I’ve always been a firm believer in giving credit where credit is due. I guess I was kind of in that mood last week, honoring two musicians who are no longer of this earth, Terry Kath of Chicago and Buddy Holly. I’m afraid I’m in that same mode this week. But in the same way that I like to look at funerals as more of a celebration of life rather than a remembrance of passing, let’s celebrate another person who deserves a lot of credit for keeping rock and roll alive during a dark period in musical history.
By 1961, the American music industry had done it’s best to clean up rock and roll. However, they got a lot of help. Chuck Berry was facing prison time for violating the Mann Act. Buddy Holly was killed in a place crash. Elvis was in the army. Jerry Lee Lewis was shunned for marrying his 13-year-old cousin. And Little Richard had given up rock and roll to enter the ministry.
This was the opportunity that the music industry had been looking for. They had been taking a lot of heat from parents over rock and roll, so they introduced a number of clean-cut, boy-next-door type performers to replace those thugs. They had nice, clean-cut names like Bobby Rydell, Fabian, and Paul Anka.
Fortunately, a guy named Charles Westover had been playing country and rock and roll in a little combo in Battle Creek, Michigan. He had adopted the stage name of Charlie Johnson when he started working with a guy named Max Crook, who played a peculiar instrument known as the musitron. One night, on stage at the Hi-Lo Club in Battle Creek, he and Crook were jamming to an indifferent audience. Crook starting playing something in A minor, and Charlie Johnson started coming up with a song on the spot. Much to the annoyance of the owner, the two worked on the song for about an hour while they were still on stage and supposed to be performing. But it was well worth the effort. The song that they came up with was originally titled “My Little Runaway”, and eventually shortened to just “Runaway”, and Charlie Johnson recorded it in New York City on January 21, 1961. And one more thing…he had changed his name to Del Shannon.
If Charlie Westover had only given us that #1 hit from April, 1961, it would be enough to secure his place in rock history. But he kept giving us hits, even as the Beatles and the British Invasion were literally killing American rock and roll. In fact, Del was the first person to record and release a Lennon/McCartney song in America. He was touring with the Beatles in England, and heard them play “From Me To You”. He told Lennon that he was going back to the states to record it. Lennon was initially overjoyed that one of their musical heroes was going to record one of their songs, until he realized that they were going to release it as a single themselves in the US. But Del beat them to the punch.
As Shannon’s performing career started to slow down in the late 60’s, he discovered a band called “Smith” and produced a hit single for them, a remake of the Shirelles’ hit “Baby It’s You”. He also produced a top ten hit for Brian Hyland to help revive his career, Curtis Mayfield’s classic “Gypsy Woman”.
Alcohol got the best of Del through the 70’s, but by the end of the decade, one of his biggest fans took Del into the studio and produced a great album called “Drop Down and Get Me”. The fan was Tom Petty, and he used the Heartbreakers to record the tracks with Del. It started a great friendship between the two performers. You can even hear Petty refer to Del and Runaway in the song “Runnin’ Down a Dream”. In fact, Petty and Shannon were still good friends when Petty was recording with The Travelling Wilburys, and when Roy Orbison died, it was rumored that Del was going to be his replacement. Unfortunately, he never got the chance.
On February 8, 1990, just after he recorded his first album in years, produced by Jeff Lynne, Del Shannon took his own life with a .22 caliber rifle at his home in Santa Clarita, California.
He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. Here he is in 1986 on the Late Show with David Letterman, performing is most memorable hit…and still looking and sounding great.