne – a lifelong Shannon enthusiast who had cut an abortive session with the singer in the mid-‘70s – ended up co-producing Shannon’s final album, the sympathetically crafted Rock On (1991).
Shannon did not live to see the album’s release. He suffered from chronic depression, and it is believed that his condition was exacerbated, and not alleviated, by his use of the prescription antidepressant Prozac. On Feb. 8, 1990, he shot himself to death with his own rifle at his home in Santa Clarita, California. He was only 55.