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The Rock’s Backpages Flashback: “Runaway” Man Del Shannon
Posted Fri Feb 12, 2010 11:38am PST by Mitchell Cohen (1982) in Rock’s Backpages
It is 20 years since the tragic suicide of one of American pop’s most distinctive voices–that of the great Del Shannon, hitmaker of “Runaway,” “Little Town Flirt,” “Hats Off to Larry” and many more. Creem‘s Mitchell Cohen spoke to him as he released a Tom Petty-produced comeback album in the summer of 1982.–Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock’s Backpages
“There was a girl I thought was really in love with me. I mean, my heart would pound when she came around. She gave me her bracelet to wear. Most likely I begged to wear it. I probably pestered her so much she let me wear it…The next day, she was out with this other guy. I took her bracelet off and put it on a railroad track.”
This probably took place a quarter of a century ago, but when Del Shannon tells it, the anguish is right there in his eyes. His songs are made of this stuff, and it’s the reason why his songs sock you in the solar plexus when they come on the radio. He explains about chord changes and country influences, about the clang of his guitar. But the real thread that goes from “Runaway” (1961) to “Sucker For Your Love” (1981) is Del Shannon standing in a hallway and having the most popular girl in school break a date that was made two weeks before.
He was rock’s prototypical refugee, always trying to escape his destiny, so it’s no real surprise that Del Shannon was taken under Tom Petty’s fair-haired wing. Their collaboration, with Petty as sponsor-producer, has been an off-and-on affair since 1979, subject to the usual obstacles–lawsuits, record company sinkings, overseas obligations–that both artists have dealt with in their time. Drop Down And Get Me is a project of patience and faith.
“The key to the whole project was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers,” Shannon says. “When I met him in the office and he said, ‘What are you doing going down to Nashville? You’re a rocker, man!,’ that’s all I really had to hear. His confidence. So I said, okay, we’ll have to wait for this to surface.
“He let me be Del Shannon. He didn’t try to change this much or that much. Here’s how we worked: he’d called me up and say, ‘I’m ready,’ I said, ‘You’re kidding. I’m going to England in three days.’ This is when we first started, in ’79. He says, ‘So what?’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, so what? I don’t need ten hundred years to lay down these rock’n’roll songs. That’s the way I used to cut.'”
All through the ’70s, the word would filter from one rock source or another: Shannon’s recording with Jeff Lynne. He’s at Rockfield working with Dave Edmunds. Island has signed him. He’s gonna do a country record. “I never left the recording studio,” he says. “I just never released a lot of it because I was not ready to do anything. I was drinking too much, smoking too much, and my head wasn’t right. It was too clouded. Four years ago was when I changed my life around, finally, so I could be myself and want to be part of the album. Whereas other times I was so insecure I would just say, ‘You do it.'”
And all through this decade of stop-and-start activity, rock was catching up with a lot of what Shannon had started. In 1965, he made a tribute album to Hank Williams, long before country was cool. His “Musitron” sound predated all electro-pop. You could hear splatters of his mid-period hits in the revved-up love on the run sagas of Springsteen.
He is, of course, aware of his influence. “I’m hearing it more and more. Springsteen, and Petty also, they picked it up and they carried it further. The fact is, ‘everybody’s got a hungry heart’ is a song typical that I would write, yet he has his own touch on it, see. When I heard that record, I just went, ‘My God, what a great ‘Runaway’, ‘Searchin’ record.’ Yet he did it so well. And Elton John was doing ‘Crocodile Rock‘, he got that, possibly, off ‘Cry Myself To Sleep’, which I did a long, long time ago. And it feels good to know that, but it doesn’t really make me wanna walk around a room and say ‘ain’t I something.’ Because I got mine from Hank, and I always wanted to get the old Buck Owens sound on his old records, those ringing, beautiful guitars.”
There was a freakish energy to Shannon’s records that set them apart. The vocal leaps into high registers had a kinship to East Coast pop (Four Seasons, Lou Christie): the instrumental jumble was related to combos like Johnny And The Hurricanes; rockabilly touches snuck in, and Orbison’s operatic angst: he could reach back to songs like “Do You Wanna Dance” and “Handy Man.” But he sounded like nobody else, and he couldn’t miss. Even in the face of the British Invasion that wiped out most of his contemporaries, Shannon thrived, picking up a few tips and passing some on.
“I had that unique thing, I guess, without trying to be conceited. I listen to ‘Keep Searchin” today, and it is a good rock’n’roll song. I had to write. I couldn’t get songs from other people much. If I did, they would sound like my last record. Bobby Vee had all these great songs from Carole King. I could never get a Carole King song.”
As a composer who also had an ear for the apt oldie, Shannon’s future was, unlike so many other early ’60s rockers, very much under his creative control. So when he began slipping, he had no one else to blame. “It was me,” he says. “I ran out. ‘Keep Searchin’‘ was top ten, ‘I Go To Pieces‘ was in the top ten. Artists didn’t really have that going for them much in that year, and I said, ‘I could never top this. I’m going to lose it all.’ Lost the momentum.”
Shannon’s career never came to a full stop: he moved from Detroit to California, where he discovered and managed Smith, who had a hit with “Baby It’s You”; he produced a million-seller, “Gypsy Woman,” for his drinking buddy Brian Hyland (“I said, ‘Let’s get together for a week or two.’ He came out and he stayed two years.”) Liberty and then ABC signed him to recording contracts with healthy guarantees. “It was a great life,” he admits. “I bought mountains, and I bought land, and I couldn’t get no hits.”
And he was always welcome in England, recording site of his only (and sensational) live album (Live In England, 1973, U.A.), England was where he met the Beatles, and Brian Epstein. “He was always around, and he’d ask questions about America. He was so interested in capturing America.” (Del had the first U.S. release of a Lennon-McCartney song, ‘From Me To You’, June 1963). It was where he recorded an ill-fated LP with Andrew Oldham. It was where he had a role in director Richard Lester’s feature film debut. It’s Trad, Dad. “It was four hours of doing the same song, with all those hot lights. I said, ‘What the hell am I doing here?'”
“What the hell am I doing here?” is the theme of Del Shannon’s musical life. It’s the wail of someone always on the outside, feeling alone and persecuted and pursued. The sound of “Stranger In Town,” “I Go To Pieces” (a hit for Peter & Gordon), “Sister Isabelle” (the heartwarming tale of a guy whose girl leaves him to enter a convent). It’s the bitterness of “Hats Off To Larry,” “Little Town Flirt” and Drop Down And Get Me‘s “Life Without You,” “Liar” and “To Love Someone.” And “Runaway.”
“I was tired of doing the same old C, A minor, F and G sounds, which was like ‘Blue Moon’ a hundred times over with different words. One night, Max Crook, at the Hi-Lo Club in Battle Creek, played an A minor and G, and I said, ‘I never heard such a great change.’ I said, ‘Follow me!’ So I went right down the scale. Then I remembered a Hank Williams song called ‘Kaw-Liga‘ where it went from minor to major, and I said, ‘Kick into A major! I’m a walkin’ in…'”
“Runaway,” one of Shannon’s dozen or so classic tracks, and one of rock’s most enduring, mysterious singles, made the charts in March of 1961. That April, Shannon made his big city stage debut at the Brooklyn Paramount, on a bill hosted by Murray The “K” (who died on the same weekend that Shannon made his ’82 return to New York). A 10-year-old kid from the Bronx was taken there, and 21 years later, he shows Shannon the program from that cavalcade of early 60’s rock’n’roll stars.
“This was my first show,” Shannon says. “I was totally awed. Ray Peterson was buying shoes for 50 bucks a pair. I said, ‘I’ll never do that, ’cause this can’t last forever.’ I always thought that.
“They put me in a dressing room with Dion, and I stepped on his foot. I felt like I was back in Coopersville, that hometown I grew up in where everyone rejected me. I felt, ‘S**t, I’m still an outcast and I got the number one song in the nation.’ Dion, in the end, turned out to be a great friend. He said, ‘Look at dose pants’–I had baggy pants–‘Tell ya what I’ll do, take ya cross da street…’ I never heard a live person from New York talk.
“When I met John Lennon, I said, ‘That’s Dion reincarnated.’ Because of the way he came on. I felt a bit of an arrogance. Those kind of people scared me, because they always told you what they really thought.”
“Here’s a song I wrote for a girl who gave it to everybody in town but me.” – D.S. introducing ‘Little Town Flirt,’ February 1982.
On stage, Del Shannon is so imposing–he’s stocky and intense, like Renko on Hill Street Blues, that it’s hard to imagine him being intimidated by anyone. He does 20 songs, all his hits, a Hank Williams tune, most of Drop Down (the material has 66% more urgency live), “Black Is Black,” an ace encore of one of his greatest flops. “Move It On Over” (not the H. Williams/ G. Thorogood song, although Thorogood is in the audience), and every song has that claaaannng. When the song calls for a falsetto jump, he plants his feet and lets it rip. It’s still a cry that goes to the bone.
“I tried to do a song. ‘Oh how happy you have made me.’ I went to Nashville once, my friends got me off the plane–I was tootin’ a little there with the booze–and they took me to the studio and I did ‘Oh How Happy’. I would not release it. My voice doesn’t fit it. My manager once said. ‘You have a teardrop in your throat.’ And that’s what comes out.”
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