Tag Archives: runaway

Birth of a “Runaway” Hit

“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!

Del and Gene

Me and Del were singin’ Little Runaway, I was flyin’  – Tom Petty, Running Down a Dream

Del Shannon, whose bio was remarkably similar to ...

Last week, I wrote about rock and roll pioneer Gene Vincent, who after changing his name, became world-famous on the strength of his first single, Be-Bop-A-Lula. He later saw his career flourish in England while it stagnated stateside, befriended and influenced the Beatles among others, and died prematurely in Santa Clarita.

Today marks the 21st anniversary of the passage of another local rock and roll legend. This singer also changed his name shortly before scoring a worldwide number one hit. He was later largely forgotten in America, but had legions of fans in England, and at the time of his death he was rumored to have been planning on joining former Beatle George Harrison in the Traveling Wilburys. He also died prematurely in Santa Clarita.

This legend’s name was Del Shannon, who was born Charles Westover in Grand Rapids, Michigan. During the early 60s, Charles was busy selling carpets after a stint in the army when he decided to change his name (getting his new moniker from the names of a friend and a Cadillac) and write a song called Runaway. The song, with Shannon’s signature falsetto backed by organist Max Crook’s Musitron, was released 40 years ago this month on February 14, 1961.  It reached number one on both sides of the Atlantic a few months later.

Shannon, like Vincent, had a few follow-up hits after his smash debut, but nothing to approach Runaway in popularity, and his career in America soon stalled. He still maintained a sizable following in England where Del became the first American to record a cover of a Beatles song, charting From Me To You months before the Beatles released their own version of the single.

... Gene Vincent.

At the end of his life, Shannon was working with Tom Petty, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, and Jeff Lynne, who were all members of the group The Traveling Wilburys. He was rumored to be replacement in the band for Roy Orbison, who had recently passed away.

But it was not to be. Shannon, who suffered from depression and alcoholism, killed himself with a .22 caliber rifle at his home just off of Sand Canyon on February 8, 1990. His wife later unsuccessfully sued Eli Lilly & Company after his suicide, blaming Prozac for his death.

The four remaining members of the Traveling Wilburys recorded their own version of Runaway as a tribute after Shannon’s death.

Del Shannon and Gene Vincent have one additional thing in common – they were both posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.