One of the great, unsung rock-n-rollers of the 1960s, Del Shannon waxed the classic "Runaway," which briefly sent him to the top of the charts in 1961 before a long decline that ended with his suicide in 1990. On paper, Shannon possessed an abundance of talent: a muscular voice capable of producing a gritty, bluesy growl as well as a stratospheric falsetto, in addition to considerable songwriting and producing chops and a knack for stinging guitar work. But audiences captivated by "Runaway" failed to find similar interest in his subsequent work, and by the mid-1960s, Shannon had been inaccurately labeled a one-hit wonder - he had reached the Top 40 on several occasions between 1961 and 1964 - and relegated to the oldies circuit. Depression and alcoholism robbed him of much of the 1970s, though he began launching a fitful comeback in 1981 with a Top 40 cover of "Sea of Love." But the modest hit and critical praise for his enduring gifts, proved inadequate in keeping Shannon out of the pit of despair. He took his own life in the early morning hours of Feb. 8, 1990, one year before the release of his final, critically-acclaimed album Rock On! (1991), produced by longtime fan Jeff Lynne of ELO fame. Though Del Shannon's life was the stuff of tragedy, the enduring popularity of his greatest hit, "Runaway," was testimony to his status as one of pop-rock's most gifted, yet unsung performers.
Born Charles Weedon Westover on Dec. 30, 1934 in Grand Rapids, MI, Del Shannon was raised on a steady diet of country and western music in the nearby town of Coopersville. He soon picked up the ukulele and guitar and played wherever he could, including school lavatories and locker rooms, which provided natural acoustic echoes. Shannon's adolescent years were marked by strong feelings of alienation from his family and peers; his father, truck driver Bert Westover, was vocally opposed to his son's musical interests, and his family was one of the few in the heavily Christian community to not attend church. He was also small in stature, which excluded him from the town's primary outlet, football. In turn, this reduced Shannon's popularity with local girls, including one who broke off their date to the prom to go instead with one of his rivals. These and other experiences provided Shannon with not only a palette of emotional sadness from which he drew many of his greatest songs, but also a lifelong battle with depression. After marrying his high school sweetheart, 19-year-old Shannon joined the Army in 1954 and was soon transferred to Stuttgart, Germany, where in his off hours, he played in a band called the Cool Flames. Upon his discharge in 1957, Shannon returned to Michigan, but found no substantive work there.
He then enlisted in the Air Force, with the provision that he be stationed at Battle Creek in his home state. His father's bout with brain cancer provided him with a hardship discharge, after which he worked a variety of odd jobs while performing part-time in a band at the Hi-Lo Club, a bar in a Battle Creek hotel. When the band's singer was dismissed, Shannon stepped into the spotlight, renaming the group the Big Little Show Band and dubbing himself Charlie Johnson. Keyboardist Max Crook joined the act in 1959, bringing with him a homemade synthesizer called the Musitron, which he had constructed from a clavoline and cannibalized parts from amplifiers, reel-to-reel recorders and household appliances. When Crook played an unusual chord change on the instrument during a performance, Shannon was inspired to pen what would eventually become "Runaway." Crook was also instrumental in launching Shannon's career by bringing Ann Arbor DJ Ollie McLaughlin to one of the Big Little Show Band's performances. McLaughlin then sent some of Shannon's demos to Talent Artists, Inc. in Detroit, which signed him and Crook to recording contracts in 1960. Agency co-owner Harry Balk suggested that the singer adopt a stage name, which prompted him to choose "Del Shannon," which was inspired by Cadillac's Coupe de Ville model.
Shannon was dispatched to New York to record his first single, "The Search/I'll Always Love You," but the sessions came apart due to his nerves, which prevented him from recording a usable take. McLaughlin then encouraged Shannon and Crook to take another pass at "Little Runaway" in an attempt to record an up-tempo number. After adding Crook's haunting, carnival-esque instrumental break on the Musitron, Shannon waxed "Runaway" and three other songs in a single three-hour session in January 1961. The melancholy single was an immediate smash upon its release the following month, eventually rising to No. 1 on the Billboard 100 by April 1961 and remaining there for the entire month. "Runaway" was so popular that at one point, listeners were purchasing as many as 80,000 copies a day. Shannon was wholly unprepared for not only the overwhelming reaction to the song, but also the label's attempts to market him as a teen idol, despite the fact that when "Runaway" hit the top of the charts, he was a 26-year-old married man with three children. Thankfully, there were a handful of additional hits to keep him in the public eye, including "Hats Off to Larry" (1961), which reached the Top 5, and the No. 12 single "Little Town Flirt" (1962). But within a year's time, Shannon's momentum in the U.S. pop market had run dry, though he remained exceptionally popular in England, where he shared a 1963 bill with the Beatles. Both acts later paid tribute to one another, with Paul McCartney and John Lennon borrowing the A-minor chord in "Runaway" for "From Me to You," which Shannon later recorded in one of the earliest covers of a Beatles song by another artist.
Shannon severed ties with his management label, Bigtop, in 1963 to form his own imprint, Berlee Records, which released two low-charting singles in 1964. He soon returned to Talent Artists, which placed him on Amy Records. Though he scored a Top 5 hit in 1964 with "Keep Searchin'," Shannon's subsequent efforts failed to find any purchase on the charts, and a switch to Liberty Records in 1966 did little to halt the downward path of his career. A collaboration with Rolling Stones manager-producer Andrew Loog Oldham found Shannon experimenting with orchestration, but the results were shelved by Liberty and went unheard for over a decade. Frustrated, Shannon turned to production, overseeing early singles by country singer Johnny Carver and arranging the American band Smith's gorgeous cover of "Baby, It's You" (1969). The following year, Shannon produced Brian Hyland's cover of Curtis Mayfield's "Gypsy Woman," which achieved platinum sales status. But he continued to search for material that would return him to the pop spotlight, and dutifully played the oldies circuit in America while enjoying the adoration of more dedicated fans in England and Australia. To combat his mounting depression, Shannon consumed vast amounts of alcohol, marijuana and prescription pills, which soon coalesced into serious addiction issues.
After gaining sobriety in 1978, Shannon went to work on Drop Down and Get Me (1981), his first album in over eight years. Produced by longtime fan Tom Petty, the album generated a Top 40 hit with a cover of Phil Phillips' "Sea of Love." Five years later, he returned to the Top 10 as a songwriter when Juice Newton covered his single "Cheap Love," which rose to No. 9 on the Billboard country chart. That same year, producer Michael Mann tapped Shannon to record a new version of "Runaway" to serve as the title theme for his television series "Crime Story" (NBC, 1986-88). Sessions with the Smithereens and Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra seemed to indicate that a comeback for Shannon was in the making. But privately, Shannon was suffering terribly from the depression that had plagued him throughout his life. His 31-year marriage to his wife, Shirley, ended in 1985, and a prescription to Prozac had produced serious side effects, including insomnia and constant agitation. An audit by the Internal Revenue Service loomed over him, and rumors that he would replace the late Roy Orbison in the supergroup the Traveling Wilburys had not come to pass. In the early morning hours of Feb. 8, 1990, Shannon's second wife and stepdaughter found him dead from a single, self-inflicted gunshot to his right temple. His final album, Rock On!, produced by Lynne and Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers, was released posthumously in 1991. Eight years later, Shannon was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
By Paul Gaita