Del Shannon was one of few singers in the early 60's "manufactured pop star" era who really had the talent. An untrained voice with an incredibly high range, he had a piercing falsetto that would bring chills down your spine. "His voice was like a siren," noted Heartbreaker's guitarist Mike Campbell. As a guitarist, Shannon was considered legendary by music buffs in the industry and his fellow contemporaries alike. Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler admits that "Del Shannon was the reason I picked up my first guitar." Although remembered as "the man who sang 'Runaway'," his excellent guitar work was often overlooked. Shannon's greatest strength lied with songwriting. Anguish, misery, dispair, and vulnerablility were his songwriting partners. "Del was a tremendous songwriter," Big Top producer Harry Balk would later remember, "His songwriting abilities were truly amazing, even after I had anything to do with him." Shannon's former manager, Irving Micahnik, was often cited for saying, "Del has a teardrop in his throat, and when he sings, that's what comes out!"
Del Shannon was born Charles Weedon Westover in Grand Rapids, Michigan on December 30, 1934. The son of Bert and Leone, Westover grew up in nearby Coopersville, a small farming town. Taught to play the ukulele by his mother as a child, young Charles soon flowered into guitar picking at 14 years of age. The guitar became his crutch, accompanying Westover to school and to football games and rallies. Kicked out of class for strumming on several occasions, his principal, Russel Conran, would send young Westover to the boy's locker room to play. "That is where I learned all about 'bathroom acoustics'," Shannon would later reveal.
Westover was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1956. Stationed in Stuttgart, Germany, he polished his guitar playing skills in the 7th Army's "Get Up And Go" program. Discharged in 1958, Westover returned to Michigan with wife Shirley where they settled in Battle Creek. It was there that Charles Westover became Del Shannon. Taking a day job as a carpet salesman, Westover managed to join a country-rock band at the Hi-Lo Club. A club regular had dreams of becoming a famous wrestler as "Mark Shannon." Liking the name "Shannon," Westover borrowed the surname and derived "Del" from his favorite make of car, the Cadillac Coupe DeVille. "DeVille, Del, that's where I got it from," Shannon explained to Dick Clark, "Could you imagine myself walking on stage and being introduced: 'Ladies and gentlemen, Charles Westover!' It had no ammunition."
With two years of practice singing in front of a crowd and writing songs, Shannon was soon discovered by disc jockey Ollie McLaughlin of nearby Ann Arbor, MI. McLaughlin in turn introduced the promising singer to Irving Micahnik and Harry Balk of EmBee Productions in Detroit, who were affiliated with Big Top Records based in New York. Shannon was swiftly signed to a contract and recorded "Runaway," which skyrocketed to the top of the charts within weeks after release and brought Shannon to instant star-status in the spring of 1961.
The hit streak continued as Shannon composed "Hats Off To Larry," "So Long Baby," and "Hey! Little Girl" hot on the heals of "Runaway," giving the multi-talented artist four Top 40 hits in his first year as a singer. Shannon's hit streak suffered somewhat in early '62 with two big flops, "Ginny In The Mirror" and "Cry Myself To Sleep," although the latter proved to be the chief inspiration for Elton John's "Crocodile Rock." His managers concerned, Shannon was flown to Nashville to develop a new sound. Shannon was given Roger Miller's "The Swiss Maid" to record. Although the single did not catch on in the States, "The Swiss Maid" resulted in a #2 hit for Shannon in the U.K.
By 1963, Del Shannon was back with a vengeance. Hooking up with Big Top staff writer, Maron 'Robert' McKenzie, "Little Town Flirt" and "Two Kind of Teardrops" were composed, among others, which returned Shannon to the forefront internationally in pop music. "Little Town Flirt," with it's striking guitar and Merseybeat feel, is often credited to influencing many British bands that would later invade the United States in the following years to come. Del Shannon returned to England for a tour whereby he met the up and coming Beatles at London's Royal Albert Hall. There, Shannon watched as the Fab Four rehearsed their number, "From Me To You." Shannon loved the song and quickly recorded it two weeks later before returning to the States. The result? Shannon became the first American artist to cover a Beatles tune, having a bigger hit with it than they. "From Me To You" became the first Lennon/McCartney composition to chart in the U.S.
Feuds with his management over royalties caused Shannon to break away from EmBee Productions. Del decided to start his own label, BerLee Records, named for his parents. Shannon cut two singles on BerLee, "Sue's Gotta Be Mine," which scraped in at #71 (#21 in the U.K.) and the melodic "That's The Way Love Is." His manager, Irving Micahnik, had Shannon blackballed in the industry, threatening legal action should any label sign Shannon, and Del came back to EmBee in early '64, signing over his BerLee singles to Micahnik.
It was around this time that Shannon brought Bob Seger into the recording studios of United Sound in Detroit, where Del flipped the bill to record Seger and music associates on their very first professional recording. "Alone In The Crowd," an unreleased track composed by young Seger and Doug Brown (of "The Omens") featured Del giving a spoken vocal performance in the background. Shannon shopped this demo among others on a tour bus shared with girl groups who were billed on the same shows as he for "Dick Clark's Caravan of Stars."
1964 saw Shannon change over to Amy Records where he hooked up with the Royaltones, who became his tight backing band. Shannon developed a new sound and recorded a third string of hits, beginning with covers of Jimmy Jones' "Handy Man" and Bobby Freeman's "Do You Wanna Dance." But Shannon's ability to write his own hit songs was his secret to success. Shannon followed up the successful covers with "Keep Searchin'" and "Stranger In Town," becoming Top 10 and Top 30 hits respectively. In this same era, Shannon also composed "I Go To Pieces," which was given to British duo Peter & Gordon while on tour in Australia. The British lads brought it to Top 10 on the charts. Shannon, 5 years after "Runaway," was still at the top of his game. But Shannon began to lose it all, experimenting with the Detroit punk-rock garage sound, his "Break Up" and "Move It On Over" brought his career crashing to the ground. Following the two unsuccessful singles with the dated "I Can't Believe My Ears" only made things worse. When Shannon's contract expired with Amy Records, he parted town for California and struck a deal with Liberty Records of Los Angeles.
Del's first single with Liberty in 1966 was a cover of Miss Toni Fisher's "The Big Hurt," produced by Snuff Garrett. Despite good production complete with phasing effects et al, the record barely scraped into the Hot 100 at #94. Additional singles proved to be strong, including Shannon's own "For A Little While" and "Show Me," but lack of sufficient airplay and poor promotion for the records caused them to fail with the record buying public. Shannon, hooking up with Liberty's house producer Dallas Smith, recorded the Rolling Stones' "Under My Thumb." Ample promotion and airplay gave this single some regional success, but not to any national scale. Hanging out in a local club in Los Angeles, Shannon discovered country artist Johnny Carver one night. Taking Carver under his wing, Del brought him into Liberty, where Shannon negotiated a deal, having Carver signed to Liberty's "Imperial" subsidiary. Shannon wrote, produced, and arranged Carver's first country single. Connecting with Monkees gurus Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, Shannon recorded their "She" with it's energetic cries and yelling of the title. A February '67 promotional tour of England brought "She" some radio play, but was shot down when the Monkees released their own version of the track on the band's second album.
It was at this juncture that Shannon met with Stones producer, Andrew Loog Oldham. Oldham brought the U.S. artist into London's Olympic Studios where they recorded a wonderful and flowery pop album, totally current for the day. Aided by John Paul Jones, Nicky Hopkins, Madeline Bell, and P.P. Arnold, with contributing writers Billy Nicholls, Andrew Rose, David Skinner, and Jeremy Paul, the album took shape. However, with the massive success of the Monterey Pop Festival and the developing of the psychedelia era, Liberty decided to shelve the album and had Shannon record another album's worth of material, appropriately titled "The Further Adventures of Charles Westover." Produced by Bob Seger discoverer "Dugg" Fontaine Brown and Shannon's manager-to-be Daniel Bourgoise, the album included harpsichords, music boxes, backwards string playing, along with a kitchen sink of cleverness and innovativeness. Although dated for the period, the 1968 album holds up today and remains a favorite amongst Shannon collectors abroad.
As Shannon's three year contract with Liberty drew to a close, Del took in teen-idol Brian Hyland and produced the younger star and cultivated him into a promising songwriter and rejuvinated his career in 1969 with an album on Uni, yielding the big Top 5 hit of Curtis Mayfield's "Gypsy Woman." In this same era, Shannon discovered the group "Smith" featuring lead singer Gayle McCormick. Working closely with the group for six months, Smith hit the charts with a cover of the Shirelles, "Baby It's You," with it's unique Shannon-Smith arrangement. Signed with Dunhill Records of L.A., Shannon not only brought himself and Smith to the label, but he also negotiated a deal to bring in The Robbs, formerly with Mercury and a house band on Dick Clark's television show, "Where The Action Is."
After two unsuccessful singles on Dunhill, Shannon parted company and did "one-offs" for United Artists of England. The 60's superstar decided it was time to get back on the road and tour sporadically. Working with the John Mac's Flare Band, Del recorded a live album at the Princess Club in Manchester in December of 1972. Released the following year, the LP showcased Shannon's fine live performances, including the much loved cover of Roy Orbison's "Crying" and Del's own "Kelly," a monster flipside loved by the British, Liverpool in particular. Jimmy Page would go on to cover "Kelly" as Wayne Gibson & The Dynamic Sounds. In 1974, Del Shannon got together with Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe and recorded one of his finest and yet surprisingly undiscovered compositions, "And The Music Plays On." Written with his manager Dan Bourgoise in a hotel room, "And The Music Plays On" featured great acoustic work coupled with a mesmerizing and memorable hook, "...and the music plays on and on and on..."
The mid 70's were more or less a "dead" time for the singer. He recorded with Jeff Lynne of ELO and released a couple of pleasing singles for Island Records, but Shannon's alcoholism obviously got in the way of his career. Lynne advised him to "find a direction mate," and for the next few years, Shannon searched. In 1976, he recorded an album's worth of material in Dublin, Ireland with his touring band, but nothing was released as Shannon continued to struggle with the bottle.
Finally, in 1978, Shannon gave up alcohol for good, lost weight, and got back into shape. He found the direction he was looking for in Tom Petty. Petty whipped the 60's rock star back into shape musically, bringing the singer's excellent songwriting into 80's commercial context. With Petty at the production helm backed by his Heartbreakers, Del Shannon was back with a new and wonderfully critically acclaimed album, "Drop Down and Get Me" in 1981. His first single off the album, a cover of Phil Phillip's "Sea of Love" made its way into the Top 30. Shannon heavily toured the U.S., U.K., Germany, and Australia for the next two years doing his new material while still satisfying the crowds with his old hits. Though the album was not a commercial success, it did however re-establish Shannon as a current artist and brought on more offers.
Shannon was asked to write a few numbers for the movie "Grease 2." Although one of his compositions, "Something To Believe In," wasn't accepted for the follow-up to the John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John hit, the tune did find it's way into the Australian film, "Street Hero." The movie's soundtrack brought additional recognition and exposure to the younger listening audience.
In 1984, Shannon decided it was time to get back to his roots and record the music he truly loved deep inside, country and western. The rock-turned-country singer flew down to Nashville where he signed with Warner Brothers and began to record an album in 1985. Although an album never surfaced, two singles were indeed released, "Stranger On The Run" and "In My Arms Again," the latter hitting #56 on the country charts, and proved to be one of Del's finest country compositions.
In the same respect as Ben E. King's "Stand By Me" in the same year, "Runaway" turned silver in 1986. "Stand By Me" successfully made a comeback in the U.S. film of the same name. "Runaway" successfully returned as well when Shannon re-recorded it for a new cops 'n' robbers TV series, "Crime Story," produced by Michael Mann of "Miami Vice" fame. "Runaway" was back on the air with a three-minute music video trailer promoting the new show in the summer of 1986. In the fall, the series debuted, giving "Runaway" weekly exposure on NBC. In the same year, Luis Cardenas, going solo from "Renegade," released "Runaway" as his first single off his album, "Animal Instincts." Cardenas was given a big budget through Allied Artists to make a music video complete with claymation dinosaur puppets, and the necessary airplay brought his version of "Runaway" back into the charts, despite being a lowly position. The hard-rocking cover exposed yet another generation of listeners to an incredible pop classic. 1986 also saw Del's composition "Cheap Love" make it's way to the Top 10 on the country charts, recorded by Juice Newton. Marty Stuart would later go on to record the rolicking number in '96.
As the 1980's drew to a close, Shannon re-united with old pals Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, and the rest of the Heartbreakers to record a new album. During this era, Lynne and Petty were achieving incredible success with Petty's "Full Moon Fever" solo project. The two were also a part of the supergroup "The Traveling Wilburys," which, in addition to Petty and Lynne, included Roy Orbison, George Harrison, and Bob Dylan. When Roy passed on at the close of '88, Shannon was rumored to replace Orbison in the Traveling Wilburys. However, the rumor remains neither confirmed nor denied by the remaining members of the group. The world can but only guess what might have evolved.
Shannon, troubled with growing personal matters in his own life, literally solved all his problems by committing suicide with a .22 calibre rifle. Shannon was pronounced dead on February 8, 1990 in his home in Santa Clarita, California. Shannon's last action remains an uncorrectable mistake. He is sincerely missed by his family, friends, and fans, and is remembered as a kind and loving man who touched the hearts of millions. As long as there are keepers of the flame, his music will indeed play on.