|Del Shannon in Swinging London, 1963|
While, I don’t usually commemorate the death of celebrities, I will make an exception for Del Shannon, the first superstar that I ever met. He died on this day in 1990 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
He learned ukulele and guitar and listened to country and western music, including Hank Williams, Hank Snow, and Lefty Frizzell.
He was drafted into the Army in 1954, and while in Germany played
guitar in a band called “The Cool Flames”. When his service ended, he
returned to Battle Creek, Michigan,
and worked as a carpet salesman and as a truck driver in a furniture
factory. He found part-time work as a rhythm guitarist in singer Doug
DeMott’s group called “The Moonlight Ramblers”, working at the Hi-Lo
When DeMott was fired in 1958, Westover took over as leader and singer, giving himself the name Charlie Johnson and renaming the band into The Big Little Show Band. In early 1959 he added keyboardist Max Crook, who played the Musitron (his own invention of an early synthesizer). Crook had made recordings, and he persuaded Ann Arbor disc jockey Ollie McLaughlin to hear the band. McLaughlin took the group’s demos to Harry Balk and Irving Micahnik of Talent Artists in Detroit. In July 1960, Westover and Crook signed to become recording artists and composers on the Bigtop
label. Balk suggested Westover use a new name, and they came up with
“Del Shannon”, combining Mark Shannon—a wrestling pseudonym used by a
regular at the Hi-Lo Club—with Del, derived from the Cadillac Coupe de Ville, his favorite car.
Shannon’s first sessions didn’t go well until he was convinced to rewrite an earlier tune, “Little Runaway.” Recorded in January of 1961, and now featuring the Musitron along with Shannon’s trademark falsetto, “Runaway” was released less than a month later. By April it hit #1 on the Billboard chart. A follow-up second single, “Hats Off To Larry,” was also a hit, climbing to the #5 position.
From there, sadly, it was a long, slow, tapering off. Shannon recorded for several labels, but never quite reached the heights of his early career. He became an alcoholic. By the time I met him his career was on the big slide to oblivion, although he was still considered a big star in England.
It was during the summer of 1966 (or was it ’65?) that my mother had a booth at the Michigan State Fair selling everything from Greasy Kids Stuff (the real name of this joke product), to giant sunglasses, to cheap jewellery, which could be professionally engraved on the spot. Think mid-’60s Kitch & Krap™.
Because we had free passes, I went to the fairgrounds with my mother every day. Maybe she thought I was going to help out in the booth, but as soon as the State Fair opened every morning, I was gone, exploring every nook and cranny of the annual event over the next month.
Just catercorner to my mother’s booth was a minuscule amphitheater, sponsored by hometown company Chevrolet. [Anything that seems minuscule to a child, must be very small indeed.] During the first 2 weeks of the State Fair was (almost) hometown boy Del Shannon was booked on that stage, while the next 2 weeks another hometown hero performed, the up-and-comer Little Stevie Wonder.
I was too young to understand the vagaries of show biz and didn’t realize that this little gig meant Del Shannon was already on the way to obscurity, while Stevie Wonders’ was still climbing the ladder to greatness. The trajectories of their respective careers were crossing at this moment in time across this little stage. All I knew at the time was these were 2 guys whose songs I knew by heart because they came out of the radio right in my own house.
I was already a fan of Del Shannon’s so I was excited to see that he was playing several free shows a day right next door. I tried to be in the audience for almost every show, sitting at a table right up front, and cheering and clapping louder than anybody. I even took delight in something I would gag at today. During the fade-out to “Runaway” Shannon slipped in a not-so-subtle product placement:
Yew Ess Eh in your Chevrolet. My little runaway . . . ♪ ♫ ♪
From that day on we were great pals. He would play right at me in the audience while on that little stage and often spent time talking to me after some of his shows. We never talked about Show Biz and I wish I could tell you what we talked about, but it’s long been forgotten. It was just general chit chat that’s meaningless even as it’s being spoken.
When I learned of his suicide from depression in 1990, it was like a light going out on one of the lamps lit during my youth.
[Apologies for the quality of these 2 clips. I couldn’t find better.]