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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(page 4 of 5)

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.’ ”

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