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.”

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