(Music: "Runaway" by Del Shannon)
April 24, 1961 - May 21, 1961
Del Shannon was the first person to take a John Lennon-Paul McCartney song into the Hot 100. Shannon was appearing at London's Royal Albert Hall with the Beatles in 1963, while "From Me to You" was the number one single in Britain. Shannon told Lennon he was going to record "From Me to You" for America, and John responded, "That'll be fine." But just as John went on stage, he turned to Del and said, "Don't do that!" Del thinks John must have realized the consequences of other artists competing against the Beatles with their own songs.
Despite John's last-minute command, Del recorded "From Me to You" before he left London. Del's version was released in America just as Vee Jay issued the Beatles' original. Shannon bested the Beatles, debuting on the Hot 100 on June 29. The Beatles would not enter the American chart until January, 1964 with "I Want to Hold Your Hand".
Del Shannon was born Charles Westover in Coopersville, Michigan on December 30, 1939. The first instrument he played was a kazoo, providing melody for a neighbor accordionist. His mother taught him to play "Doodlee-Doo" on the ukulele, and he soon graduated to guitar. "I wanted to play so bad, my fingers used to bleed," he confesses.
There weren't too many people in Coopersville who could teach him to play the guitar so young Charles would go to clubs on Saturday nights and observe guitarists in country bands, transposing what he saw from the point of view of the audience. "If they knew you were watching, they'd turn their backs."
He started singing in school. "My first introduction to echo was in the men's shower room." A sympathetic school principal would let him practice his guitar in the gym a couple of hours a day and he'd sing Ink Spots songs at pep rallies ("that's where I got the falsetto").
Drafted after high school, he entertained troops for five months until a general changed the law about how long a soldier could be in special services. After his discharge, he returned to Battle Creek, Michigan. He played guitar in a club for a singer who drank too much, and ended up taking his place. When one of his band members quit, drummer Dick Parker suggested Max Crook as a replacement. Crook's specialty was playing the "musitron," an electronic organ that was a forerunner of the synthesizer.
They played the Hi-Lo club as Charlie Johnson and the Big Little Show Band but Westover wasn't happy with that name. A Hi-Lo patron who dreamed of becoming a professional wrestler wanted to call himself Mark Shannon, and Charles liked that last name. During the day, he sold carpets, and the store owner owned a Cadillac Coupe de Ville, which inspired the first name of Del.
Ollie McLaughlin, a black DJ from WGRV in Ann Arbor, heard Del play and took him to Detroit, where he introduced him to Harry Balk and Irving Micahnik. They signed Del to Big Top Records and sent him to New York to record a couple of songs. Ollie thought they were too slow to be singles and suggested Del find an uptempo tune. Back at the Hi-Lo, Crook hit an unusual chord change on the organ one night, going from A-minor to G, and Del stopped the show and told him to play it again. The next day, Del telephoned Max from the carpet shop and told him to bring a tape recorder to the Hi-Lo that night to record a new song he had written using those chord changes, "Runaway".
They performed it for the next three months, then drove back to New York in 10° F weather with a broken heater so they could record "Runaway." "I just said to myself, if this record isn't a hit, I'm going to go into the carpet business."
By the time the single was selling 80,000 copies a day, Balk told Del to quit selling carpets and come to Brooklyn for a gig at the Paramount Theater, where he would earn more than he made in a year at the carpet shop.
Del's next hit, "Hats Off to Larry," was a title he always thought would make a good Everly Brothers song. He signed with Amy Records in 1964 and recorded hits such as "Keep Searchin' (We'll Follow the Sun")" and "Stranger in Town." In the late sixties, he discovered the group Smith with Gayle McCormick and arranged their version of The Shirelles' "Baby It's You." He also produced Brian Hyland's version of "Gypsy Woman."
On February 8, 1990, Del Shannon was found dead in his home in Santa Clarita, California, the victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He had already recorded an album with producer Jeff Lynne. It was posthumously released in 1991.
Reprinted from The Billboard Book of Number 1 Hits, copyright © 2003 by Fred Bronson.