“Me and Del were singin’ “Little Runaway,” I was flyin’”
– Runnin’ Down A Dream, Tom Petty
When you do the math, it all adds up, but it’s still hard to believe that 50 years ago this week, the entire country was singing Runaway by Del Shannon.
In one sense, the song seems younger than that; in another, it seems much older. That’s because a song like Runaway seems to have existed forever.
It didn’t, of course. Like everything else, the song had a birthday, and that day was January 24, 1961, the week of JFK’s inauguration, when it was recorded at Bell Sound studios in New York.
The story of the song, and of it’s creators, begins three years earlier in “Cereal City” – Battle Creek, Michigan (so named because it’s the headquarters for Kellogg’s and Post).
Charles Westover had returned to Battle Creek a few years earlier after being drafted into the service. He started playing guitar with a band at a rowdy establishment called the Hi-Lo Club, and eventually became its leader.
Needing a keyboardist, Westover, now using the stage name Del Shannon, tried out an organist from Ann Arbor named Max Crook. Crook auditioned on his own hand-made early synthesizer, which he called a Musitron.
Del and Max hit it off immediately, and began writing songs together. After cutting a couple of unsuccessful singles, the band was back at the High-Lo Club, where one night in October 1960, Max began bouncing between the “A-minor” and “G” chords and the group followed. For the next twenty minutes, the band experimented while the crowd looked on dumbfounded. They ended the impromptu jam session when the owner of the club insisted they play something else.
The next day, Shannon wrote the lyrics for the song between tending customers at the carpet store where he worked. The band performed the completed song live that night for the first time.
The song became an immediate local hit, and the band obligingly played it several times a night during their sets.
Soon, they were on their way to New York for the recording, and Del and Max, along with their wives, drove the 700-mile trip together in the dead of winter in Shannon’s 1957 Plymouth. The four had to be layered in blankets, as the heater didn’t work, and the windows didn’t roll all the way up.
On arriving at Bell Sounds, electronics-whiz Crook annoyed the seasoned technicians when he set about rewiring the studio to achieve the sound he desired.
The men, accompanied by a couple of session musicians, completed Runaway and three other songs in only three hours. Shannon’s falsetto on the take was later enhanced when it was discovered that he was singing flat on part of the recording, and the tape was sped up.
(During the session, Shannon’s wife Shirley and Crook’s wife Joann left to see the sites in Manhattan. The ladies poked their heads onto the set of the game show Beat The Clock and Joann got chosen to be a contestant!)
After the session, the four piled back into the Plymouth and made the icy trip back to Battle Creek. On arrival, Shannon presented the first copy of Runaway to the owner of the carpet store for letting him write the lyrics on company time.
Within three weeks the single was released, and on April 24 it reached the top of Billboard’s charts where it would remain for a month.
The single would eventually sell millions of copies, and secure a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for Shannon in 1999 (Crook, one of the true pioneers of the synthesizer, has inexplicably been overlooked so far).
On a more personal note, Del and Max had an additional reason to celebrate, as both their wives gave birth to babies on the same day – nine months after their husbands had given birth to Runaway in New York!