Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Del Shannon had fateful career

Michigan native Del Shannon had a No. 1
hit with his classic "Runaway."


When Michigan native Del Shannon took to the stage in Fargo, North Dakota on Feb. 3, 1990 he wasn't feeling well.

The veteran rock star was booked to perform with Fargo native Bobby Vee and Buddy Holly's Crickets for a anniversary concert and dance at Civic Auditorium.

The concert was in memory of Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper (aka J. P. Richardson) who died in a plane crash exactly 31 years before.

Despite having the flu, Shannon carried on like a show biz trooper. He performed many of his hits, including "Hats Off To Larry," "Little Town Flirt" and "Keep Searchin'."

Shannon saved his No. 1 smash hit "Runaway" for late in the program.

Many people at the concert recalled the tragic plane crash three decades earlier which changed rock 'n' roll forever.

At that time Shannon was living in Battle Creek, Mich. having been discharged from the Army in 1958.

Born in Grand Rapids on Dec. 30, 1934 as Charles Weedon Westover, Shannon grew up in Coopersville, a nearby farming community.

His mother taught him to play the ukulele, but he switched to guitar in his early teens.

After his military stint in Germany, Shannon worked in a furniture factory by day and played in a band at the Hi-Lo Club located at 45 Capital Ave. SW.

Max Crook, who invented an early synthesizer called the Musitron, joined the group as keyboardist in 1959.

While gigging at club, Shannon and Crook composed "Runaway," originally called "Little Runaway." Built around minor chords, the song had immediate appeal to audiences.

Having confidence in their music, Crook convinced influential disc jockey Ollie McLaughlin to hear the band.

McLaughlin, who had a jazz program on radio station WHRV in Ann Arbor, used his music connections to get Shannon signed to Detroit's Big Top Records.

While McLaughlin is credited with discovering Shannon, he later owned a record label and produced five 45 rpm singles for the Excels, a rock band formed at Northern Michigan University in Marquette.

Shannon and Crook recorded their song in New York on Jan. 21, 1961 after McLaughlin suggested the Musitron be used as the lead instrument.

"Runaway" was released as Big Top 3067 and first charted on March 6, 1961. The track spent four weeks at No. 1 and charted for four months.

Shannon performed "Runaway" on Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" television program on Monday, April 10, 1961.

Touring took Shannon to Europe where he met the Beatles. Shannon's recording of "From Me to You" from the summer of 1963 became the first song by John Lennon and Paul McCartney to chart in the United States.

In early 1965, the British duo Peter & Gordon added to Shannon's European credibility by recording his composition "I Go to Pieces." The song made the Top Ten.

Still, the British Invasion stalled Shannon's career. "The Big Hurt" from 1966 was Shannon's 16th and final hit of the decade.

He released a live version of "Runaway" in 1967, but the disc missed the Top 100.

By the late 1960s, Shannon produced "Gypsy Woman" for Brian Hyland and arranged "Baby It's You" for Smith, a California group he discovered.

Shannon was less prominent in the succeeding decades, but still toured.

His last chart entry came in 1982 when "Sea of Love" reached the Top 40. The song, from an album called "Drop Down and Get Me," was produced by Tom Petty. Petty first hit the Top Ten in 1980 with "Don't Do Me Like That."

Despite a lack of hits, the rocker didn't disappear. Shannon visited the Upper Peninsula one year to attend the St. Ignace Car Show, although he didn't perform, organizer Ed Reavie told me.

Shannon re-recorded "Runaway" in 1986 with revised lyrics for use in the television drama "Crime Story."

In the late 1980s, my wife Sue and I decided we needed Shannon's autograph for the Wall of Fame at our record store. She wrote to the singer at his California home and he responded with an autographed 8 x 10 picture.

The publicity photo carried the Warner Brothers logo and depicted Shannon and his guitar with his right hand raised in a fist. Inscribed to "Susan," Shannon wrote: "Love ya and rock & roll" in red marker before signing his name.

At the time Shannon was working on a comeback album with Petty and Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra fame.

Petty and Lynne were both members of the Traveling Wilburys, along with Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Roy Orbison. The Wilburys had hits with "Handle With Care" and "End of the Line."

In the months after Orbison's death on Dec. 6, 1988, Shannon was rumored to be a possible replacement in the supergroup.

Still performing concerts, the 55-year-old Shannon was feeling under the weather during his 1990 Fargo appearance.

His superb falsetto intact, Shannon sang "As I walk along, I wonder what went wrong." The crowd instantly recognized "Runaway."

But, after just one more song, Shannon cut short his concert program.

Following the show, Shannon returned to San Clarita, California, where he and his wife LeAnne had just purchased a new home.

Just five days after the Fargo concert, fans were shocked to learn of Shannon's death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

The singer had been taking the antidepressant drug Prozac for 15 days prior to his death, drastically changing his personality.

His widow sued manufacturer Eli Lilly, saying the drug led to Shannon's death, but the suit was later dropped.

On Nov. 5, 1990, the surviving Wilburys paid tribute to Shannon with their own version of "Runaway" released as the B side to their "She's My Baby" single.

Shannon's "Rock On" album, co-produced by Lynne and Petty cohort Mike Campbell, was issued posthumously on the Silvertone label in 1991.

The rocker was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, an honor he well deserved.

Back in Battle Creek, a marker stands at the site of the Hi- Lo Club where Shannon first performed his No. 1 hit.

While Shannon's career comprised so much more than "Runaway," his rock 'n' roll immortality can easily rest on that song alone.

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