Born Charles Weedon Westover, 30 December 1934, Grand Rapids, Michigan
Del Shannon was one of the biggest names on the music scene of the early 1960s, especially in the United Kingdom, and one of the few American rock n rollers to survive the crashing tide of the British Invasion. Not until after his death did it become clear that Del had fooled us all along regarding his age. I have a 1991 CD with excellent liner notes by Roger Dopson, who still thought at that time that Charles Westover was born on December 30, 1939*. In reality he came into this world five years earlier. Charlie Westover grew up in Coopersville, Michigan and developed a liking for country music, especially Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell. He learned ukelele and guitar and started singing in high school. In 1954 he was drafted and sent to Germany, where he played and sang in a group called The Cool Flames. After his demob, he returned to Battle Creek, Michigan, working as a carpet salesman. He found part-time work as a rhythm guitarist in singer Doug DeMott's group called Midnight Ramblers, working at the Hi-Lo Club in Battle Creek. Eventually he became the leader of the band and billed them as "Charlie Johnson and the Big Little Show Band". He gradually geared them towards rock n roll, all the while developing that fearsome falsetto that was destined to become his trademark.
In 1959 Max Crook joined the Big Little Show Band as keyboardist. He had already released an instrumental single on the Dot label ("Orny"/"Get That Fly", credited to The White Bucks). Crook played the Musitron, sort of an early synthesizer, his own invention. In 1960 Crook persuaded Ollie McLaughlin, a black deejay from Ann Arbor, to hear the band. McLaughlin took the group's demos to Irving Micahnik and Harry Balk of Embee Productions in Detroit. The two men, who also handled Johnny and the Hurricanes, signed Westover and Crook to Bigtop Records in July 1960. Balk suggested Westover to adopt a new name and thus he became Del Shannon.
A first session was held in August 1960, but the two resulting tracks - both self-penned ballads - were not deemed worthy of single release. (They would be included on Del's first LP in August 1961.) McLaughlin advised Del to come up with a more uptempo song and this resulted in "Runaway". The genesis of the song lay in a rehearsal in October 1960, when Crook while playing the Musitron hit upon an unusual chord change, dropping from an A minor to G. Shannon asked Max to repeat the chords, began to play them on his guitar and together they developed the melody of "Runaway". In January 1961 (in freezing weather) Shannon and Crook travelled from Michigan to New York City (with the Musitron) for a four-track session at Bell Sound Studio, supervised by Harry Balk. Max Crook's tracks were the instrumentals "The Snake" and "The Wanderer", while Del recorded "Runaway" and "Jody". Crook describes the making of "Runaway" in detail on his website : http://www.delshannon.com/maxrunaway.htm
The four tracks were released on two Bigtop singles, the Crook tracks credited to "Maximilian". "Runaway", with its unique instrumental Musitron break and Del's soaring falsetto, was an instant hit and topped the charts for four weeks, both in the USA and the UK. It was also a number one in Australia, Japan and several European countries and suddenly Del Shannon was an international star. He quit selling carpets and hit the road with Crook, earning more money with one gig at the Paramount Theater than he made in a year at the carpet shop.
The follow-up was "Hats Off To Larry", which went to # 5 in the US and # 6 in the UK. An album, "Runaway With Del Shannon", was released in August 1961 and included, among others, "His Latest Flame", which Del recorded five days earlier than Elvis. For the next two years, all his singles were bigger hits in the UK than in his own country. For instance, the third Bigtop single, "Solong Baby", went to # 10 in England, but only to # 28 in the US. And the next one, "Hey! Little Girl", showed an even greater difference : # 2 UK, # 38 US. The Roger Miller composition "The Swiss Maid" was another # 2 in the UK (only # 64 on the Billboard charts). Del toured the UK in September-October 1962 (with Dion and Buzz Clifford) and in the spring of 1963 (with Johnny Tillotson). He witnessed Beatlemania firsthand and was the first American artist to cover a Beatles song, "From Me To You", which peaked at # 77 in the US in July 1963, making it the first Lennon-McCartney song to reach the US charts.
1963 was still a successful year, but Del's career suffered a major setback when he began a lawsuit against Balk and Micahnik over unpaid royalties. He had underestimated the power of the duo and suddenly nobody would touch him. Without a recording contract, Del set up his own label, Berlee Records, but due to distribution problems, this was a short-lived affair. In 1964 Shannon signed with Amy and had hits with remakes of "Handy Man" (# 22) and "Do You Want To Dance" (# 43), followed by his first Top 10 hit since "Hats Off To Larry", namely "Keep Searching (We'll Follow the Sun)", which peaked at # 9 in the USA and # 3 in the UK. "Stranger In Town" (1965) still made the Top 40 in both countries, but it was to be his last UK hit. In America, the hits also began to dry up. A contract with Liberty (1966-68) yielded only one minor hit, a revival of Toni Fisher's "The Big Hurt" (# 94, 1966). Subsequent recordings for Dunhill, United Artists and Island were unsuccessful, but in 1981 Shannon returned to the charts with the help of Tom Petty (as producer) : a great version of the Phil Phillips 1959 hit "Sea Of Love" peaked at # 33. Released on the Network label, it was his final chart entry.
Prior to that, Shannon had considerable success as a producer, with the group Smith ("Baby It's You", # 5 in 1969) and with Brian Hyland ("Gypsy Woman", # 3, 1970). In the 1970s Del fought a battle with alcoholism and capitalised on his real estate investments. He still toured heavily, both in the US and Europe, especially the UK, where he worked with producers Dave Edmunds and Jeff Lynne. In the 1980s Del enjoyed a resurgence after re-recording "Runaway" with new lyrics as the theme for the NBC-TV program "Crime Story". In 1989 there were rumours that Shannon would join the Traveling Wilburys as a replacement for the deceased Roy Orbison, but before this could be effectuated, Del took his own life on February 8, 1990, apparently suffering from acute depression. A tragic waste.
* Roger Dopson also wrote the liner notes for the CD "This Is ... Del Shannon" (Music Club, 1997). This time he got it right (1934 as the year of birth).
More info on the official Del Shannon website :
Books : There is one biography, by Howard A. Dewitt : "Stranger In Town : The Musical Life Of Del Shannon" (2001). According to the Amazon reviews, it is poorly written.
CD recommendations :
Acknowledgements : Roger Dopson, Barry Lazell, Max Crook, Wikipedia.
Dik, April 2014
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