Few songs in popular music are so enduring and haunting as the 1961 No. 1 hit, "Runaway." Written by Del Shannon and his keyboardist, Max Crook, it outlines in tear-streaked detail a guy who's lost his girl.
this song written on the basis of a high school experience where he was
dumped by his prom date for his rival? I believe the words in the song
"Runaway" nudges that experience in the opening line.
"As I walk along I wonder/What went wrong," he begins the song and refers to a time when he was young.
The uncertainty of the opening line is soon replaced with gloom and despair as he sings, "I’m a-walkin' in the rain / Tears are falling, and I feel the pain / Wishing you were here by me / To end this misery."
The girl, of course, has left him and I believe may have been the basis for the song.
Born Charles Weedon Westover on Dec. 30, 1934, in Battle Creek, he grew up in the snoozy farming community of Coopersville, near Grand Rapids.
Young Westover grew up listening to country and western music.
At the age of 14, he walked to the Coopersville train station to await the arrival of his new five dollar Sears and Roebuck guitar.
He had no pick, just pieces of cardboard and dreams.
While in high school, he met a local farm girl named Shirley at the Coopersville theatre on Main street.
Shirley originally agreed to a date on the strength of his sending her the first flowers she had ever received from a boy.
Shirley Westover would later tell a Detroit newspaper she thought Shannon was kind of pushy and didn't like him at first. But in 1954 they married. He was 19; she was 17.
That same year Shannon was drafted into the U.S. Army. A stint in Fort Knox, Kentucky, was followed by a three year tour in Stuttgart, Germany.
"Jobs were hard to come by anyway," Shirley remembers. Chuck picked strawberries in the fields of Coopersville, and later drove a delivery truck selling flowers.
During Christmas time in Germany, the Westovers attended a holiday party at the Stuttgart orphanage, where they sponsored orphan children. This was an early sign of Westover's compassionate side.
After a stint in the Army, which saw him play in a band called the Cool Flames, the Westover's settled in Battle Creek.
He worked at Brunswick furniture store as a line worker during the day. At night he played guitar for a small group at a dingy smoked-filled Art Deco lounge called the Hi-Lo Club.
Max Crook later said “It was the kind of place roughnecks felt comfortable in."
Soon, Chuck Westover was the group’s singer and leader. He called himself Charlie Johnson and renamed the group the Big Little Show Band.
In 1959, Max Crook, a young keyboardist who had formed a band while attending college in Kalamazoo, came aboard, setting up on stage an odd-looking homemade machine he dubbed the "Musitron."
It was a very early version of the synthesizer and produced some wonderfully futuristic electronic sounds.
One night, Del and his band caught the attention of Ann Arbor deejay and independent record producer Ollie McLaughlin.
He recommended them to a Detroit management team, Irving Micahnik and Harry Balk, who were with Talent Artists in Detroit.
Westover and Crook were signed to New York’s Big Top label in July 1960. This was about the time Westover was asked to change his name to something more dynamic and came up with Del Shannon.
“Del Shannon” would always be only his stage name; his legal name would remain the same.
Nothing that Shannon recorded in New York caused any excitement, and he soon returned to playing in Battle Creek.
McLaughlin suggested that Shannon re-work one of his earlier songs, “Little Runaway,” and somehow use Crook's Musitron as a lead-in.
Shannon later recalled how that strategy came about. He and Max were on stage practicing and Max was playing some weird chord changes on his Musitron.
Shannon thought it was a great sound and told Max to keep playing it.
After about 15 minutes of playing the unusual chord change over and over, the irritated club manager shouted out, “Knock it off — play something else.”
Shannon, inspired, wrote some lyrics the next day at the furniture store. That night, he went back to the club and told Max to play an instrumental on his Musitron for the middle part.
Crook used his invention to turn his riff into the spooky, unsettling music hook of "Runaway."
"When Max played that solo," Shannon said, "We had Runaway."
and his band played “Runaway” at the Hi-Lo for three months before his
managers finally sent him back to New York to record the single.
and watch Del Shannon in 1988 singing his hit song "Runaway" at Little
Darlin's in Florida. Continue below for the conclusion of the Del
Shannon Story. I think you will be pleasantly surprised by what this man accomplished during his short life.
There were three songs recorded during a three-hour session at Bell Sound studios in New York in January 1961.
"Runaway" was released and the orders started pouring in. A station in Florida began playing the song and a huge record order from one vendor was a positive sign of a hit record in the making.
Dick Clark scheduled Shannon for an appearance on "American Bandstand" and the orders ignited, selling as many as 80,000 records per day. Runaway hit No.1 in late April and stayed there for a month.
The instant fame was a shock to Shannon and he was overwhelmed by the attention. Shannon said the fear was so great he just wanted to go back to Coopersville and pick strawberries.
Thanks to the success of “Runaway,” Shannon was able to move his young family into a new home in Southfield.
Shannon wrote or co-wrote much of his own material, which was unusual for a rock performer back then.
He was extremely popular in England and in 1963 was billed with an up-and-coming young group, The Beatles.
Del Shannon became the first American to cover a Beatles song when he recorded a version of "From Me to You."
The Beatles version was released first (May 6, 1963), but Shannon's version was the first to chart, when it entered on June 29, eventually peaking at #77.
It wasn't until the first week of August that The Beatles version
showed up on the Billboard charts, and it wasn't until the song was
re-released in February 1964 during the peak of Beatlemania that it
cracked the Hot 100, going to #41 in the States.
Years later, Paul McCartney remembered thinking “how great and different "Runaway" was from the others of the time.”
& Lennon took the A-minor chord we heard in "Runaway" and inserted
it in "From Me To You." I find it interesting that when Shannon
recorded the song, part of the influence for the song came from him.
Shannon also wrote a hit song for Peter and Gordon called "I Go To Pieces" and said he always regretted not releasing the song himself at the time.
Along the way, Del Shannon became known as a keen talent-spotter. He produced Bob Seger’s first demos, footing the bill and passing them on to Dick Clark, which helped lead to his first record deal.
He discovered country singer Johnny Carver and an L.A. band called Smith, whose Shannon-produced cover of the Shirelles’ ‘Baby, It’s You’ reached the Top 10 in 1969.
There were others...
Shirley Westover has said that "Chuck came from a long line of alcoholics."
“Chuck was very generous,” Shirley says. “When he was with AA, he’d always leave food baskets on porches — you know, knock and run. He’d put a $100 bill in people’s cars while they were inside at a meeting.”
Dell Shannon would always reach out to friends and strangers alike, taking a genuine interest in their well-being.
Del Shannon played his last show on February 3rd, 1990, in Fargo, North Dakota.
It was a memorial concert for three of Shannon’s contemporaries—Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson—who had died in a plane crash on that day, 31 years prior.
Later that week Shannon’s second wife found him in a rocking chair in their California home. He died of a self inflicted gunshot wound on February 8th, 1990. Del Shannon was 55.
He’d suffered from alcoholism and depression most of his life, although he’d reportedly been on the mend just before his death; not that his prescription to Prozac did anything to keep his finger off the trigger.
Throughout all the highs and lows of his career, he remained essentially the same person who had once picked strawberries, worked in a furniture store, delivered flowers and sold carpeting in western Michigan.
Nine years after his 1990 death, Shannon was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. He is also a member of the Michigan Rock & Roll Legends Hall of Fame.
My Special Side Note to Del Shannon Fans: I choose not to focus on the negative experiences of the artists I write about.
Del Shannon and all the wonderful artists and groups from the fifties and sixties made my childhood and teen life a memorable experience. Fifty-five years later I refuse to trash those memories.
The Del Shannon story reveals some negative points in Del's life (that I would normally omit) but brings to light what a talented and compassionate man he was to accomplish all he did, while suffering from alcoholism and depression.
Del Shannon lived with a terrible disease and I believe the prescription drug Prozac led Shannon to make an equally terrible decision. Again, just my opinion.
God Bless Charles Westover and his family.
Great time to be growing up. Those great Drive-In's with car hops on roller skates, cruisin' in your classic custom ride and listening to Del Shannon singing "Runaway". Nostalgia overwhelms me.
Thank you, Del Shannon, for all the wonderful memories.
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Congratulations on an outstanding site. I am from old school. I was 13 when Rock & Roll erupted in 1955. I would literally run home from school to watch Bandstand every day. I lived outside Philly and grew up with all the Philadelphia music scene and its performers. Keep up the good work and I thank you for your time and effort in keeping the old vinyl music alive for us and future generations.
Bill was our first newsletter subscriber.
Rest easy my friend.
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