At number 1 for a three-week period during the cool, cloudy summer of 1961, Del Shannon’s Runaway remains one of the most memorable rock’n’roll and pop songs of the early-60s. Key elements of the track, namely Shannon’s tortured falsetto and the sound of Max Crook’s Musitron, became very influential, which makes the singer-songwriter’s mental issues and eventual suicide all the more tragic.
Del Shannon was born Charles Weedon Westover in Grand Rapids, Michigan on 30 December 1934. Like many other future rock’n’rollers, he grew up playing the guitar and ukelele, and enjoyed country and western music by artists like Hank Williams.
He entered the army in 1954, where he joined his first band, The Cool Flames. Upon his return to Michigan, he became a carpet salesman and truck driver for a furniture factory, and became rhythm guitarist in The Moonlight Ramblers, before replacing singer Doug DeMott, who was fired for drunken behaviour, in 1958.
Westover changed his name to Charlie Johnson and renamed the group The Big Little Show Band. In 1959 the groups line-up was bolstered by the addition of keyboardist Max Crook. The keyboard wizard had been working on his own instrument, a primitive synthesiser he dubbed the Musitron. Crook had built this by modifying an old clavioline, adding television tubes, a reel-to-reel tape machine and parts from various household appliances. The group signed to Bigtop Records, but Johnson was urged to make another name change. ‘Del’ came from his favourite car, the Cadillac Coup de Ville, and he stole his surname from local wrestler Mark Shannon.
The origins of Runaway are unclear. Del Shannon once claimed it came about fairly instantly during a jam session on stage, but another version of events tells of unhappy initial recording sessions that resulted in Shannon and Crook being told to remake an earlier track known as Little Runaway, and to give the Musitron a place to shine during the new version.
Runaway starts off like any other rock’n’roll song, but the lyrics go deeper. Shannon’s sadness seems genuine, and his later reported problems suggest he was a tortured soul all his life, rather than one of the stereotypical handsome, clean-cut teen stars of the time. When he hits the falsetto on the chorus (Shannon claimed inspiration from Jimmy Jones, who had hit number 1 with Good Timin’ a year previous), he sounds genuinely pained, but it also adds energy to the song. And then when the Musitron takes over the instrumental break, we’re in uncharted territory. It may sound somewhat weedy now, but there’s an eeriness to it that resonates, as well as a sprightliness. A strange combination, but it’s definitely the highlight, and producers like Joe Meek were listening intently.
Del Shannon had a few more hits, usually containing the same bitter, melancholy lyrics, such as So Long, Baby. In 1963 he became the first American to cover The Beatles, when his version of their first UK number 1, From Me to You, charted before the original in the States. His fame started to slide, so he dipped his toes into other genres, releasing an album of Hank Williams covers, and he worked with Rolling Stones producer Andrew Loog Oldham on a psychedelic album, Home and Away, which Oldham wanted to become known as the UK’s answer to Pet Sounds, but it didn’t see a release in full until 1978. It does feature a pretty good, strung-out update of this track, in which Shannon sings in a lower register, but the problem with Runaway 67 for me is it doesn’t go far out enough, and where’s the Musitron solo? The 1968 follow-up, The Further Adventures of Charles Westover, was critically-acclaimed, but sold poorly.
Alcoholism took its toll during the 70s, but he did work with Tom Petty, and in the 80s he re-recorded Runaway yet again, this time as the theme to the successful TV series Crime Story.
The nostalgia for 50s culture in the 80s did Shannon some good, but not enough, and perhaps he wanted to be considered a contemporary artist, not remembered as a singer from the past who was known for that one big hit. He began taking Prozac for depression, but it was not enough to save him from his personal demons.
On 3 February, he performed at a memorial concert for Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, and five days later, he committed suicide with a gunshot wound from his rifle. He was 55. It seems that Shannon may have seen his career as unfulfilled, but Runaway is still considered an exceptional rock’n’roll track, and his falsetto was a big influence on Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees. It’s a tragedy that he felt life hadn’t been kind enough to him.
Written by: Del Shannon & Max Crook
Producers: Harry Balk & Irving Micahnik
Weeks at number 1: 3 (29 June-19 July)
Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales – 1 July
Welsh TV presenter Gareth Jones – 5 July
Comedian Jeremy Hardy – 17 July
4 July: Barclays become the first bank in Britain with an in-house computing centre. The ‘No. 1 Computing Centre’ opened on Drummond Street, London. The ‘white heat’ of technology was a few years away, but it was a start.
8 July: The Wimbledon women’s final was an all-British affair, when Angela Mortimer defeated Christine Truman.