Del Shannon's 'Runaway' Success Led to His Downfall

Fifty years ago, Michigan native Del Shannon scored a ‘Runaway’ hit. But as his star fell, that song of teenage heartbreak mirrored the singer-songwriter’s very real pain.


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An early car buff, Chuck Westover (Del Shannon) gets into his 1950 Ford. PHOTO COURTESY OF RICHARD BAK

 

I

t has been said that ifyou plant your white bucks on the spot where the Hi-Lo Club once stood, squeeze your eyes tight, and concentrate really, really hard, you can hear the cloud-scraping falsetto and creepily cascading Musitron solo. It’s an evening in late 1960 or maybe early 1961 and, inside the dingy, smoke-shrouded Art Deco lounge, you’re on the sticky ground floor of pop-music history.

Alas, the attempt at time travel doesn’t work, at least not on this particular occasion. Fifty years on, there’s nothing to hear but the mumble of traffic at the corner of Hamblin and Capital avenues in downtown Battle Creek. The Hi-Lo Club and the faded hotel that housed it are irretrievably gone. In its place is a green Michigan Historical Marker informing the occasional interested passerby that this is where Charles Weedon Westover — better known to the public as Del Shannon — first performed early versions of what became the international hit called “Runaway.”

Anyone alive in 1961 and within earshot of a radio, record player, or jukebox could not possibly have failed to hear the song at least once — and more likely 100 times. Not that subsequent generations have missed out. Over the years, “Runaway” has been covered by some 200 artists, everybody from Elvis Presley and Lawrence Welk to the Small Faces and Bonnie Raitt. It’s been featured in such popular films as American Graffiti and Born on the Fourth of July and was the theme of a hit network television crime drama. The song was a phenomenal success for an earnest but tormented singer-songwriter from rural Michigan whose anguished oeuvre grew to include follow-up hits like “Two Kinds of Teardrops,” “Stranger in Town,” and “Keep Searchin’.”

“Del’s songs were refreshing,” says Tony Press, a British fan whose first 45-rpm record, a copy of “Runaway,” was a gift on his 14th birthday. The lyrics were never deep, the 64-year-old accountant from Bristol concedes. “But we could all relate to teenage heartbreak and relationships that foundered.”

 

I’m a-walkin’ in the rain / Tears are fallin’ and I feel the pain…

 

Long before there was Del Shannon, there was Chuck Westover — a small-town boy with jug-handle ears and a mischievous grin. Born Dec. 30, 1934, in Battle Creek, he grew up in the snoozy farming community of Coopersville, near Grand Rapids. Despite the presence of subdivisions and industrial parks, agriculture still accounts for much of the land in and around Coopersville, which today is officially a city of nearly 4,300 people. He had two younger sisters.

 

When Del Shannon was known as Chuck Westover, as a child. (PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF RICHARD BAK)

 

“Most older people around here know him as Chuck, or Charlie,” says Earl Meerman, who lives on five acres outside of town. A large man with gray, cropped hair, the retired Greyhound employee grew up across from the Westovers’ farmhouse on 48th Street. “I guess you could say Chuck was a little hell-raiser in school. But kids are kids. We played softball, played on the football team together. He was a grade ahead of me. Everywhere he went he had that damn guitar.”

According to the future singer’s sister, Blanche Dykehouse, the family was not the least bit musical. “Mom got Chuck an Arthur Godfrey ukulele one Christmas,” the 74-year-old Fruitport resident says. “He was about 13 when he got his first guitar. He bought it out of the Sears catalog for, I think, $5.”

Chuck’s dad drove for the road commission, Meerman says. “He knew every mailbox that had a beer in it.” The head of the Westover household was hardly supportive. “You get that God---- guitar outta here,” he told his son.

“Maybe if he hadn’t said ‘get that guitar outta here’, I wouldn’t have been interested in playing,” the shy but determined son would say years later. “Maybe instead I’d be driving a truck.”

The boy’s mother was more understanding. “It’s OK, son,” she said. “You can sing for me.”

He sang and played for anyone who would listen, and more than a few who had no choice. He lugged his guitar down school hallways, into lavatories (where he learned “bathroom acoustics”), and inside the locker room. He was an indifferent student, although he exhibited a knack for writing. He was already experiencing some of the feelings of alienation that would later color his songs. “I was an outcast growing up with a bunch of Christian people,” he once told the Los Angeles Times. “My father didn’t go to church and that was not good news if you lived right in the middle of it.” Another formative experience was getting dumped by his prom date for his rival.

While in high school, he met a bright and lively farm girl named Shirley, who originally agreed to a date on the strength of his sending her the first flowers she had ever received from a boy. “I didn’t like him at first,” Shirley Westover says today. “I thought he was kind of pushy.” But in 1954 they married. He was 19; she was 17. Chuck entered the army and the newlyweds soon found themselves in Stuttgart, Germany. There, Pvt. Westover won a talent contest and played guitar in a band called the Cool Flames. He was discharged in 1957, but after having no luck finding a good job back home, he enlisted in the Air Force with the provision he be stationed in Battle Creek. He stayed in uniform until receiving a hardship discharge because of his father’s brain cancer.

While in Battle Creek, he worked at a furniture store during the day and played rhythm guitar for a small group at the Hi-Lo Club at night. “It was the kind of place roughnecks felt comfortable in,” Max Crook says today. Soon, Chuck Westover was the group’s singer and leader. He called himself Charlie Johnson and renamed the group the Big Little Show Band. In 1959, Crook, a young keyboardist who had formed a band while attending college in Kalamazoo, came aboard, setting up on stage an odd-looking homemade machine he dubbed the Musitron. It was a very early version of the synthesizer, made of tubes, resistors, amplifiers, appliance parts, and wires, and it produced some wonderfully futuristic electronic sounds.

“I got Ann Arbor disc jockey Ollie McLaughlin to come out and hear us play,” Crook recalls. “He took some demos to Irving Micahnik and Harry Balk, who were with Talent Artists in Detroit.” Westover and Crook were signed to New York’s Big Top label in July 1960. Westover was asked to change his name to something more dynamic, so he coupled a contraction for the Coupe de Ville to the name of a wrestler named Mark Shannon. The newly minted “Del Shannon” would always be only his stage name; his legal name would remain the same. After a disappointing recording session in New York, McLaughlin suggested that Shannon re-work one of his earlier songs, “Little Runaway,” with Crook using the Musitron as the lead instrument.

Shannon later recalled how that strategy came about. “We were on stage, and Max hit an A minor and a G and I said, ‘Max, play that again, it’s a great change.’ ” After about 15 minutes of playing unusual chord change over and over, the exasperated club manager bellowed, “Knock it off — play something else.” Shannon, inspired, wrote some lyrics the next day at the furniture store. “That night, I went back to the club and I told Max to play an instrumental on his Musitron for the middle part,” he said, “and when he played that solo, we had ‘Runaway.’ ”

Not quite. There still was plenty of fine tuning. “By the time it came out,” Shirley says, “it was already an oldie-but-goodie to me, because he played it constantly.”

“Runaway,” along with three other songs, was recorded in a single three-hour session at Bell Sound studios in New York in late January 1961. Shannon was nervous and sang flat, so in order to bring his vocals into key, the tape was speeded up. When Shannon first heard it in Detroit, he protested to Balk: “That doesn’t even sound like me!”

“Yeah, but Del,” Balk responded, “nobody knows what the hell you sound like!”

That soon changed. Orders poured in from all over the country. After a radio station in Miami played the song, Big Top received an order from one vendor for an unprecedented 39,000 copies. Boosted by Shannon’s appearance on American Bandstand, the song charged up the Billboard charts, selling as many as 80,000 copies a day. It hit No. 1 in late April and stayed there for a month. Billboard later named it the Song of the Year. According to Crook, who later turned to gospel and spiritual music and today lives in New Mexico, the song’s main appeal was its novelty. “It was unorthodox, a ‘hook’ song. You’ve got the chord progressions, the falsetto, the Musitron.”

Rock’s newest sensation was overwhelmed by the attention. “The screaming kids … when I got to No. 1, Lord, the fear was so great,” Shannon recalled. “I wanted to go back to Coopersville where I was picking strawberries. I said, ‘What am I doing here?’ ” When he finally did get back to Coopersville, his friends and neighbors honored him, but local elders refused to schedule a concert. They were afraid his music was too raucous. He wound up staging an impromptu gig on the back of a pickup truck.

Shannon followed up “Runaway” with “Hats Off to Larry,” which peaked at No. 5. As he continued to chart with “Little Town Flirt” and “The Swiss Maid” in 1962, he was instructed to shave five years off his age and to tell reporters that he was single. Despite the record company’s best efforts, he was miscast as a teen idol. When “Runaway” took off, he was a married 26-year-old army veteran with two kids and a third on the way, living in a mobile home. Management tried to get his “girlfriend” to dress more sophisticated — a fur coat, perhaps. “I said I didn’t want to play dress-up in my mother’s clothes,” says Shirley, one of 13 children brought up with a minimum of frills on the family farm. “But overall, we let managers make decisions for us. We were kind of immature. I figured that’s what we had to do to make it.” Thanks to the success of “Runaway,” Shannon was able to move his young family into a new home in Southfield.

Shannon was extremely popular in England. In 1963, he shared a bill with the up-and-coming Beatles. He asked to record “From Me To You,” making him the first American to cover a Beatles song. For their part, the Fab Four loved “Runaway.” Years later, Paul McCartney remembered thinking “how great and different that song was from the others of the time.” McCartney and John Lennon “took the lovely A-minor chord we heard in ‘Runaway’ and inserted it in ‘From Me To You.’ It was just funny when Del recorded the song, because part of the influence came from him.”

Shannon wrote or co-wrote much of his own material, which was unusual for a rock performer back then. There always was a strain of hurt, loss, and betrayal in his songs, the product of pulling inspiration out of the dark corners of his being. He rarely used the word “love” in his lyrics. “I usually write when I’m in a great place,” he once explained. “When I’m depressed, I don’t usually write. So I take all of when I’m depressed and throw it into when I’m feeling good. Weird, I guess.” One of his compositions, another break-up ballad called “I Go to Pieces,” was recorded by Peter and Gordon in 1965 and became a big seller in the United States and the United Kingdom. He always regretted not releasing the song himself at the time. The hits were drying up.

 

Wishin’ you were here by me/To end this misery …

 

Shannon and his familymoved to Van Nuys, Calif., in 1965, just as he was about to enter the least productive stretch of his career. Having charted 16 singles between 1961 and 1966, including “Keep Searchin’ ” and “Stranger in Town,” he then virtually vanished, the result of changing musical tastes, battles with his managers over royalty payments, and struggles with his own inner demons. Lacking direction, the 1970s became a rudderless blur. Now entering his 40s, he sported snug-fitting bell-bottoms, bushy muttonchops, and an unconvincing comb-over. Although he always hated traveling, he toured England, Australia, and the Philippines, countries where he enjoyed a more loyal following than at home. Just a few years removed from being lauded as an original, he was on his way to becoming a rock ’n’ roll cliché: aging, dissipated, and irrelevant. He smoked weed, snorted cocaine, and popped pills while retaining his old-school vices of tobacco and alcohol. He often was drunk before noon. “I hated the taste of booze,” he once told the Los Angeles Times, “but I liked where it took me — into oblivion.”

 

Shannon (center) in England with British fan Tony Press and Press' wife, 1988. Shannon was highly popular in Britain. (PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF TONY PRESS)

 

{C} “Chuck came from a long line of alcoholics,” says Shirley Westover, who admits that their three children grew up to have problems with substance abuse. “A lot of it is genetic. But alcoholism is a lonely disease. He’d get so wired on stage he could never sleep. He’d go down in the hotel bar or, if he wanted to get away from the fans, he’d drink in his room.”

{C} Adds Crook: “The loneliest thing in the world is to be a traveling star. When we played gigs in New York, you couldn’t leave the room or you’d be swamped with people.” The solution for most musicians was to get drunk or high while enclosed inside four strange walls, depending on downers to fall asleep and uppers to wake up. Crook soon quit the road, but Shannon stuck to the grind throughout his entire career.

{C} In 1978, Shannon joined Alcoholics Anonymous. He surprised many by quitting the bottle for good. Concurrent with his newfound sobriety was an uptick in his professional fortunes. In 1979, he discovered the Los Angeles band Smith and arranged their hit remake of the old Shirelles tune, “Baby, It’s You.” He also produced Brian Hyland’s million-selling single, “Gypsy Woman.” Tom Petty, who was 10 years old when “Runaway” came out, was a longtime fan. In 1981, he produced Drop Down and Get Me, Shannon’s first album in nearly a decade, with Petty and his Heartbreakers backing him in the studio. His version of “Sea of Love” was released as a single, putting Shannon back on the pop charts for the first time in 15 years. In 1986, another longtime fan, Miami Vice producer Michael Mann, made “Runaway” (with reworked lyrics) the theme of his stylish new television series, Crime Story. A quarter-century after he had introduced his signature song to the country on American Bandstand, the 51-year-old rocker gave a spirited performance for a new generation on Late Night with David Letterman, with Paul Shaffer handling Max Crook’s solos on the keyboard.

{C} Bookings and royalties allowed Shannon to enjoy a comfortable, if far from opulent, lifestyle. He and Shirley owned a home in Sand Canyon, a one-acre property shaded by maple and oak trees. Shannon drove a Honda Gold Wing and bought a new Cadillac every other year. Throughout all the highs and lows of his career, he remained essentially the same person who had once picked strawberries and sold carpeting in western Michigan. In the 1960s, he had helped struggling artists like Bob Seger and Johnny Carver get a leg up in the business, footing the bill for Seger’s demo recordings and passing them on to Dick Clark.

{C} “I remember when Chuck would fly into Grand Rapids,” Earl Meerman says. “I worked at a gas station then. He’d get a limo and visit, and we’d chew the fat for a couple hours. He never changed.” Shannon bought his mother a house in California, close to his, after his father died. “Chuck was very generous,” Shirley says. “When he was with AA, he’d always leave food baskets on porches — you know, knock and run. He’d put a $100 bill in people’s cars while they were inside at a meeting.” The singer “reached out to friends and strangers alike, taking a genuine interest in their well-being,” remembered music writer Dawn Eden. “But the flip side of sensitivity is vulnerability, something he knew only too well.”

{C} His creativity sprang from a melancholic core. Too often, he resembled the restless and frustrated characters he sang about. “You could see it in the way he went from record company to record company, artist to artist, during his career,” Crook says. “He was always very self-critical. He was never really satisfied with his work.”

{C} All told, Shannon recorded for eight labels, his later efforts often generating critical praise but lukewarm sales. Having released an album of hard-core Hank Williams honky-tonk and a psychedelic-flavored LP called The Further Adventures of Charles Westover to limited commercial success, he belatedly came to accept that his pop-rock classics were what the public was most interested in. “So I do me, and me is my hits,” he told a reporter backstage at an oldies concert in 1989. “I’m out there really to satisfy the people.” More than one reviewer commented that, unlike his contemporaries on the nostalgia circuit of nightclubs, state fairs, amusement parks, and reunion shows, Shannon didn’t appear jaded, even as he performed “Runaway” for the umpteenth time.

 

And I wonder /{C} I wah-wah-wah-wah-wonder …

 

{C} Shirley Westover, like{C} others who knew Shannon intimately, today describes him as being manic-depressive, a major affective disorder thought to be more prevalent among creative types. “He was always up or down,” she says from her Las Vegas home. “There was never a middle with him. I just didn’t recognize it at the time. Then with the alcohol and the drugs — it affected his behavior, so you would attribute his mood swings to that.”

{C} Tired of her husband’s alcoholism, affairs, and near-constant touring, she had wanted out of the marriage for a long time. “But I could never leave him until he was sober. I was very afraid that he was suicidal.” She finally left in 1985, ending 31 years of marriage. “At first, we separated. He didn’t really mind the separation until he realized that I wasn’t coming back, that we were getting a divorce.”

{C} She remained worried about his bouts of despondency, even as they embarked on separate journeys. In late 1987, the singer remarried. The new bride was LeAnne Gutierrez, a neighbor’s daughter who was half his age and who had a young daughter of her own. “He still loved Shirley,” Crook says. “He couldn’t let go.” The divorced couple regularly talked on the phone, but a rapprochement was out of the question, at least as far as Shirley was concerned. “Chuck told LeAnne that he’d leave her if I ever decided to come back,” she says. “I think she drove him to the bullet.”

LEFT: Del Shannon, when he was still known as Chuck Westover, on his wedding day with his wife Shirley in 1954. (PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF RICHARD BAK)

{C} Shannon’s last performance was portentous. On Feb. 3, 1990, he played at a memorial concert for Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. (“Big Bopper”) Richardson in Fargo, N.D. The three rockers had perished in a plane crash one winter evening in 1959, a tragedy immortalized by songwriter Don Mc-Lean as “the day the music died.” Five nights later, Shannon’s wife and stepdaughter came home from shopping. At 11:30 p.m., LeAnne stepped into the darkened den, a favorite space filled with gold records and pricey instruments. She found the 55-year-old singer slumped sideways in a chair, facing the doorway. “He was wearing only a bathrobe, and his hairpiece was missing,” reported the medical examiner dispatched to the scene. “There was a hole in his right temple from a .22 caliber rifle, which was lying beside him on the floor. His eye sockets were, as expected, black and blue from the trauma. He had been dead for a few hours.”

{C} There was no suicide note, leaving others to wonder over what dark impulse had taken hold of him. He and LeAnne had just moved into a $260,000 house on Saddleback Road in Canyon Country, but he seemed disoriented in the new surroundings. Shannon, who had visited a psychologist two days before his death, was said to be worried about an upcoming IRS audit. He also was suffering from a stubborn sinus infection. Later, there were rumors that he had found out that he would not, as he had hoped, be invited to replace the late Roy Orbison in the Traveling Wilburys, a super-group composed of Petty, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and Jeff Lynne. (The group later recorded a version of “Runaway” in his honor and Petty finished the album he had been producing for Shannon.) Over the last few weeks of his life, Shannon had appeared increasingly lethargic. He’d lost weight and his zest for playing music. He canceled an upcoming tour in England.

{C} The autopsy revealed no alcohol or illegal drugs in his system. However, in mid-January, he had visited a psychiatrist, hoping to break out of his funk. He came home with a prescription for a new anti-depressant, introduced just three years earlier, which was more effective and didn’t produce the same side effects of other drugs, such as weight gain and high blood pressure. “It’s not really a drug, it’s a chemical,” he told LeAnne. “It’ll help me over the hump I’m in.”

{C} The psychiatrist had prescribed Prozac. “I watched him turn into somebody who was agitated, pacing, had trembling hands, insomnia, and couldn’t function,” LeAnne said when she sued the drug maker, Eli Lilly. The suit, just one of many filed at the time by the families of Prozac patients who had experienced suicidal fantasies or who had committed violence upon themselves or others, was later dropped. In 2004, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration started requiring pharmaceutical companies to include label warnings on their anti-psychotic drugs. This was cold comfort to Shannon’s fans, friends, and family members.

{C} To this day, some people close to Shannon continue to believe he was murdered, though homicide detectives found no evidence of foul play. “It’s a tough deal, that music business,” Earl Meerman reflects. “It’s not all gravy. You’re riding No. 1 today, and the next day, you’re a nobody. Things got a little tough for him. Life got more than he could handle. He’s thinking, ‘There’s only one way out of this, baby.’ ”

 

My little runaway /{C} Run, run, run, run, runaway …

 

{C} “Del Shannon was many{C} years ahead of his time,” a critic wrote upon his death. “He never imitated anybody, and he never sounded like anybody but Del Shannon.” A half-century after “Runaway” topped the charts in 21 countries, it remains one of the most instantly recognizable songs on the planet. Among other honors, the recording was enshrined in the Grammy Hall of Fame, and Rolling Stone named it one of the greatest songs of all time. In 1999, Del Shannon was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, ostensibly for a lifetime’s work, but principally on the strength of that one song. Airplay and downloads of “Runaway” continue to generate royalties in the low six-figure range each year, a haul that is divided between his heirs and co-writer Max Crook.

Del Shannon recorded other hits, but nothing came near the success of 1961's "Runaway."

 

There is no gravesite for Chuck Westover; he was cremated and his ashes spread in the Nevada desert. But because of the nature of music in this digital age, Del Shannon enjoys a form of immortality unique to recording artists. Not too long ago, one of his nieces was being wheeled into the operating room when she groggily recognized the faint, familiar sounds of “Runaway” being played somewhere in the hospital. The ubiquity of her brother’s music is comforting to Blanche Dykehouse. “I’ll be doing something and some thoughts of him will cross my mind, and then I’ll hear one of his songs playing,” she says. “It’s like he’s still with us.”


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