The rockin’ legend this column will focus on this month, is a story full of mega success in music history, laced with huge tragedy. On 10th December we organised a tribute concert at the Esse Café in Moscow, to the legend in question. I booked the Beat Devils to perform for us on this date. I have written about the Beat Devils more than once in this column. They are a fantastic group, whose musical style is on the wild side of rock’n’roll. They put on a superb performance and all present agreed the concert was a memorable one, a fitting tribute to this month’s legend. Some of the photos you can see were taken at the Event.
And the legend in question ? Del Shannon. His stardom would have been hard to predict, when he first started performing in the 1950s. He performed in local clubs, honky tonk bars and after-hours clubs in his local area of Michigan, USA. His life style was described as consisting mainly of “drinking, partying and fighting.” He had a band which didn’t really play in the rock’n’roll style, it was more country. But a fortunate series of events propelled him to the top. One was the addition of another local Michigan boy, a keyboard player called Max Crook, to his group. Like Shannon he would prove to be a genius at writing songs. Shannon had persuaded a local disc jockey to send some of his tapes to a recording company. The company liked what they heard and they signed up both Shannon and Crook to write and records songs. Shannon’s real name was Charles Westover and the record company recommended he alter it to a more exciting one for a recording artist. Hence the change to Del Shannon. Other changes to the Shannon image were first that he lied about his age publicly – he was born in 1934 and pretended he was 5 years younger, in order to try and appeal even more to the teenage generation of music fans. And second he wore a wig to hide his partial baldness.
Despite these changes, initially Shannon and Crook weren’t very successful, but then they released a song they wrote and recorded together, “Runaway”. This was the turning point. In early 1961 the record got to number one in the hit parade. It was a smash hit and is still one of the most iconic rockin’ records of all-time.
Del’s co-operation with Crook did not last long, but it proved monumental for his career, because of the success of “Runaway”. Crook went on to be a pioneer of electronic music in the pop industry. You can hear his electronic keyboard instrument the Musitron, which he invented himself, playing a prominent role in “Runaway”. Shannon went on to record more of his own compositions in the early 1960s, which like “Runaway” became huge hits. Numbers like “Hey! Little Girl”, “Hats off to Larry”, Little Town Flirt”, “Keep Searchin’ “ and “Stranger in Town”, still rank today as legendary songs. One of his great gifts was his ability to write a story-song. All the songs quoted above contain a very clever story written into them.
Although by the mid-1960s his mega-stardom had waned, he still continued to perform up until his death in 1990. One interesting UK connection to his story is that from this time on in his career, his popularity waned more in the USA than in Britain. His UK fans remained remarkably loyal to him and he conducted quite a few UK tours over the following years. The music producer Harry Balk had a strong influence on Shannon and it was he who persuaded him to concentrate more on the UK market, rather than the States. It was a good move: The UK concert tours were a success, with Shannon performing at various clubs throughout the country.
But the story of Del Shannon is not a bed of roses. For most of his life he was an alcoholic, as well as having problems with drugs, especially prozac. This was another significant reason for the decline in his success from the mid-1960s onwards, not just the change in musical styles which made him appear a bit old-fashioned to the younger generation by this time.
During his lifetime, he did make various attempts to try and overcome his alcohol and drug dependence, but these addictions continued to haunt him to varying degrees throughout his life. His close friends, even from his early days in Michigan, described him as “suicidal”, with a manic streak to his character. Throughout his life he suffered from severe depression, hence the prozac.
The writer Howard de Witt, who wrote a biography about him, described him thus, “Shannon had trouble coping with stardom and he always felt like he had abandoned his wife. Shirley stuck with him for three decades and then she divorced him. Del quickly re-married and was in a state of turmoil from forces that no-one understood. There were personal demons known only to Del and these forces killed him.” De Witt went on to say, “the signs of prosperity and career success obscured a sickness dwelling deep inside Shannon. He was mentally and physically ill and no one could help him.”
In 1990 Shannon committed suicide, by shooting himself with his rifle at his home in California.
But he left behind a musical legacy, which was not confined to those early huge hits that started with “Runaway”. For example, he had a major influence on the Beatles and their style of music. In an interview in 1969 John Lennon acknowledged this; “We would sit around and use some of Del Shannon’s chords and his sound, to achieve our own musical direction. ‘Runaway’ and ‘Little Town Flirt’ helped us to create the Mersey sound.” This was echoed by Pete Best, the original Beatles’ drummer; “Without Del Shannon, the Merseyside sound would have been much less distinct.”
As an acknowledgement to his musical achievements, in 1999 he was inducted into the Rock’n’roll Hall of Fame. So here’s to Del Shannon. He left us some great rockin’ songs, the most famous of which will always be “Runaway”.