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