One of the most cherished American hitmakers of the early 1960s was born on December 30, 1934. His parents, Bert and Leone Westover, named him Charles and raised him in Coopersville, Michigan, near his birthplace of Grand Rapids. We came to know him as Del Shannon.
Charles grew up as a keen fan of country music heroes such as Hank Williams and Hank Snow, but also admired the vocal prowess of the Ink Spots. His own distinctive singing style, and especially his winning use of falsetto, would serve him well when he made his chart breakthrough, but not until he had become a devoted student of the guitar.
Indeed, it was as a guitarist, and a soldier, that Charles worked on the US Army’s Get Up And Go radio show in Germany, where he was on a three-year tour of duty. Back in the States, he played in bands with various frontmen before landing a deal in 1960 with Talent Artists, who subcontracted Del, as he now was, to Johnny Bienstock’s Big Top label.
By the early part of 1961, that was proving to be smart business, and Del was on his way to becoming an international star with the sensational “Runaway.” The follow-up, “Hats Off To Larry,” was another inventive smash, as Shannon swiftly honed his reputation as both a singer and songwriter. UK tours, and an appearance in the British music movie It’s Trad, Dad, helped cement his transatlantic audience, which became more loyal than that at home.
That Anglo-American connection was strengthened further when Del toured the UK with the fast-rising Beatles in 1963, and then famously became the first artist to hit the Hot 100 with a Lennon–McCartney song, “From Me To You.” As the 1960s progressed, the going became tougher for Shannon, as it did for many of his compatriots, and his last major hit single was “Keep Searchin,’” in early 1965.
Many more great releases followed, and Del supported his international profile with frequent touring. An updated “Runaway ’67,” for example, became a Top 20 hit in Australia, produced by Andrew Loog Oldham. It’s not always remembered that Shannon also became a distinguished producer and arranger. Within the space of a few months in 1969 and 1970, his arrangement of LA band Smith’s remake of the Shirelles’ “Baby It’s You,” and then his production of Brian Hyland’s cover of the Impressions’ “Gypsy Woman,” both became Top 3 US hits.
A liaison with Jeff Lynne for two singles on Island in 1973 was sadly unrecognised, but when another great admirer, Tom Petty, sought Shannon out, the results were more successful. Drop Down And Get Me, produced by Petty and released in 1981, produced a Top 40 hit with a remake of Phil Phillips’ “Sea Of Love.”
There were later deals and collaborations, and the prospect of Shannon replacing the late Roy Orbison in the Traveling Wilburys, with Lynne, Petty and their confederates George Harrison and Bob Dylan. Sadly, Del’s inner demons gained the upper hand, and he took his own life in 1990. But dip into his best work and you’re immediately affected by the invention and passion of this American pop original.
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