Del Shannon – The Legendary Rock ‘n’ Roll Falsetto Singing Star

Submitted by Rob Durkee

 He was rock and roll music’s first falsetto singing star, with Frankie Valli and Lou Christie soon to follow in his musical footsteps.

Del Shannon  had a “Runaway” hit with his first hit in 1961, Charting #1 on the Cashbox Charts. Two years later in 1963, he had the first USA hit single written by the Beatles, before we would know who the Beatles would become.

Check out “From Me to You” here:

His first hit that put him in Rock ‘n’ Roll history books was definitely “Runaway” –

Born Charles Westover in Grand Rapids, Michigan,  the singer-songwriter known as Del Shannon dies by suicide on February 8, 1990. In a period when the American pop charts were dominated by cookie-cutter teen idols and novelty acts, he stood out as an all-too-rare example of an American pop star whose work reflected real originality. His heyday as a chart-friendly star in the United States may have been brief, but on the strength of his biggest hit alone he deserves to be regarded as one of rock and roll’s greatest.

Legend has it that while on stage one night at the Hi-Lo Lounge in Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1960, the young and unknown Del Shannon stopped his band mid-song to have his organ player repeat, over and over, an unusual chord sequence he had just ad-libbed: A-minor to G. Charlie went to work the next day in his job as a carpet salesman with those chords stuck in his mind, and by the time he took the stage that night, he’d written a song called “Little Runaway” around them—(A-minor) As I walk along I (G) wonder, what went wrong…”. It would be three more months before Shannon and his band could make it to a New York recording studio to record the song that Shannon now saw as his best, and possibly last, shot at stardom. As he told Billboard magazine years later, “I just said to myself, if this record isn’t a hit, I’m going back into the carpet business.” Del Shannon sold his last carpet a few months later, as “Runaway” roared up the pop charts on its way to #1 in April 1961.

“Hats Off To Larry” and “Keep Searchin’ (We’ll Follow The Sun)” were Shannon’s only other top-10 hits in the United States, but he enjoyed a much bigger career in the UK, where he placed five more songs in the top 10 over the next two years. Like most stars of his generation, Shannon was primarily regarded as an Oldies act through the ’70s and ’80s, but he was in the midst of a concerted comeback effort in early 1990, with a Jeff Lynne-produced album of original material already completed and rumors swirling of his taking the late Roy Orbison’s place in The Traveling Wilburys. 

Ironically, in this video of “Runaway” by Luis Cardenas 25 years later in 1986, Del Shannon is IN this video…as the cop!

In January 1990 Shannon was pushing himself to finish the new album and schedule upcoming concerts, resulting in troublesome stress. On the advice of his doctor, on January 24, Shannon began taking Prozac, an antidepressant. Fifteen days later, he died by suicide, shooting himself with a .22 calibre rifle at his home in Santa Clarita, California on February 8, 1990. 

“He was very much in charge of his business, but within days after he started taking Prozac I noticed a personality change in him. He developed severe insomnia, extreme fatigue, chills, racing heart, dry mouth, and upset stomach,” testified LeAnne Westover, Shannon’s widow. “Suicide was totally out of character for my husband. There was no note and no goodbye.”

Runaway was a classic song, covered by many artists including Bonnie Raitt and Elvis Presley. Following his death, the Traveling Wilburys honored him by recording a version of “Runaway”. Jeff Lynne also co-produced Shannon’s posthumous album, Rock On, released by Silvertone Records in 1991.

Shannon was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999 and into the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame in 2005. 

A Del Shannon Memorial Scholarship Fund was set up following Shannon’s death. Coopersville, Michigan holds an annual Del Shannon Car Show.