HATS OFF TO
SO LONG DEL
He had ‘Runaway’ hits through the early sixties,
but when DEL SHANNON’s ambitions could no
longer endure the post-fame come-down – he took
his own life with a .22-calibre shotgun on the brink
of what could have been a major career revival as
a Traveling Wilbury…
ANDREW DARLINGTON investigates
the enduring legacy of a great Rock ‘n’ Roll star…
Del, shot to fame
Del, shot to obscurity
Del, now just shot to hell…
(Poem published in ‘COKEFISH Vol.1 no.9’ – USA,
October 1990 & ‘FLESH-MOUTH No.3’ – UK, April 1991)
As the first seismic Rock ‘n’ Roll tsunami receded, with its greatest practitioners either dead, in jail, or mellowed out into safe family-friendly entertainers, Del Shannon found his space. He’d never be a pretty-boy for the pin-up fan-mags like the Bobbys – Vee, Rydell or Vinton, although he scrubbed-up reasonably OK. Memory says I saw him a lot on TV. A tough-looking guy, shadowed in atmospheric darkness, with a big rhythm guitar and ears resembling a ‘Star Trek’ Vulcan. But it seems memory lies. Unless it’s playing tricks and I’m seeing mind-picture clips shown subsequently that brain-cells have re-shuffled and re-ordered, bought-in clips from American TV shows – after all, Pop-videos didn’t yet exist. Search YouTube and the earliest evidence of Del miming “Runaway”, shirt open, collar turned up, is dated 28 August 1965, lifted from a KHJ-TV ‘Hollywood A Go-Go’ with go-go girls cavorting on a gantry behind him. Then there’s a UK ‘Top Of The Pops’ clip of him doing an ear-bending “Keep Searchin’” to a cooler more Mod response, and he can be seen cameoing “You Never Talked About Me” – ‘B’-side of “Hey! Little Girl”, in Milton Subotsky/Richard Lester’s Pop-exploitation movie ‘It’s Trad Dad’ (Amicus, 1962), although no, it most definitely isn’t Trad.
Further text-research says I saw Del Shannon’s first British TV-screen appearance 20th April 1963, on ‘Thank Your Lucky Stars’ (Series 3:30) hosted by the immaculate Brian Matthew, although there’s no surviving film. Yes, by then he was promoting “Two Kinds Of Teardrops” – his eighth straight UK chart entry. He shares billing with Johnny ‘Poetry In Motion’ Tillotson, they were double-heading a package-tour together, but more significantly with him on the show were the Dave Clark Five, Mike Berry… and the Beatles. For a visiting American artist, at a time when Beatlemania was strictly a local phenomenon, with the Fabs yet to make inroads outside Britain, it must have seemed he’d dropped into mayhem. Del was the star. So who are these moptop guys kicking up pandemonium? Many American musicians felt threatened, resentful, and hostile. Not Del. He also appeared with the Beatles on the BBC radio special ‘Swinging Sound ‘63’, and played a ‘Royal Albert Hall’ date with them. He was sharp enough to see beyond the hysteria, recognising the potential of it all. When he jetted home he’d stashed a Beatles song in his luggage, recorded it, and became the first American artist to chart Lennon & McCartney on the US chart – with the number he’d seen them perform, “From Me To You”. Later that same year he returned to London to guest on ‘Ready Steady Go’ (25 October 1963, Series 1:12), doing “Sue’s Gotta Be Mine” – his tenth UK chart hit, alongside Joe Brown, Billy J Kramer & the Tornados. He went down a storm. The record peaked at no.21… but times were a-changin’. It would be his last Hit Parader. For a while...
‘…While Our Hearts Were Young…’
In an era when the shaken-up American music machine had firmly reasserted control, with a homogenised Pop scene dominated by malleable Teen-idols told what and how to sing in the studio, Shannon was a genuine self-contained talent who not only wrote his own stuff, but was active at the mixing desk too. Born to parents Bert and Leoni 30th December 1939 as Charles Weedon Westover he was raised with sisters Ruth and Blanche in Coopersville – a one-horse town by Grand Rapids, Michigan. By Coopersville High School age, around fourteen, he’d begun singing, playing guitar and ukulele. He listened to country music because that’s what they played on the radio, Hank Snow, ‘old Buck Owens stuff’, Lefty Frizzell, and especially Hank Williams. He’d later cut an album in tribute to that influence – ‘Del Shannon Sings Hank Williams’ (November 1964), before country became cool, with “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, “Cold, Cold Heart” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart”.
Drafted and stationed in Stuttgart, Germany as a Seventh Army Field Artillery radioman in 1957 – more or less overlapping with Elvis Presley’s 1958-1959 German Army-stint, and more than a little like a sequence from Elvis’ ‘GI Blues’ (1960) movie, he played guitar with an off-duty group called The Cool Flames, and appeared on the 1958 Special Services radio-show ‘Get Up And Go’. On demob in 1959, he returned home to Battle Creek, Michigan, for a series of dead-end day-jobs, driving trucks, working in a furniture factory, and selling carpets, while playing rhythm-guitar nights in the local low-lit ‘Hi-Lo Club’ dive with the Doug DeMott Group. Unlike his hometown contemporaries who were content to live smalltown lives, his restless ambition demanded more. Too insecure to start out as frontman, but with the urge ‘to show those people I could be somebody’, he renamed himself ‘Charlie Johnson’ in a group reshuffle that dealt him lead-vocals when the group became The Big Little Showband. Pianist and long-term friend, Max Crook joined around the same time. Crook already had industry connections, and blagged the group to the attention of Ann Arbor black entrepreneur and Radio W-GRV DJ, Ollie McLaughlin. McLaughlin took the ambitious singer to Detroit to ink a contract with Harry Balk & Irving Micahnik of ‘Embee Talent Artists Management’, who also managed Johnny & The Hurricanes.
With Charles Westover renamed ‘Del Shannon’ – after a Michigan wrestler and the Cadillac Coupe de Ville, test-sessions in New York followed soon after, but frustratingly nothing of value emerged and he retreated to Battle Creek where – jamming with Crook in a small club one afternoon, they’d come up with a song called “My Runaway”. Max ‘hit an A and then a G, and I picked up my guitar and took it from there. We had a tape recorder going for twenty-minutes’. Rewritten at Ollie’s urging, cut at Bell Sound studios 24th January 1961 with Balk & Micahnik grabbing production credits, then leased to Big Top in New York, the renamed “Runaway” soon became one of the year’s biggest hits. Del made his radio debut on Michigan’s ‘WELL’ station, his TV debut on New York’s ‘Clay Cole Show’, then the single was accelerated by a slot on ‘Dick Clark’s American Bandstand’, until it sat astride the top of the US charts, and was UK No.1 from 29th June 1961 for three weeks.
From the strong electric guitar-strum phrasing, joined by faint keyboard, the haunted vocals begin ‘as I walk along I wonder what went wrong’ then ‘as I still walk on, I think of the things we’ve done’, not so much developing the narrative as returning it to line one. No-one claims it’s Bob Dylan’s ‘skipping reels of rhyme’. Blues traditionally uses lyrical repetition as a motif. And it works, by emphasis, returning in a feedback-loop again to ‘I’m a-walking in the rain’ opening verse two to stress the gumshoe persistence of his obsessive quest to unravel the complexity of his runaway-love. The mixed-down eeriness of the dramatic slightly-echoed voice peaks into shrill ‘why-why-why-wonder’ falsetto. Then the unearthly high-pitched ‘new sound’ instrumental mid-break cuts through sharp as cheese-wire, delivering the energy-jolt of a tazer. A persistent rumour said it was Big Top label-mate Johnny Paris of Johnny & the Hurricanes. Not so. It’s not even an organ – but a ‘musitron’, a kind of early clavioline-based semi-synth not only played by, but invented by Crook too. The song was revived in a storming live recording by The Small Faces (on their ‘From The Beginning’ LP, June 1967), Elvis Presley did a live version of it on his ‘On Stage’ LP (June 1970), Bonnie Raitt and the Sensational Alex Harvey Band did it, and it was done even later by The Traveling Wilburys (bonus track, 2007). If Del Shannon made only this one single it would guarantee him a place in the Rock pantheon.
He played a prestige-bill at Brooklyn’s ‘Paramount Theatre’ with Jackie Wilson, sharing a dressing room with Dion DiMucci who sneered at the black sharkskin suit he’d just paid eighty dollars for. ‘And I stepped on his foot’ recalled Del, ‘I had the no.1 song in the nation and I still felt like an outcast’. Yet he followed up with a second million-seller, “Hats Off To Larry”, with a semi-spoken intro and vocal-lines punctuated by little squeaky-trill Farfisa-organ riffs, while retaining the atmospheric ‘your turn to cry-cry-cry’ falsetto. It, and third hit “So Long Baby” take no prisoners. Not for Del Bobby Vee’s polite-considerate simpering ‘take good care of my Baby’. Here, it’s just ‘so long Baby, be on your way, I had a ball’. “Hats Off To Larry” might take great delight in the fact that his former-Babe’s been dumped and humiliated by new-guy Larry, he can’t resist gloating that ‘it may sound cruel…’ but ‘you told me lies, now it’s your turn to cry-cry-cry’, but he holds out the chance of redemption, he’ll take her back, she’s learned her lesson, ‘I think you’ll change’. Nothing as generous as he wreaks revenge on “So Long Baby”. They’ve both been playing the cheating game, ‘I got news for you, I was untrue too’ he gloats, ‘you had one jump on me, but I jumped twice you see’. No sympathy, no remorse, ‘so go and laugh some more ‘cause Baby I don’t care no more’. It’s delivered through a denser, murkier production, and instead of the ascending chorus-chords its ‘step by step you put me down’, with what sounds to be a comb-&-paper kazoo mid-break. Each single is short and punchy. Portraying Del as a forlorn loner, unlucky in love and at odds with the world, with none of that wimpish self-pitying stuff. With those three debut 45rpm’s timed at 2:18-mins, 2:00-mins and 2:03-mins apiece you could, and did chain-listen to them on the Dansette without a break, with never a temptation to skip forward.
Prime juke-box jive, they charted at no.1, no.5 and no.28 in the US, to corresponding British placings of no.1, no.6 and no.10 when released in the distinctive black-and-silver London American label. Then 1962 kicked off with another run of hits. The first of them – and fourth hit in a row, “Hey! Little Girl” (US no.38, UK no.2), adds sax to the compulsive mix, with a welcome return of the tinny musitron. He’d seen a girl briefly at a party. She was with mean-mistreater Joe. Now, later, the master of the break-up sees the ‘shadow of a girl I had known’ and – hey, he can fix her broken heart, replace each broken part, treat her right, with double-tracking enhancing his plaintive appeal. “Cry Myself To Sleep” (UK no.29) and “Swiss Maid” (UK no.2), may have charted lower in the States, but although less popular at home they retained high-visibility in Britain, a pattern that would continue across a four-year arc of fine vinyl. “Swiss Maid” – a song written by the struggling unknown Roger Miller, saw a change of pace, the lyric carried on flowing pipe-organ, and a yodel that fortuitously snagged a short-lived British novelty-trend that put Frank Ifield and Karl Denver’s popularity into overdrive. My mother complained that ‘is that all she does – sits on the mountain-top pining away until she dies?’ Well, maybe… but LISTEN to the sound – ‘oom-pa-pa-oom-pa-pa-oom-pa-pa… yodel-lady-ay-a-yodle-lady-ah’! And “Little Town Flirt” (US no.12, UK no.4) carried the ‘Runaround Sue’ warning that, although guys are allowed to go around breaking hearts, it’s different for girls. So you may fancy her now, but ‘you’ll think you’ve got a paper heart, when she starts to tear it apart…’
‘The Further Adventures
Of Charles Westover’
Each single remains a sliver of sharp Pop sensibility, barnstorming arrangements driven by Del’s raucous barrel-chested delivery and aggressive testicle-squeezed falsetto. By now, he was a name. Many Pop Stars have carved out long-term careers from less. But already he was showing signs of his restless ambition to do more. Decisively he quit Big Top and temporarily severed all links with Balk & Micahnik, to form his own Berlee label, for which he recorded “Sue’s Gotta Be Mine” (aka “Sue’s Gonna Be Mine”). Simultaneously he was testing out other approaches, operating in other gears. ‘Sue’ was done in a consciously Four Seasons style with a girl-chorus chanting the response. Switching to Nashville studios, roping in Elvis’ vocal-group the Jordanaires to provide the ‘did-doo-wadi-wadi’ back-up, “Cry Myself To Sleep” owes a stylistic debt to the New York Italianate Doo-Wop of, say, Dion & The Belmonts, while retaining the rich falsetto ‘cry-yi-yi-yi-yi’ over churning hard-driving guitar. For poor Del ‘the party’s over, everybody go home, I’m sorry but I’d like to be alone’, because he used to be her little buttercup, now she loves to see him in misery.
He also used ‘B’-sides to expand his palette. His definitive take on Burt Bacharach’s “The Answer To Everything” is an aching slow burner, which later became an Irish hit in its own right for Joe Dolan (no.4 in September 1964). While “Kelly” might favourably have made a strong top-side, a compelling melody with a ‘Girl Of My Best Friend’ narrative, a forbidden love soon to be tested by the return of their mutual significant-other. With the Berlee project curtailed Del signed to New York-based Amy Records in 1964 to make a sizeable comeback with Jimmy Jones’ “Handy Man” and then smashed back into the Top Ten with the excellent “Keep Searchin’”, his third million-seller. Breaking the ‘English Invasion’ deadlock, all of a sudden he was hot as a pistol all over again. With a dramatic ‘Fugitive’ storyline of star-crossed lovers fleeing from society’s disapproval, driven by percussive hand-clap breaks into ‘doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter, what people might say-ee-yay-ee-ay… if we gotta keep on the run, we’ll follow the sun-ah, wee-ooh’, it assembles all of the elements that had worked so well for him in the past, but accelerates the ingredients with renewed vitality and a killer tune. Although the sequel scored much lower, maybe by being too over-similar, “Stranger In Town” continued the story. But the resurgence was not to continue…
‘…To End This Misery…’
Into the late sixties, he joined Liberty for a fine singles revival of Toni Fisher’s “The Big Hurt” (with Leon Russell), but when the hits no longer came, he diversified into studio work. As early as 1964 he’d told a ‘New Musical Express’ ‘Life-Lines’ feature that his professional ambition was ‘to produce other singers and write more songs.’ Now he supervised demos as an early champion of Bob Seger, he cut singles for Dunhill records as manager-producer for a Los Angeles group called Smith, he discovered wrote and produced for country singer Johnny Carver, and produced Brian Hyland’s massive comeback hit “Gypsy Woman”, an American Top Three in 1970, featuring the reliable Max Crook on electric keyboard. Del’s writing credits were also appended to Peter & Gordon’s big American hit “I Go To Pieces” (also done as a 1979 Stiff single by Rachel Sweet). In his own right ‘The Further Adventures of Charles Westover’ (Liberty, 1968) was an ambitious musically successful – if commercially failed, attempt to highjack current trends to his own autobiographical ends. Using his own birth-name as a getting-real grassroots indicator, reaffirming his impassioned vocal prowess, Del’s voice high-flys above sitar-sounds, assertive guitar, and soaring baroque string-arrangements both dreamlike and achingly intense by turn. As pop-psychedelshannon at its finest, it’s fully engaged and totally engaging, with brooding undertows of desperate darkness underpinning the whole affair. With standout tracks “I Think I Love You”, “Silver Birch”, “New Orleans (Mardi Grass)” with slight funk trace-elements, and singles “Thinkin’ It Over” and “Gemini” it was critically well-received, and has since been favourably reassessed, yet the album got lost in the rush of newer trendier names. Record-buyers knew the Del-boy. They know what he does. They know what they like. He does “Runaway” and “Little Town Flirt”. That’s a powerful legacy to surpass. When they buy Del Shannon albums, they buy veteran greatest hits compilations, not elaborate concept fantasias.
Into the new decades, his restlessness burned. It wasn’t so much the eclipse of his star status. When he wanted to be a star, the acclaim and audience reaction was there, albeit for the old hits. He made annual UK visits, commanding £2,000 a week playing Northern cabaret dates. The album ‘Live In England’ (United Artists, 1974) catches his hits-heavy act at Manchester’s ‘Princess Club’, adding Roy Orbison’s “Crying” and his novelty hometown tribute “Coopersville Yodel” to twelve solid hit-tracks. Many sixties survivors settle for less, and live very well by playing the nostalgia-circuit. For Del Shannon, that was never going to satisfy him. Neither was it financial. In 1972 he sold a hunk of California land – an investment from early income, for more than he’d made in a decade in Rock music. No, it wasn’t anything as shallow as wealth or celebrity he craved, he had them, it was his need to be part of what was creatively happening. It was more that he was no longer an active participant in the game. It was the marginalisation of his work that chafed. That’s what hurt. Plagued by recurrent bouts of depression, both alleviated and accelerated by booze, the seventies was not a good decade.
On a rebound series of labels he recorded with admiring new supportive fan-collaborators, Andrew Loog Oldham and Dave Edmunds, and then the basis for a future Traveling Wilbury connection with Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne. Two later albums were critically lauded, ‘Drop Down And Get Me’ (Demon, June 1983) recorded with Petty and praised by Cynthia Rose as Shannon rising to the challenge ‘over and over with no cynicism or loss of hope – but with an honesty and a voice which will make you bleed, almost shock you’ (‘NME’ 4 June 1983). Predominantly his own songs, his cover of Phil Phillips “Sea Of Love” even managed a little chart action, ascending to a US no.33. Then the posthumously-released sequel ‘Rock On’ (Silvertone, May 1991), with final mastering by Petty, who later rationalised that ‘we loved him, really, he was a great fella, a really talented guy, but I think he had a tragic side to him in that he could never really get his thing going again’ (to ‘Vox’ September 1991).
For no matter what Del Shannon achieved, his past continually exerted such powerful gravitation, his back-catalogue plundered as nostalgia time-fixes for a clutch of ‘American Graffiti’-style movie soundtracks, and “Runaway” even reconfigured to theme NBC-TV cop-drama ‘Crime Story’ (1986-1988). They were peaks he’d never be able to surmount. His reputation as a Rock past-innovator was never in doubt. That was never enough. When his ambitions could no longer endure the post-fame come-down – he took his own life with a .22-calibre shotgun on 8 February 1990, on the brink of what could have been a major career revival as a Traveling Wilbury…
But search ‘YouTube’, he’s still there.
Album Review of:
by DEL SHANNON
Before he put that .22 rifle in his mouth and pulled the terminal trigger, Del laid down these sides, mixed and dubbed posthumously. As such ‘Rock On’ is to Charles ‘Del Shannon’ Westover what ‘Mystery Girl’ was to Roy Orbison – and certainly the lead-in track “Walk Away” should have done for Del what “You Got It” did for Roy, and given him a last hurrah Top Ten hit. It’s strong and forcefully melodic with compulsive three-way harmonies that work arrestingly well when given its sparing and inadequate radio time. Like the Big ‘O’, Del was one of the few pre-Beatles stars to control his own destiny by writing original material. He was a Rocker with a piercing switchblade falsetto buoyed up on helium, and a back-catalogue that still sells ‘Greatest Hits’ and ‘Best Of’ collections in respectable amounts. He also wound up with Traveling Wilbury connections. He never worked with U2, but he’d recorded with Jeff Lynne as early as the 1975 “Cry Baby Cry” single, and with Tom Petty for the 1982 Elektra LP ‘Drop Down And Get Me’. Both voices are clearly discernible on “Walk Away” – which they also helped write, and Petty’s clear harmonies follow the delicious twelve-string play-in to “I Go To Pieces”. They’re elsewhere too, as is co-producing Heartbreaker Mike Campbell, but their role remains supportive, it’s Del-boy who dominates. He wrote “I Go To Pieces” in the first place as a ‘B’-side, and although it subsequently charted high for wimpoid duo Peter & Gordon, this is the definitive version. And it’s the only over-the-shouldering he allows himself. The remaining tracks are new Shannon. “Are You Lovin’ Me Too” and the Fifties-ish “What Kind Of Fool Do You Thing I Am?” (the only non-Del composition) are just about as good as his best.
Del Shannon could have made a lucrative living rehashing his past on the Oldies circuit – he was better qualified hit-wise than most. But his pride rejected such an admission of irrelevance. He wanted a slice of today, and it’s this failure to equal his own aspirations that led to the fatal .22. He comes closest to achieving his aim with “Walk Away”, but too often he trims his Rockist instincts and his fiercest falsettos to what he imagines to be the requirements of a Nineties market. Hence some undistinguished mid-tempo MoR jog-alongs, but “Let’s Dance” – the final track, eschews all such strategies and plunges into a glorious hoe-down that even takes in a sly Jerry Lee Lewis growl midway down – ‘I’m sick and tired of being tied down… so I packed up my guitar, and threw it in the trunk. Gonna have myself a ball, just keep playin’ those good old songs. Let’s dance, let’s dance, pass that bottle around’. The joy bursting out of the mix is impossible to miss. So while it’s ‘Hats Off To Del’ and ‘S’Long Baby’, perhaps most importantly, on his own evaluation, it’s also ‘Rock On’ too…