From the plethora of clean, American, post doo-wop male vocalists to find enormous success in the early 60s, only a small handful retained musical credibility. Del Shannon (born Charles Westover) was undoubtedly from this pedigree. More than 40 years after his chart debut, Shannon's work is still regularly played.
Shannon's early musical interests took him under the country influence of the legendary Hank Williams. His first record release, however, was pure gutsy pop; the infectious melody was written by accident while rehearsing in the local Hi-Lo club with keyboard player Max Crook (Maximillian). The song was 'Runaway', a spectacular debut that reached the top of the charts in the USA and UK in 1961, and was subsequently recorded by dozens of admiring artists. The single, with its shrill sounding Musitron (an instrument created by Crook) together with Shannon's falsetto, was irresistible. Johnny Bienstock, who was running Big Top Records in New York, received a telephone order following a Miami radio station's playing of the track. The order was for an unprecedented 39,000 copies. At that stage Bienstock knew he had unleashed a major star. What is not generally known is that Shannon sang flat on all the recordings of the song. Bienstock and a colleague went into the studio overnight, and sped up and redubbed the master tape so that Shannon's voice was at the correct pitch. The record was released a full 10 seconds shorter, and nobody else, including the singer, ever noticed.
Shannon succeeded where others failed, owing to his talent as a composer and his apparent maturity, appealing to the public with a clear youthful strident voice. This paradox was cleared up many years later, when it was discovered that he was five years older than stated. Had this come out in 1961, it is debatable whether he would have competed successfully alongside his fresh-faced contemporaries. His teenage tales of loneliness, despair, broken hearts, failed relationships, infidelity and ultimate doom, found a receptive audience; Shannon rarely used the word 'love' in his lyrics. Even the plaintive, almost happy, 1962 hit 'The Swiss Maid' combined his trademark falsetto with yodelling, ending with the heroine dying, forlorn and unhappy. Between 1961 and 1964 Shannon continued to produce and write his own material with great success, especially in Britain, where his run of 10 consecutive hits ended with 'Sue's Gotta Be Mine' in October 1963. In the interim, he had produced several memorable Top 10 successes, including the bitingly acerbic 'Hats Off To Larry' (also a US Top 5 hit), 'So Long Baby', 'Hey Little Girl', 'Two Kinds Of Teardrops' and 'Little Town Flirt', the latter betraying an almost misogynistic contempt. However, the reworked themes of his songs were beginning to pale, and together with the growth of Merseybeat, Shannon's former regular appearances in the charts became sporadic, even although he was the first American artist to record a Beatles song, 'From Me To You'.
Shannon worked steadily for the next 25 years, enjoying a few more hit singles including a cover version of Bobby Freeman's 'Do You Wanna Dance', followed by 'Handy Man', formerly a hit for Jimmy Jones, from whom he 'borrowed' his famous falsetto. In 1965, 'Keep Searchin' (We'll Follow The Sun)' was Shannon's last major transatlantic success. The song had an elegiac feel, recalling an era of innocence already passed. Throughout the 60s and 70s Shannon was a regular visitor to Britain where he found a smaller but more appreciative audience. He acquired many professional admirers over the years including Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty and Dave Edmunds, who variously helped him rise above his sad decline into a nether world of alcohol and pills. The 1981 Petty-produced Drop Down And Get Me was critically well-received but sold poorly. Ironically, he received a belated hit in America with 'Sea Of Love', which found favour in 1982. This led to a brief renaissance for him in the USA, with a minor country hit ('In My Arms Again') in 1985 for Warner Brothers Records. In 1987 he recorded an unreleased album with Petty, who recruited Lynne and George Harrison to sing backing vocals on the Australian single 'Walk Away'.
Although Shannon was financially secure through wise property investment, he still performed regularly. Ultimately, however, he was branded to rock 'n' roll revival tours that finally took their toll on 8 February 1990, when the severely depressed singer pointed a.22 calibre rifle to his head and pulled the trigger, ending the misery echoed in his catalogue of hits. The Silvertone album Rock On! collected the material Shannon had been recording prior to his death. He was unquestionably one of the great pop artists of the 60s.
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