The Beatles and that Elusive Hit
Although best known for two easy-listening anthems of the Flower Power era, “What the World Needs Now Is Love” and “Put a Little Love in Your Heart,” Jackie DeShannon personifies versatility, ambition, and creativity. As a vocalist she has belted out rockabilly and teen pop anthems, emoted country crossover and soul, and cooed pop and gospel-tinged folk with equal amounts of style and heart. DeShannon has written more than 700 songs, many recorded by the top acts of her era. More importantly, she demanded creative input on her projects long before that type of collaboration was an accepted record industry practice.
DeShannon was born Sharon Lee Myers on August 21, 1944, in Hazel, Kentucky, though her parents moved to various small towns in neighboring Illinois soon after her birth. Her home life brimmed with the sort of disparate musical genres that she would embrace throughout her career. Her father, a barber by trade, sang country music, her mother sang some blues, and her grandmother sang and played Irish folk songs. Myers began singing on local radio when she was six, her repertoire largely consisting of country songs. By the time she was eleven, Myers was hosting her own radio program in southern Illinois.
Born Sharon Lee Myers on August 21, 1944, in Hazel, KY.
Began singing on local radio, 1950; hosted local radio program, 1955; billed as “Sharon Lee-Sixteen-Year-Old Miss Country Music,” recorded first record for Mar-Vel, 1956; recorded a single as “Jackie Dee” for Gone Records, 1957, and Liberty, 1958; began touring with Rusty York and recorded as the Cajuns with Jacquie Shannon, 1958; recorded singles as Jackie Shannon for Sage, Dot, and PJ, 1959; moved to California, recorded two singles for Edison International and three for Liberty as Jackie DeShannon, 1960; cowrote “The Great Im-poster” for the Fleetwoods and “Dum Dum” for Brenda Lee, 1961; minor chart success with covers of Bob Wills’s “Faded Love,” 1962; “Needles and Pins,” 1963; “When You Walk in the Room,” 1964; top-ten chart hits with “What the World Needs Now Is Love” and “Put a Little Love in Your Heart,” 1969; released Songs on Capitol, 1971; released Jackie, 1972, and Your Baby Is a Lady, 1974; switches to Columbia to record New Arrangement, 1975; moved to independent Amherst label to record You’re the Only Dancer, 1977; You Know Me released by Varèse Sarabande, 2000; DeShannon released single “You’re Here for Me,” 2002.
Awards: Grammy Award (with Donna Weiss), Song of the Year for “Bette Davis Eyes,” 1981.
Addresses: Record company —EMI Records, 1750 Vine St., Hollywood, CA, 90028; Varèse Sarabande Records, Inc. 11846 Ventura Blvd., Suite 130, Studio City, CA 91604, website: http://www.varesesarabande.com. Management —DeShannon Communications, 9663 Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, CA 90210, email: [email protected] Website —Jackie DeShannon Official Website: http://www.jackiedeshannon.com.
Billed as “Sharon Lee-Sixteen-Year-Old Miss Country Music,” Myers recorded her first single “Baby Honey” b/w “I’m Crazy Darlin’,” with Shorty Ashford and the Country Music Boys for Mar-Vel. The record, pure hillbilly by modern standards, received little or no national distribution.
During 1957 and 1958, many country performers jumped on the rockabilly bandwagon, and Myers was no exception. Signing with Gone Records, her name was changed to Jackie Dee for “I’ll Be True” b/w “How Wrong I Was,” country-flavored teen heartbreak that the label didn’t know how to promote. However, her Nashville-produced tribute to Buddy Holly—“Buddy” (b/w “Strolypso Dance”)—proved she was a rocker on par with Wanda Jackson, Janis Martin, or Brenda Lee. Liberty released the master, but female rockers scared radio programmers even more than male ones, and the record didn’t chart.
Myers continued recording tough and tender sides for the Fraternity and Sage labels as both Jackie Dee and Jacquie Shannon with Rusty York’s band the Cajuns. In Randy McNutt’s We Wanna Boogie —An Illustrated History of the American Rockabilly Movement, York recalled the young singer’s burning ambition. “Man, that girl could sing! We’d travel around to these little record hops and dance programs, and she would say she wanted to be a big-name singer.” Still a brunette and decked out in fitted shiny gold slacks, the teenager proved a popular regional attraction.
After a show in Chicago, DeShannon met rock ‘n’ roller Eddie Cochran, peaking on the success of “Summertime Blues,” who gave her some advice that changed her life. “He was very, very encouraging,” she recalled for Finding Her Voice —The Saga of Women in Country Music. “He reminded me a lot of James Dean. He said, ‘If you really want to get somewhere, you’ve got to come to California.’” She took his advice and soon, billed as Jackie Shannon, she recorded a tough, sexy version of Elvis Presley’s 1958 hit “Trouble.” Despite being issued on three separate labels—P.J., Dot, and Sand—this favorite of rockabilly archivists wasn’t successful. Billed as Jackie DeShannon, she continued mixing teen heartache with hot-tempered rock ‘n’ roll for Edison International. “Put My Baby Down” is a particularly fiery gem, but her fortunes didn’t change until she joined Liberty Records in 1961.
DeShannon’s deal with Liberty employed her as a staff songwriter for their publishing arm, Metric Music. There she was teamed with Sharon Sheeley, who wrote Ricky Nelson’s 1958 number-one hit “Poor Little Fool,” and was a passenger in the car accident that killed boyfriend Eddie Cochran and further mangled Gene Vincent’s bum leg. The two young songwriters immediately demonstrated commercial chemistry by crafting tunes for such popular acts as Bobby Vee, Troy Shon-dell, the Fleetwoods, Irma Thomas, and Brenda Lee—who earned a gold record with their cutesy rocker “Dum Dum.”
Recording with the Wrecking Crew, a coterie of topflight musicians from Los Angeles including Glen Campbell, Hal Blaine, and Leon Russell, DeShannon cut impressive song demos, as Brenda Lee attests in her autobiography, Little Miss Dynamite —The Life and Times of Brenda Lee. “Jackie was a great singer herself,” she told Robert K. Oermann and daughter Julie Clay. “I always loved getting her demo tapes because they were just like hit records. Jackie wrote six of my singles—everything she pitched me, I did. They used to complain about me showing so much favoritism to one writer. She told me she wrote some of her songs specifically with me in mind. The only one I wished she’d sent me was ‘When You Walk In The Room.’ I’d of sung that in a heartbeat…”
DeShannon’s own recordings were high-quality productions that just couldn’t get off the ground commercially—some were covered by other artists with far greater success. A good example was her version of Bob Wills’s 1950 country hit “Faded Love.” Backed by a sumptuous string arrangement and sung with equal parts rock and soul, DeShannon’s rendition was a remarkable achievement. However, despite vigorous promotion, the record barely dented radio playlists. Patsy Cline heard it, however, and decided to cut the song in the same key as Wills’s original—the result was a classy posthumous hit for the country legend.
This sort of luck continued when DeShannon cut the Sonny Bono-Jack Nitzsche song “Needles and Pins.” Nitzsche had worked extensively with producer Phil Spector and knew how to replicate his fabled “wall of sound” with DeShannon delivering vocal dramatics like her friend Darlene Love. Although rife with teen drama, the single stalled at number 84. The following year the British Invasion group the Searchers recut the song with electric guitars, plenty of echo, changed the tagline to “needles and pins-uh,” and fashioned a record that would reach number 13 in America and number one in the United Kingdom. It happened again when DeShannon recorded her own composition, “When You Walk in the Room.” In this case, DeShannon and Nitzsche created an aural masterpiece, augmenting Spector’s sound with 12-string guitar fills that paved the way for Roger McGuinn’s work with the Byrds. Yet despite a riveting promotional appearance on television’s Hollywood a-Go-Go, DeShannon’s version was no more successful than “Needles And Pins.” Once again, the Searchers covered the record—and hit number 35 in the United States and number three in Britain.
The Beatles and that Elusive Hit
Although pleased with her success as a songwriter, DeShannon wanted to be a hit act in her own right. Her demands did not go over well at Liberty. She told Bufwak and Oermann, “When I would … go in and ask about the sales of my record, they would call me a pushy broad. Or, because I’m small, they’d treat me like a child. I still have hang-ups about those days.”
Meanwhile, the Beatles picked DeShannon to be one of their opening acts on their first American tour. “We played football stadiums,” she laughingly recalled for K-Earth radio, in an interview available at the Jackie DeShannon official website. “It was 80,000 people a night screaming ‘We want the Beatles—get off!’” The hectic tour provided valuable exposure and resulted in a popular collection of previously released songs titled Breaking It up on the Beatles Tour.
Although now a name performer, DeShannon didn’t hit upon that magical combination of producer, song, and airplay until she recorded Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “What the World Needs Now Is Love.” The recording displays all the earmarks of a Dionne Warwick production—muted horns, easy-listening style, and wistful hook. Yet in 1965, an African American gospel chorus on a white pop record was an innovation, and the song’s message resonated during what rapidly became a turbulent decade. The record hit number seven on the pop charts and number 40 on the R&B charts—and established one facet of DeShannon’s style with mass audiences.
DeShannon had already costarred with Bobby Vinton in a flop Beach Party knockoff called Surf’s Up (1964) and teen-oriented television programs like Shivaree, Hullaballoo, and Shindig —she was one of the latter’s first guest stars. With a hit record, offers came pouring in for appearances on episodes of such television shows as My Three Sons, The Virginian, Wild, Wild West, and The Name of the Game. She returned to the teen movie genre for C’mon Let’s Live a Little —costar-ring with labelmate Bobby Vee, and accepted dramatic roles into the early 1970s, though acting proved not to be her true forte.
Bacharach and David supplied two more songs for DeShannon, but “Lifetime of Loneliness” and “Come and Get Me” only scaled the bottom of Billboard’s Hot 100. It was her songs, recorded by the likes of Marianne Faithful, the Byrds, the Righteous Brothers, Peter & Gordon, Johnny Rivers, and P.J. Proby, that kept her career afloat. Always writing, she has collaborated through the years with major industry talents Randy Newman, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, and Van Morrison.
DeShannon released a gutsy soul-drenched 1968 cover of the Band’s “The Weight” that proved a moderate success, but it was the following year’s bookend to “What the World Needs Now” that brought DeShannon back to the top. “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” was written by DeShannon, her brother Randy Myer, and singer-songwriter Jimmy Holiday. Peaking at number four on the pop charts and number two on the easy listening charts, it garnered four Grammy Award nominations; the song became her biggest seller and the one she is most proud of today.
Once again, she had trouble following up a major hit record, and the wishful “Love Will Find a Way,” became her final top 40 recording. DeShannon moved onto Capitol where she acted as producer for her folkish 1971 LP Songs. Her 1972 and 1975 albums for Atlantic were well-reviewed modest sellers, but her 1975 album for Columbia was an outright flop. After a rather engaging Countrypolitan set for the independent Amherst label, she seemed to disappear.
The limelight beckoned once again when Rod Stewart sound-alike Kim Carnes, whom she first met on the set of C’mon Let’s Live a Little, cut a moody, mysterious rendition of a song from DeShannon’s 1975 Columbia LP. Number one for five weeks, “Bette Davis Eyes” finally earned its songwriter the respect of her peers, winning the 1981 Song of the Year Grammy Award for DeShannon and cowriter Donna Weiss, and Record of the Year for Carnes.
DeShannon made some appearances with Carnes but largely stayed behind the scenes, continuing to write while her songs were covered by a new generation of performers. Singer-comedienne Tracey Ullman’s career got underway with her revival of “Breakaway,” which became a number-three hit in Britain. Al Green and Annie Lennox scaled the top ten with their 1988 version of “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” from the soundtrack of Bill Murray’s comedy Scrooged. DeShannon herself finally returned in 2000 with a CD of smartly crafted new songs titled You Know Me on Varèse Sarabande. During the spring of 2002, she returned to live performance, earning glowing reviews.
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