I recently listened to a Del Shannon 2-CD Greatest Hits package and it really got me thinking. I have known of him since basically the beginning of my awareness of “oldies”, due in most part to his timeless 1961 #1 song “Runaway”. It was the biggest success of his career and the number he is most remembered for. But I seemed to recall having heard things about his later career, about how super stardom seemed to elude him and of his tragic end.
Del was born Charles Westover in Michigan. Just as he was beginning to get his recording career off the ground, he joined forces with a keyboardist named Max Crook who had invented his own organ-type keyboard called a musitron. Del and Max reworked an older song of theirs called “Little Runaway” and recorded it as “Runaway” in early 1961. The song reached #1 in many countries in April of that year and became one of what I would call the pillars of classic rock ‘n’ roll. Even today, many people have heard or heard of the song and it has even become something more than just a song and has become an iconic symbol of another era. “Runaway” also received the Lucas Stamp. George Lucas deemed the song indicative enough of classic rock ‘n’ roll that he included it in his seminal document of the era, “American Graffiti”. Del is interesting to me because he was more than just a one-hit wonder and was able to follow up “Runaway” with other moderate hits. Indeed, his next single – “Hats Off to Larry” – peaked at number five and he closed out the year with two other songs reaching the top 40. Not bad. While Del was not an excellent vocalist, he did have an excellent falsetto that was featured on both of these early hits and became something of a trademark of his recordings. 1962 started with minor chart activity until late in the year when “Little Town Flirt” reached #12 in the US and also did well globally (#1 in Ireland). And then the hits seemed to dry up. So, really, that’s only two calendar years but three notable hit recordings – one eventually reaching iconic status – is a pretty good resume for the fickle world of early ’60’s rock ‘n’ roll.
He continued to be popular in England – where he was always more popular – and in fact added to his rep in 1963 by becoming the first American artist to record a Beatles song. Del’s recording of “From Me to You” charted in the States before the Beatles version did. In 1964, after a few more minor chart entries, Del had a hit with the excellent “Keep Searchin’ (We’ll Follow the Sun)” which entered the top ten late in the year. Also in 1964, Del produced some demo recordings for fellow Michigander Bob Seger. The demos fell into the hands of Dick Clark and shortly thereafter Seger signed a recording contract and began his lengthy career with some regional successes. In 1965, British pop duo Peter and Gordon scored a hit with Del’s gorgeous “I Go to Pieces” but chart success eluded Shannon during the late 1960’s. He turned to production and discovered country singer Johnny Craver (?) and the band Smith, who you may remember had a hit with a remake of “Baby, It’s You”. He also produced Brian Hyland’s 1970 hit “Gypsy Woman”. A telling sign that his own recording career was nearly over is his re-recording of his big hit “Runaway” in 1967, although the single was successful in Canada and Australia. Also in that year, back in welcoming England, Del worked with former Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham on an album called “Home and Away”. Oldham intended the album to be in the vein of the Beach Boys’ 1966 masterpiece “Pet Sounds”. However – and this is a common story in rock ‘n’ roll history – the record company shelved the ambitious album and refused to release it. Another highly regarded album – “The Further Adventures of Charles Westover” – couldn’t find an audience and sold poorly.
So, at the dawn of the 1970’s, Del had a good rep as a live performer and was looked on as somewhat of a survivor but his lack of chart success disappointed him and – another common story – he turned to alcohol. However, Del cleaned up enough to record the album “Drop Down and Get Me” in 1982. Del had a fan in Tom Petty and Petty produced this album and his Heartbreakers play on it. It features the moderate hit remake of “Sea of Love” (#33). Petty and his friends would come back onto the scene after Del enjoyed a resurgence when he re-recorded “Runaway” yet again for use over the opening credits of the great Michael Mann show starring Dennis Farina, “Crime Story”. At this time, Del also worked with Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty’s band mate in the supergroup the Traveling Wilburys who had just lost their resident early ’60’s legend when Roy Orbison died. Here’s the part I actually remember about Del and it used to bug me. There was every indication that he would be the perfect – freakishly perfect – replacement for Orbison. But Shannon had been suffering from depression, depression caused by his faltering recording career. He had been taking Prozac for this depression and, despite his possible future as a Wilbury, he took his own life in February of 1990 with a rifle (!?).
The part that bugged me was, at the time, I was stunned by his depression caused by not having a chart hit for many years. What did he expect? I remember thinking. He started out in 1960, he still wants hits in 1990?! Well, yes, he did. Easy for us fans to sit back and say ‘hey, Del, you gave us “Runaway”. That’s good enough’. But for him and for artists like him it’s not good enough. They want to continue to make music and have it heard by the world. When they feel they can’t do that, I’m sure it can be a blow.
So, what is Del Shannon’s legacy? What is he? A ‘one-hit wonder’? Just another tragic example of how middling success can take a toll on those who aim for super stardom? Seems to me it’s yes and no and somewhere in between. He was responsible for one of the most enduring songs of an era that has taken on the rosy glow of nostalgia for many people. And that’s enough for us, the fans. But he had ambitions and he had more music in him. It’s just that the majority of the record-buying public wasn’t into that music. And that’s a shame. It’s also a shame that Del Shannon’s story is a common one.