February 8, 1990 – Del Shannon was born born Charles Weedon Westover on December 30, 1934 in Grand Rapids Michigan and grew up in nearby Coopersville. He learned ukulele and guitar and listened to country and western music, including Hank Williams, Hank Snow, and Lefty Frizzell. He was drafted into the Army in 1954, and while in Germany played guitar in a band called “The Cool Flames”.
When his military service ended, he returned to Battle Creek, Michigan, and worked as a carpet salesman and as a truck driver in a furniture factory. He found part-time work as a rhythm guitarist in singer Doug DeMott’s group called “The Moonlight Ramblers”, working at the Hi-Lo Club.
In 1958, he took over a band as leader and singer, with the name Charlie Johnson, and renaming his band the Big Little Show Band. In early 1959 he added keyboardist Max Crook, who played the Musitron (his own invention of an early synthesizer). Crook had made recordings, and he persuaded Ann Arbor disc jockey Ollie McLaughlin to hear the band. McLaughlin took the group’s demos to Harry Balk and Irving Micahnik of Talent Artists in Detroit. In July 1960, Westover and Crook signed to become recording artists and composers on the Bigtop label. Balk suggested Westover use a new name, and they came up with “Del Shannon”, combining Mark Shannon—a wrestling pseudonym used by a regular at the Hi-Lo Club—with Del, derived from the Cadillac Coupe de Ville, his favorite car.
He flew to New York City, but his first sessions were not successful. McLaughlin then persuaded Shannon and Crook to rewrite and re-record one of their earlier songs, originally called “Little Runaway”, using the Musitron as lead instrument.On January 21st 1961 Del Shannon recorded “Runaway”, which reached No.1 in the Billboard chart in April and made its way around the globe.
This hit was followed with “Hats Off to Larry”, which peaked at No.5 on the Billboard and No.1 on Cashbox in 1961. Other hits included “So Long, Baby,” and “Little Town Flirt”. He continued his success in England, where he had always been more popular. In 1963, he became the first American to record a cover version of a Beatles song, “From Me to You” which charted in the US before the Beatles. After these hits, Shannon was unable to keep his momentum in the U.S., but continued his success in England, where he had always been more popular.
In late 1964, Shannon produced a demo recording session for a young fellow Michigander named Bob Seger, who would go on to stardom much later. Shannon gave acetates of the session to Dick Clark (Del was on one of Clark’s tours in 1965), and by 1966, Bob Seger was recording for Philadelphia’s famed Cameo Records label, resulting in some regional hits which would eventually lead to a major-label deal with Capitol Records.
Shannon signed with Liberty in 1966 and revived Toni Fisher’s “The Big Hurt” and the Rolling Stones‘ “Under My Thumb”. Peter and Gordon released his “I Go to Pieces” in 1965.
Shannon also discovered country singer Johnny Carver, who was then working in the Los Angeles area. He got Carver a contract with Liberty Records’ subsidiary Imperial Records, writing, producing and arranging both sides of Carver’s debut single “One Way or the Other”/”Think About Her All the Time”. Carver went on to have nearly 20 Country-chart hits during the late 1960s and 1970s. The liner notes to his debut Imperial album acknowledge Shannon’s role in his being brought to the label.
In the late 1960s, not having charted for several years, Shannon turned to production. In 1969, he discovered Smith and arranged their hit “Baby, It’s You”, which had been a hit for the Shirelles in 1963. In 1970, he produced Brian Hyland’s million-seller “Gypsy Woman”, a cover of Curtis Mayfield’s hit.
During Shannon’s Liberty Records tenure, success on a national scale eluded him, but he did score several “regional” US chart hits with “The Big Hurt”, “Under My Thumb”, “She”, “Led Along” and “Runaway” (1967 version). That version (recorded in England and produced by Rolling Stones producer Andrew Loog Oldham) also did well on Canadian and Australian pop charts. In early 1967 Shannon recorded the album Home and Away in England, with Oldham at the helm. Intended by Oldham as the British answer to Pet Sounds, Home and Away was shelved by Liberty Records, although a handful of singles were issued. It was not until 1978 that all of the tracks were eventually issued (with three non-related tracks) on a British album titled And The Music Plays On. In 1991, all of the tracks were released in the US as part of the Del Shannon–The Liberty Years CD. In 2006, 39 years after it was recorded, Home and Away was finally released as a stand-alone collection by EMI Records in the UK. This CD collected the 11 original tracks in stereo and the five single releases (US, UK and Philippines) in their original monaural mixes.
In September 1967, Shannon began laying down the tracks for The Further Adventures of Charles Westover, which would be highly regarded by fans and critics alike, despite disappointing sales. The album yielded two 1968 singles, “Thinkin’ It Over” and “Gemini”. In October 1968, Liberty Records released their tenth (in the US) and final Del Shannon single, a cover of Dee Clark’s 1961 hit “Raindrops”. This brought to a close a commercially disappointing period in Shannon’s career. In 1972, he signed with United Artists and recorded Live In England, released in June 1973. Reviewer Chris Martin critiqued the album favourably, saying that Shannon never improvised, was always true to the original sounds of his music and that only Lou Christie rivaled his falsetto. In April 1975, he signed with Island Records.
After he and his manager jointly sought back royalties for Shannon, Bug Music was founded in 1975 to administer his songs.
A 1976 article on Shannon’s concert at the Roxy Theatre described the singer as “personal, pure and simple rock ‘n’ roll, dated but gratifyingly undiluted.” Shannon sang some of his new rock songs along with classics like “Endless Sleep” and “The Big Hurt”. The Los Angeles Times wrote, “Shannon’s haunting vignettes of heartbreak and restlessness contain something of a cosmic undercurrent which has the protagonist tragically doomed to a bleak, shadowy struggle.”
In 1978 Shannon stopped drinking and began work on “Sea of Love”, released in the early 1980s on his album Drop Down and Get Me, produced by Tom Petty. The album took two years to record and featured Petty’s Heartbreakers backing Shannon. However, RSO Records, to which Shannon was signed, folded. Further work on the LP was done for the Network Records label (which was distributed by Elektra Records). Seven songs are Shannon originals with covers of the Everly Brothers, the Rolling Stones, Frankie Ford and “Sea of Love” by Phil Phillips. It was Shannon’s first album in eight years.
In February 1982, Shannon appeared at the Bottom Line. He performed pop-rock tunes and old hits. New York Times reviewer Stephen Holden described an “easygoing pop-country” manner. On “Runaway” and “Keep Searchin'”, Shannon and his band rediscovered the sound “in which his keen falsetto played off against airy organ obbligatos.” In the 1980s, Shannon performed “competent but mundane country-rock”. In 1986 he enjoyed a top-ten hit as a songwriter when pop-country singer Juice Newton released a single of her cover of Shannon’s “Cheap Love”, which reached #9 on the Billboard Hot Country chart.
Shannon enjoyed a resurgence after re-recording “Runaway” with new lyrics as the theme for the NBC-TV television program Crime Story. In 1988, Shannon sang “The World We Know” with the Smithereens on their album Green Thoughts. Two years later, he recorded with Jeff Lynne of the Electric Light Orchestra, and there were rumors he would join the Traveling Wilburys after Roy Orbison’s death. Previously, in 1975, Shannon had recorded tracks with Lynne, along with “In My Arms Again”, a self-penned country song recorded for Warner Brothers, which had signed Shannon in 1984.
In 1988, Del sang on “The World We Know” with The Smithereens on their album Green Thoughts. Shortly after, in 1990, he recorded with Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra and there were rumors he would join The Traveling Wilburys after Roy Orbison’s death. Previously, in 1975, he had recorded tracks with Lynne, along with In My Arms Again, a self-penned country song.
Suffering from depression, he was working on a comeback album with Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra, when Shannon fatally shot himself in the head with a .22 calibre rifle. His wife thought his death might have been related to his recent use of the prescription drug, Prozac. He died February 8, 1990 at age 55.
Following his death, the Traveling Wilburys honored him by recording a version of “Runaway”. Lynne also co-produced Shannon’s posthumous album, Rock On, released on Silvertone in 1991.