Musician. Born Charles Weedon Westover in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the son of Bert and Leone Westover. He learned to play the ukulele as a child and graduated to the guitar at fourteen. He served in the United States Army from 1956 to 1958, and when he returned to Michigan he joined a rockabilly band and changed his name to Del Shannon and a Coup deVille.
Del Shannon was born Charles Weedon Westover in Grand Rapids, Michigan on December 30th, 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 favourite 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.”
One night, one of the band members quit and drummer Dick Parker suggested that Max Crook take his place. Crook played an instrument called a musitron, a electric organ that was a forerunner of the synthesizer. This would give Del Shannon the unique sound that he would become world famous for.
With two years of touring the club circut, 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 immediately recorded four songs in a three hour session. A song called “Jodie” was issued as a single with “Runaway” on the B-side. After the record flopped, “Runaway” was re-issued as the A-side. It became an immediate success and skyrocketed to the top of the US charts within weeks bringing 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 were concerned, and Shannon was flown to Nashville to develop a new sound. He was given Roger Miller’s “The Swiss Maid” to record, and although the single did not catch on in the States, the record resulted in a #2 hit for Del in the UK.
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 1964, signing over the rights to 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 footed the bill to record Seger and his band, 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 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. He followed up the successful covers with “Keep Searchin'” and “Stranger In Town”, becoming Top 10 and Top 30 hits respectively. In this same era, Del 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 the Top 10 on the U.S. charts.
Five years after “Runaway”, Del was still at the top of his game, but then began to lose it all. Experimenting with the Detroit punk-rock garage sound, his songs “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 left 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 song writers Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, Shannon recorded their song, “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 favourite amongst Shannon collectors abroad.
As Del’s three year contract with Liberty drew to a close, he took in teen-idol Brian Hyland, producing the younger star and cultivating him into a promising songwriter. Shannon rejuvenated Hyland’s career in 1969 with an album on Uni Records, yielding the Top 5 hit, 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 a unique Shannon-Smith arrangement. Signed with Dunhill Records of L.A., Del 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 flipside loved by the British.
The mid 70’s were more or less a dead time for the Del Shannon. He recorded with Jeff Lynne of ELO and released a couple of pleasing singles for Island Records, but his alcoholism 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 Del 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 toured the U.S., UK, 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.
Del 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 its 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 LP 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 1986, “Runaway” successfully returned when Shannon re-recorded it for a new cops ‘n’ robbers TV series, ‘Crime Story’, produced by Michael Mann of the US TV show Miami Vice. “Runaway” was back on the air with a three-minute music video trailer promoting the new show. 1986 also saw Del’s composition “Cheap Love” make its way to the Top 10 on the country charts, recorded by Juice Newton.
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 Orbison, George Harrison, and Bob Dylan. When Roy passed away at the close of 1988, Shannon was rumoured to replace Orbison in the Traveling Wilburys. However, the rumour remains neither confirmed nor denied by the remaining members of the group. The world can but only guess what might have evolved.
Shannon was a troubled man with growing personal matters, and he literally solved all his problems in one swift blow. He was pronounced dead on February 8th, 1990 in his home in Santa Clarita, California after taking his own life while on a prescription dose of the anti-depressant drug Prozac.
Del Shannon was one of few singers in the early 60’s ‘manufactured pop star’ era who really had talent. An untrained voice with an incredibly high range, he had a piercing falsetto that would bring chills down your spine. Although remembered mostly as ‘the man who sang Runaway’, his excellent guitar work and song writing skills were often overlooked.
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. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 1999.
Birth: Dec. 30, 1934
Death: Feb. 8, 1990
Los Angeles County
Discovered by a local DJ, Shannon signed on with EmBee Productions in Detroit, an affiliate of Big Top Records. His first record for EmBee was ‘Runaway’ which shot to number one for 1961, making Shannon an instant celebrity. Shannon followed up with ‘Hats Off to Larry,’ ‘Little Town Flirt,’ ‘Handy Man,’ and ‘Do You Wanna Dance.’ In 1963 he became the first American artist to record and chart a Lennon-McCartney song in the United States. His cover of ‘From Me to You’ debuted six months before the Beatles’ own American chart debut. In 1965 Peter & Gordon covered Shannon’s ‘I Go to Pieces’ for a hit. In 1968 Shannon released the album ‘The Further Adventures of Charles Westover. He produced Brian Hyland’s million seller ‘Gypsy Woman’ in 1970. His career dropped off in the 1970s seeing only the release of his 1973 album, ‘Live in England.’ In 1981 a new album, ‘Drop Down and Get Me’ yielded a Top Forty hit, ‘Sea of Love;’ something Shannon had not seen since 1965. In 1984 he wrote and recorded two country songs, ‘Stranger on the Run’ and ‘In My Arms Again’ the latter charting at number fifty-six. Shannon gained a new audience in 1986 after re-recording his 1961 hit ‘Runaway’ with new lyrics which was to be used as the theme for the television show, ‘Crime Story.’ Shannon then collaborated with Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty in order to record a new album. Shannon recorded his last album ‘Rock On’ with accompaniment by Petty and the Heartbreakers. When the album was nearly completed, Shannon; who’d suffered bouts of depression and alcoholism for thirty years, fatally shot himself. On March 15, 1999 Del Shannon was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.