An underrated songwriter and brilliant singer, Del Shannon provided the connection between 1950s rock primitivism and the relative melodic sophistication of the Beatles. Shannon was, in fact, the first American artist ever to record a John Lennon-Paul McCartney composition, releasing “From Me to You” in 1963—well ahead of the so-called British Invasion. Shannon also predated the Beatles in another sense: He was a successful rock performer who wrote the majority of his material.
His first and biggest hit, “Runaway,” was the musical and emotional model for much of his later work; fully voiced expressions of teen angst would climb Shannon’s vocal register until his voice cracked into a paper-thin falsetto, spilling out tortured vignettes of loneliness and romantic loss. Musically, Shannon used minor-to-major key modulations, a technique he learned from listening to country great Hank Williams. According to the Rolling Stone Album Guide, Shannon produced “quintessential American pop-rock,” with songs that “evoked the spirit of their times without sounding like period pieces.” Since its initial release in 1961, “Runaway” has been covered by artists as diverse as “champagne” bandleader Lawrence Welk and blues guitarist-chanteuse Bonnie Raitt.
Born Charles Weedon Westover in Coopersville, Michigan, Shannon began playing guitar and performing while in high school. After being drafted in 1956, Shannon entertained troops in the Special Services, eventually winning the 7th Army amateur talent contest and earning a spot on the “Get Up and Go” radio show in Germany.
After returning from the military in 1959, Shannon joined the house band at the HiLo Club in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Known as the Big Little Show Band, the group included keyboardist Max Crook, later Shannon’s principal collaborator. Shannon worked as a carpet salesman by day; he picked up his pristine guitar style by watching country guitarists in and around Grand Rapids at night. “I always wanted to get the old Buck Owens sound that he had on his early records, those ringing, beautiful guitars,” Shannon would later say. He borrowed his falsetto from the black vocal group the Ink Spots.
It was while playing at the HiLo Club that Shannon changed his name. As he later told Creem magazine, “There was a kid who used to come in the club and say, ’I wannabe a wrestler and call myself Mark Shannon.’ I thought Shannon was a great name and the kid never became a wrestler, so I took it.” His first name was a contraction of the name of his carpet boss’s car: Cadillac Coupe de Ville.
Born Charles Weedon Westover, December 30, 1934, in Coopersville, MI; died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound February 8, 1990, in Santa Clarita Valley, CA; son of Bert and Leone Westover; married Shirley Nash, c. 1960; married second wife, Bonnie, c. 1990; children (first marriage) Craig, Kyra, Jody.
Began playing guitar and performing during high school; performer with U.S. Army, 1958-59; carpet salesman, c. 1959-60; member of HiLo Club house band, the Big Little Show Band, Grand Rapids, MI, 1959-60; wrote “Runaway” with bandmate keyboardist Max Crook, 1960; signed with Big Top Records, 1960; released first and only Number One hit, “Runaway,” 1961; appeared in film It’s Trad, Dad, 1962; released Runaway With Del Shannon and Hats Off to Dei Shannon, toured England, recorded Lennon-McCartney composition “From Me to You,” and formed own label, Berlee Records, all 1963; signed with Amy Records, 1964; reached Top Ten with “Keep Searchin’” 1965; signed with Liberty Records, 1966; released Live in England, 1973; reached Number 33 with remake of “Sea of Love,” 1982; signed with Warner Bros., 1985; posthumously released Rock On, MCA, 1991.
Shannon and Crook came up with “Runaway” in typical rock and roll confluence—mixing dumb luck, distrustful dramatics, and everything they’d heard up to that point. Tired of the basic ’50s sound and chord changes, Shannon encouraged Crook to experiment with a musitron, an organ-like proto-synthesizer. As Shannon later recounted, “One night Max played an A minor and a G at the HiLo Club. I heard it and said ’Follow me.’ I went right down the scale. Then I remembered a Hank Williams song called ’Kaw-Liga,’ which went from minor to major. I said ’Kick into A major’ and sang ’I’m awalkin’ in the rain. . . .’”
In late 1960 Shannon caught the ear of rhythm and blues producer Ollie McLaughlin, then a disc jockey in Ann Arbor. McLaughlin took Shannon to a pair of Detroit entrepreneurs, Harry Balk and Irving Micahnik. Balk and Micahnik quickly signed Shannon to their Embree Productions, which was followed closely by a recording contract with New York City’s Big Top Records.
Though their first recordings fared poorly, Shannon and Crook went on to record “Runaway,” which Big Top released as a single in early 1961. In the fallow musical period between the emergence of Elvis Presley and the dawn of the Beatles, “Runaway” was virtually monumental. For a time it sold 80,000 copies a day, staying at Number One for six straight weeks in the spring of 1961. The song’s sound and intent, particularly Crook’s carnival-like musitron solo and Shannon’s tense falsetto, was seminal, influencing young rock bands worldwide. Shannon then released a string of singles—“Hats Off to Larry,” “So Long Baby,” “Hey Little Girl”—that were similar-sounding Top 30 hits.
Shannon’s rise continued into 1962; that year he had a cameo in a film titled It’s Trad, Dad. He also recorded in Nashville with the Jordanaires, a gospel vocal quartet known for their work with Presley. In late 1962, Shannon toured the U.K. for the first time, with burgeoning teen idol Dion as support. Shannon would remain a star in Britain throughout his career.
After releasing a version of noted songwriter Roger Miller’s “The Swiss Maid”—which actually featured Shannon yodeling—he returned to a strict rock style with 1963’s “Little Town Flirt.” Two albums, the hasty Runaway With Del Shannon and Hats Off to Del Shannon, followed.
While in Britain, Shannon played the Royal Albert Hall with the Beatles; he quickly became an ardent fan of the early Fab Four. In what history would prove an extremely ironic move, Shannon suggested to John Lennon that he record a Beatles song in order to give the young British band more exposure in the United States. Shannon charted at #72 with “From Me to You” in late 1963. In a year’s time, the Beatles would bounce Shannon and his contemporaries from the charts completely.
It was at this juncture that Shannon, after several disagreements over finances, severed his ties with Balk and Micahnik and formed his own label, Berlee Records, named for his parents, Bert and Leone Westover. Legal entanglements with Balk and Micahnik would plague Shannon for the next decade. His first release on Berlee was the Four Seasons-like “Sue’s Gotta Be Mine”; it reached only #71 in the U.S.
After recording “Mary Jane” in 1964, Shannon moved to New York’s Amy Records. His initial releases for Amy were remakes of R&B standards, such as Jimmy Jones’s “Handy Man” and Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Want to Dance.” Shannon rebounded somewhat in 1965, ending a three-year Top Ten absence with the buoyant “Keep Searchin’ (Follow the Sun).” In late 1965 the British duo Peter and Gordon scored a worldwide hit with the Shannon-penned “I Go to Pieces.” It was the last time Shannon would know real commercial success.
Despite being increasingly out of favor with the counter-cultural climate, Shannon was still writing and recording characteristically unique material. Another 1965 single, the enthralling “Stranger in Town,” is possibly one of the most paranoid—and thrilling— performances in all of rock and roll.
In 1966 Shannon moved his family—wife Shirley and children Craig, Kyra, and Jody—from Michigan to Los Angeles. After producing some mildly successful work for his new label, Liberty, Shannon flew to England to record with legendary Rolling Stones producer Andrew Loog Oldham. The masters produced in that session waited nearly ten years for release, and Shannon’s Liberty years, despite working with gifted producers like Leon Russell and Snuff Garrett, were acutely disappointing. He entered the Hot 100 for the 16th and final time with “The Big Hurt,” which peaked at Number 94.
With his recording career at a standstill, Shannon turned to producing in the late 1960s and ‘70s. The acts with whom he worked included the group Smith and singer Brian Hyland, who scored a Number Three single in 1970 with the Shannon-produced “Gypsy Woman.”
For Shannon, the 1970s brought packaged oldies tours, a pernicious problem with alcohol, and sporadic attempts at a comeback. 1973’s excellent Live in England won good reviews yet sold poorly. Retro-rocker Dave Edmunds produced some new tracks for Shannon in 1974; the result, And the Music Plays On, included the Oldham session work from 1966. Later in the decade, Shannon recorded with Jeff Lynne and his band, ELO, which produced only tepid rock. On February 3, 1979, Shannon headlined a concert commemorating the 20th anniversary of the death of bespectacled rock and roll pioneer Buddy Holly; it was held at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa—the site of Holly’s final performance. Shannon’s best shot at a true comeback, however, came in 1982, when popular rocker Tom Petty produced Drop Down and Get Me, a promising, workmanlike set of songs. Indeed, Shannon enjoyed his first chart success in 15 years, reaching Number 33 with a revival of Phil Phillips’s “Sea of Love.” Despite some intense attention, Shannon once again quickly vanished from the scene.
In 1985 Shannon signed with Warner Bros, and began recording in Nashville, still relying on oldies tours, like those with Bobby Vee, to support himself. Side projects kept him busy; during the late 1980s he rewrote the lyrics to “Runaway” for television’s highly acclaimed mob drama Crime Story and recorded backing vocals for pop’s Smithereens. By 1990 things were looking up; after ending his 30-year marriage, Shannon had remarried and was recording what looked like a genuine comeback vehicle, though according to Shannon’s close friend and former manager, Dan Bourgoise, who was quoted in an MCA Records press release, “[The project] was never looked at as a comeback of any kind. Del just had some songs that he was excited about and wanted to record them with his friends.” Produced by Lynne and Petty guitarist Mike Campbell, the album was to be titled Rock On.
Yet this solid effort, eventually lauded by critics, would be released posthumously. Still beset by alcoholism and afflicted during much of his life by depression, Shannon died on February 8, 1990, at his home in Santa Clarita Valley, California, from a self-inflicted gun-shot wound. He was 55. He left no suicide note and, according to observers, had appeared content and lucid that morning. “Over the years,” reflected Bourgoise, “I think he privately became the morose characters in his songs.”
After having heavily influenced rock acts as prodigious as the Beatles, Elton John, and Bruce Springsteen, Del Shannon should in fairness be recalled not as one of many ’50s teen idols, but rather as one of the genre’s first true artists—a rock and roll natural.
Del Shannon: Greatest Hits, Rhino, 1990.
Little Town Flirt, 1963, reissued, Rhino, 1990.
Del Shannon Sings Hank Williams, 1964, Rhino, 1990.
Rock On, MCA, 1991.
Del Shannon: The Liberty Years, EMI, 1991.
Gilbert, Bob, and Gary Theroux, The Top Ten 1956-Present, Fireside, 1982.
Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, Rock Movers and Shakers, Billboard, 1991.
Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll, edited by Ken Tucker, Ed Ward, and Geoffrey Stokes, Summit, 1986.
The Rolling Stone Album Guide, edited by Anthony DeCurtis and James Henke, Random House, 1992.
The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, edited by Jon Pareles and Patricia Romanowski, Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books, 1983.
The Rolling Stone Record Guide, edited by Dave Marsh, Random House, 1979.
The Rolling Stone Rock Almanac, Rolling Stone Press, 1983.
People, March 3, 1990.
Entertainment Weekly, October 25, 1991.
Spin, November 1991.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from liner notes by Bill Holdship to Del Shannon: Greatest Hits, Rhino Records, 1990, and from an MCA Records press release, 1991.
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