In praise of Del Shannon

‘Runaway’ by Del Shannon just may be one of the most perfect records ever made.

In praise of Del Shannon

A driving guitar. An other-worldly keyboard solo (what IS that sound?). A powerful, ballsy voice, breaking into a piercing falsetto. An eternal, lost love lyric. It’s one of the most recognisable rock ‘n’ roll songs on the planet, a golden oldie that no golden oldie show could ever be complete without. ‘Runaway’ by Del Shannon just may be one of the most perfect records ever made.

The problem is, it overshadows pretty much every other record he ever made – and he made some good ones, too. His golden run lasted barely five years: ‘Runaway’ crested the U.S. charts in the spring of 1961; by the time he unleashed his magnificent, phasing-enhanced take on Toni Fisher’s ‘The Big Hurt’ in 1966, it was all over. In between though, the classics came thick and fast: ‘Little Town Flirt’, ‘Keep Searchin’ (We’ll Follow The Sun)’, ‘Hats Off To Larry’, ‘Stranger In Town’, ‘Two Silhouettes’. Del took well-known songs and made them hits all over again – ‘Do You Wanna Dance’, ‘Handy Man’ – and he took on obvious winners before anyone else was even thinking about them. Who was the first American to cover the Beatles? Del Shannon, that’s who – he cut ‘From Me To You’ in the summer of 1963.

His albums were pretty cool items too. Pick up his debut, Runaway With Del Shannon and what do you find? Side one, track three: the original version of ‘His Latest Flame’, recorded six months before Elvis took it around the world. Sophomore set Hats Off To Del Shannon? Four hit singles and a bunch of great stuff on the side. Third album Little Town Flirt? How about a moving version of George Jones’ ‘She Thinks I Still Care’? And then there’s ‘Kelly’, a lost classic so good it brought the house down on U.K. tours in the seventies. Great songwriting? Who wrote Peter and Gordon’s ‘I Go To Pieces’? Yep, you guessed it. Del released his own version the following year. You want country rock? Del was way ahead – he cut Del Shannon Sings Hank Williams back in 1965, when the Byrds were still mastering folk-rock, three years before they went off to Nashville. Looking for someone with the guts to cover Roy Orbison? Del’s your man – check out his ‘Running Scared’ on 1965’s One Thousand Six Hundred Sixty-One Seconds With Del Shannon, or ‘Oh! Pretty Woman’ on the following year’s This Is My Bag. Versatile? The man defines the word!

Emerging three years ahead of the British Invasion, Del has been miscast by history as a fifties throwback – the use of ‘Runaway’ on the soundtrack of 1973’s American Graffiti probably didn’t help – but he was there right through the swinging sixties and beyond. It’s just that people stopped listening. How else could his kinetic covers of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Under My Thumb’ (1966) or the Monkees’ ‘She’(1967) fail to hit the mark? But Del kept on keeping on, cutting the superb Home And Away in London with Andrew Loog Oldham at the controls in 1967. For some stupid reason, it failed to get released, although a powerful and inventive reworking of ‘Runaway’ (with violin!) leaked out as a magnificent 45 that only flew in Australia (the album eventually emerged years later and was well worth the wait). A year later came Further Adventures Of Charles Westover (Del’s real name), featuring the mysterious, atmospheric ‘Gemini’ before Del closed the sixties with a handful of interesting singles that nobody got around to buying. Lost classics, all.

The seventies were a darker time, as Del took to the touring circuit to make ends meet. There was a great in-concert set, 1973’s Live In London, an equally great 45 produced by Dave Edmunds, ‘And The Music Plays On’ (1974), a good cover of the Zombies’ ‘Tell Her No’ (1975) and some sparkling 1977 sessions in Dublin (backed by Smackee) that eluded commercial release, but that was about it. The eighties began more promisingly with 1981’s Tom Petty-produced Drop Down And Get Me, which modernised Del’s sound without destroying it (and how many eighties releases can you say that about?). It even got him a hit with ‘Sea Of Love’ but sadly, Del’s demons were beginning to drag him down. There were a couple of 45s cut in Nashville but no album ever appeared. Late in the decade, rumours abounded that Del might replace Roy Orbison in the Travelling Wilburys but the idea was never really considered. Instead, longtime fan Jeff Lynne set about recording a new Del LP, roping in Petty and fellow Wilbury, George Harrison (Bob Dylan went AWOL) for the sessions that produced 1991’s excellent Rock On! Sadly, by the time it appeared in shops, Del was gone, having taken his own life after one disappointment too many, leaving behind an unjustly overlooked legacy.

Overlooked no more! Thanks to the good folk at Edsel, all of Del’s work is now once again available, and in one place, on a bumper value 12 CD set Stranger In Town: A Del Shannon Compendium. It’s all here – more Del than you can shake a stick at. All the albums, stray singles and flip sides, outtakes, scrapped sessions and more, including two discs of demos, Pepsi adverts, alternate takes and live recordings. This is the business. Maybe you don’t think you need need five versions of ‘Runaway’ (oh! but you do…), maybe it’s more Del than anyone really needs, but it’s no more than the man deserves. Yes, he didn’t get the breaks, stifled by record company shenanigans, bad business decisions and all the usual nonsense that wrecks careers, but in a sliding doors moment, it could have gone the other way and it might be Del, rather than, say, Roy Orbison, who gets the plaudits today. Whatever. Del was Del and Del was great and now you can find out for yourself what all the fuss was about. Keep searchin’!

Watch Del Shannon performing the timeless classic “Runaway” in 1961




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Gareth Jones

Gareth Jones is a music connoisseur and the author of the book "French Pop: from Music Hall to Yé-Yé"

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