Renι de Bruin
|n April 1961 the song "Runaway" topped the American and
British charts. The song was very original, with its verse based
on a progression of Am-»G-»F-»E chords and a surprising Musitron
solo in the middle. With this song American singer and composer
Del Shannon proved that not only British artists were busy
renewing the idiom of pop music at that time. Remembering
Shannon, Renι de Bruin here describes his career and lists his
Doug DeMott, Loren Dugger, and Del Shannon, playing at the Hi-Lo Club (1959)
Collecting the music of Del Shannon. In previous contributions to this journal, I have been informing its readers about the early recording career of Roy Orbison. Time certainly does seem to run very fast, because it is already fifteen years since he passed away. That is also an important reason why I'm trying to keep the memory alive of the man with the dark sun glasses at least a part of with my stories and song information. As I told the readers of these pages before, my interest in Orbison began at an early age. But when I really started to collect his records, it made me cross a bridge and I also started collecting the work of other artists from the same era. As a result, I now would like to introduce you to the also late Del Shannon. It may seem a contradiction to be a collector of two of such different artists as Orbison and Shannon, but in my own way of experiencing music this seems just a natural thing to do.
Why Del Shannon? What is so special about Del Shannon, that it drew my attention to him? Part of it is that he's not very well known on the mainland of Europe. Actually my interest in his work started in the same way as with Roy Orbison. I clearly recall the days when I was working in a metalworking company. Indoors it was quite noisy there, most of the times to such a degree that one needed to wear earplugs. However, there was still a radio on the shop floor that sometimes was audible when the noise subsided temporarily. One day this happened between 12.00 and 14.00 hours, right at the time that a program was aired on Dutch Radio 2, hosted by Frits Spits. Without any disrespect, you can call Spits a "dinosaur" of Dutch radio. This deejay was and still is on the radio for as long as I can remember, that is over thirty years at least. In his program "the album of the week" was a regular item. That time it was Rock On by Del Shannon. The songs hit a string inside me that couldn't be silenced afterwards, even more so because in the evening, after having arrived home, I kept hearing the tracks of the album that continued to be played on the radio. It didn't took me long to buy the album. From there off, I went thirty years back in time, when I bought a CD titled Looking Back ... His Biggest Hits, released on the Connoisseur's Collection label and containing a stunning thirty tracks from "Runaway" till "Move It On Over". This was my first acquaintance with Shannon's older work, except of course for world-famous songs like "Runaway" and "I Go To Pieces".
Expanding my collection. With both these albums my collection of Shannon had started and along with it came the urge to fill the gap by finding more song material, and also the drive to learn more about the man behind this music. Of course I was very late in starting a Shannon collection, because his recording career had already begun at the end of 1959. Here, I will try to cover the different periods in his musical career, concentrating on the CD releases. On vinyl Shannon's work was covered in Britain and over Europe by labels such as London American Recording, Liberty and Stateside. In Germany, there was a re-issue company, named Line Records. During the 1980's this particular label re-released all of Shannon's 1960's albums with the original sleeves, but all in mono. As we shall see, there is a long story to tell about managers, disappearing and sometimes refound stereo-mastertapes, rechanneled albums, as well about the fact how disturbed Shannon was by all these procedures. But, I will pick up the history at the very beginning: the day Shannon was born.
Del Shannon with Dion DiMucci and Joe Brown in England (1962)
A birth date change. As a teenager Charles nicknamed Chuck worked in a carpet store, where he used his spare time to write songs and to play the guitar. In the evenings he played with a band in a Battle Creek based club in Michigan named the "Hi-Lo Club". In 1959, when he was making himself heard at that club, Del Shannon already was 25 years old. Due to a deliberate birth date change, many people thought and still think he was younger by a few years. The reason for that is, that Shannon's birth date was changed at the time "Runaway" was released. Shannon's songs then were mainly bought by teenagers, while Shannon himself didn't belong to that category anymore. So to maintain the youthful impression people had of him, his birth date was altered into 30 December 1939. You can see this date mentioned on a lot of so-called "budget" LP's and CD's, and sometimes even on CD's such as EMI/Liberty's The Liberty Years. According to his birthday-certificate and tombstone, Charles Weedon Westover Shannon's real name however was four years older, as he was born on 30 December 1934 in Coopersville, Michigan.
Max Crook's Musitron. It is also in that club that Shannon and Max Crook met each other. It was a happy coincidence, because Crook not only was a good keyboard player, but also an innovator of electronic devices. He invented what is now known as a Musitron, a hybrid syntheziser. Crook started with a clavioline, a French organ developed by Constant Martin in 1947, and enhanced it by expanding the octave range beyond human hearing. He inserted extra resistors, pots, and capacitors. It not easy to catch the specific sound of the Musitron in words, but you can hear its sound very well on Shannon's first album Runaway with Del Shannon. The best example, of course, is Shannon's milestone song "Runaway" itself. The Musitron can be described as a predecessor of the synthesizer. It has a range of electronic sounds that in the early sixties were quite unfamiliar to the public. When you listen to songs from other artists from the same period, you will realize how innovative and modern this record sounded in 1961. It is also understandable that even over forty years later, a whole lot of people will recognize this tune just by hearing the first few bars.
A multi-styled artist. As always, every pro has its con, and that also happened to Del Shannon. The original sound of "Runaway" made every song he released later on, seem of a lesser quality. That is clearly reflected by his scores on the charts. The merit of his songs, however, did not diminish. In the public appreciation, his style diversity must have played a more important role. Though Shannon was a "rocker" at heart, he was always a multi-styled artist with a great passion for country music. He was simply one of those legends in music that couldn't be categorized. In the USA, with its separated musical streams and audiences, this made it rather difficult for him to stay in the spotlights. In Great Britain, however, Shannon was often better appreciated, and has always been rated "top of the bill". He also had a good feeling for things to come. Remember, it was Del Shannon, who brought the first Beatles-song to the USA-audiences "From Me To You," issued as early as 1963.
Del Shannon with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr in Miami, Florida (1964)
Coping with the British invasion. The people, who knew Shannon's old style, possibly couldn't cope with the new influences and direction in his music. Shannon was a "bridge" between country, rock, pop and who knows what else. He was an energetic performer and a wonderful songwriter. A major part of his catalogue consists of songs originally written by Shannon himself, some in cooperation with others. When Shannon's career slowed down under the influence of the British Invasion, his producer forced him to record songs that were popular at that time. This proved to be a major mistake, because a lot of those covers just weren't his style and therefore Shannon recorded them only half-heartedly. Not on purpose, but only because he could not "connect" to them. On some tracks this is painfully noticeable. In 1963 Shannon had a major fall-out with his manager, which made him leave the Big Top label for Europe: London American records. Consequently he started his own label, BerLee Records not a common step in those days. Only two singles emerged from this adventure: "Sue's Gotta Be Mine" / "Now That She's Gone" and "That's The Way Love Is" / "Time Of The Day". Afterwards Shannon signed a contract with Amy records where his former producer and manager also ran the scene.
A psychedelic swan song. Strangely enough one of Shannon's best songs, "I Go To Pieces" brought to the charts by Peter and Gordon stems from this post-1963 period. In 1966 Shannon switched to the Liberty Label. This change brought a new management and a fresh producer and seemed like a restart for Shannon, but it didn't bring the commercial break everybody was hoping for. After two albums, filled with his own compositions and a variety of covers, Liberty refused Shannon's third album which working title was Home and Away this entire album stayed unreleased till 1991 when it was integrated in the Liberty Years CD/Musicassette from EMI. The swansong album for Shannon for Liberty became the psychedelic The Further Adventures Of Charles Westover, produced by Andrew Loog Oldham of Rolling Stones fame. Only in the late 1990's all these albums were re-released on CD by English company Beat Goes On (BGO) Records.
Antique stereo. Before continuing this history, I need to tell a special story about Shannon's early managers and producers and the question if there were and still are original stereo-recordings of Shannon's earliest albums. It is common knowledge that the first stereo-recordings were made around 1958. It is also common knowledge that the first stereo facilities were situated in New York City. The very first professional recordings of Shannon were made in ... exactly: New York City. Of course, the stereo of those days cannot be compared with that of the present time. I like to refer to it as "antique stereo", meaning that it is just two-track stereo you hear the music in one channel and the vocals in the other. Little later, also three-track stereo was used, with the music divided over two channels with the vocals in the "middle" providing the audience with the feeling of being more "inside" the music.
Del Shannon with Chuck Berry at the Saville Theatre, England (February 1967)
Stereo mastertapes. The existence of stereo studio facilities at the time of his recording sessions brings up the question, if Shannon was recorded in stereo and if these recordings resulted in stereo-LP's. This question can simply be answered with one word and that word is "yes", but there's a story behind it of what happened to the stereo master tapes. After Shannon had left Big Top and later AMY, his manager Irving Micahnik somehow, deliberately or not, mismanaged the original mastertapes. For years everybody concerned believed that there were no stereo copies of Shannon's albums. Then suddenly, in the 1990's some stereo-copies of the LP's Runaway with Del Shannon and 1661 Seconds With Del Shannon hit the auctions, drawing astronomical prices. In the early 1990's also the stereo mastertapes, or copies from them, of the albums Del Shannon Sings Hank Williams and Little Town Flirt were discovered on the attic of a garage of a former AMY-records engineer. These tapes were remastered and released by USA-based Rhino-records, thereby bringing the first ever stereo releases of these albums.
Beware of fake stereo. Stereo-copies of the LP's Runaway With Del Shannon and 1661 Seconds With Del Shannon were used to make a mastertape for a CD on the USA Taragon label. All in all, this means that there are only two albums left from which it is unknown if there are still stereo-LP's existing or the original mastertapes. The first of those is Hats Off To Del Shannon and the second is Handy Man, his final album for AMY. If these albums would surface in stereo-quality, they certainly would draw an astronomic price when in "mint" condition. BGO-records from England and Unidisc from Canada have re-released Shannon's original albums on CD. I do need to make a fair warning to all collectors out there. One thing that upset Shannon in a tremendous way is that in the 1970's budget-labels started to rechannel original monotracks to some kind of stereo. Of course those are mutilations of the original sound and, actually, often not worth the price that is asked for them. Once you have heard the original sound in original stereo, you don't know what hit you. The Musitron from Max Crook on the album Runaway is crystal clear and the separation of the instruments brings more details to the surface. A much richer and deeper sound is the result. Rechanneled albums are fake and sound similar to the mono-versions. They were just made in a failed attempt to bring the albums to a modern standard. So be aware whenever you want to buy a stereo record on a fair. Original stereo-albums, if really for sale at all, will cost you at least a month salary!
Del Shannon recording with Jeff Lynne (1974)
Working with Brian Hyland. After Liberty Records, Shannon recorded some singles for Dunhill, United Artists and Island Records, but he disappeared from the front stage. In the background Shannon was still active as producer for a group called Smith, and he also collaborated, for several years, with Brian Hyland. Hyland had a hit with the Del Shannon produced his single "Gypsy Woman". Together they wrote a whole series of songs first examples to be found on the CD The Liberty Years which are hard to find today, especially when you are a European citizen. This is an open invitation to reissue companies to cover this unique period as well in Shannon's as in Hyland's career.
Invited by Tom Petty. The 1970's a period in which Shannon also tried to beat his drinking and depression problems. In these years he also twice re-recorded "Runaway" and "Hats Off To Larry" for budget labels, but these versions could nowhere pass the test of comparison to the original versions, and so they didn't do nothing for Shannon's career. Shannon did overcome all his problems and in the early 1980's he was invited by Tom Petty to record an album again. This resulted in the album Drop Down And Get Me, and a couple of singles that were taken from this album. There is a story about different releases and that is because Britain released the album some time later. In the time in-between Shannon recorded some singles in England that were included in the UK-release. This all resulted in a ten-track USA LP and an eleven-track UK album. The re-release on CD in the late 1990's maintains this difference but here the USA CD (Varese Sarabande) carries twelve tracks and the UK CD (See For Miles) thirteen tracks. The See For Miles issue is actually a second European re-release on CD, because in the early 1990's Line Records from Germany already re-released a thirteen track CD of this album, but the later album is to be preferred as sound techniques did severely improve over time.
A creative decade. The 1980's can be marked as a creative decade for Shannon, even though audiences and fans didn't see or hear very much of it. That is because his recorded work from this decade is mostly still stuck in archives and remains to be released. In these sessions, as is known, Shannon worked with Jeff Lynne on new material in a place called "The Cherokee Ranch". Only a couple of songs appeared here and there on b-sides of singles or as a track on a compilation CD. Among the members of the UK and USA fan club of Shannon a tape, titled the Dublin Sessions, has been circulating. People who have heard it, appreciate songs like "Amanda", "Deadly Game", "I'm Alive, But I'm Dead" and "Jamie" as Shannon's finest work. The album, yet, is still not released and nobody understands why. The story became very painful when Shannon recorded a complete album for Warner Bros America (1986) and the album was shelved entirely. Warner only released two now very much searched for singles from these sessions.
Del Shannon with Tom Petty promoting his hit "Sea Of Love" (1982)
The Nashville sessions. As you can see Shannon was quite productive again, but failed to get much response from his record companies. Especially the refusal by Warner Bros must have hurt him deeply, because it is a marvelous album. It does have a definite country-rock flavor and nowhere sounds as a voice of the past. On the contrary, I would say, Shannon was back as strong as ever. No one at the Warner Bros offices, however, cared to notice it and they certainly have missed an opportunity here. The two singles, mentioned before, even never hit the European market. Shannon was so disappointed, that he dissipated a music-cassette with these recordings among his fans by way of the fan club. Today these tracks are still circulating among Shannon's admirers. Let's hope, that one day a reissue company will pick up these Nashville Sessions and put the album on the market.
The return of the veterans. In 1987 it seems that something was awakening. A new kind of creativity surfaced, especially when it came to the veterans of pop music. In that year George Harrison released his Cloud Nine album. Tom Petty was working on his Full Moon Fever and Roy Orbison was busy with what was going to be his Mystery Girl album besides his revamped song "Crying" in duet with k.d. lang and a new version of "In Dreams" for the original soundtrack of David Lynch's Blue Velvet and Jeff Lynne was simply everywhere and also working on his album Armchair Theatre. Suddenly it seemed as if the balance had turned in the right direction for these "veterans". Shannon seemed to share this mood and started to work, with Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne, on his Rock On album. There was no sign of what was going to happen. A video in my collection shows Shannon working in the studio with Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty. You see the three of them in the process of rehearsing and recording tracks for Rock On. You can also see that the mood was relaxed and everybody was enjoying the event. It still is very surrealistic to me, that just a short time afterwards, Shannon took his own life on the 8th of February 1990. He was recording, performing as he always did and was even rumored to replace Roy Orbison in The Traveling Wilburys. Another rock-legend had passed away leaving a great gap behind. As a tribute, the remaining members recorded "Runaway" as a track on a British only CD-single.
Del Shannon performing in Melbourne, Australia (February 28, 1989)
Lost in a memory. Rock On, the album Shannon was still working on when he passed away, was released in 1991, also to honor this true legend of Rock and Roll and much later the man was rightfully included in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall Of Fame. The people he worked with in the studio made the final musical takes to the vocal takes Shannon had already recorded. It proved to be a catchy album that nowhere sounds old fashioned, not that anyone ever expected that. It showed that Shannon was as good as ever and, as always, in touch with the spirit of the times. It makes you realize that it all ended much too soon. The album makes you long for more, but to phrase it in Shannon's own words: we are just "Lost In A Memory" now.
Re releases. A remarkable and innovative career had ended but Shannon was rediscovered after the tragic events of 1990. Since then, with the exception of the earlier mentioned sessions, his entire catalogue has been re-released in several countries like England (BGO-records and See For Miles Records), Canada (Unidisc) and Australia (Raven Records). Curiously enough, Bear Family Germany hasn't entered the bandwagon but rumors are going that the company is considering a box with songs from the first decade of Shannon's career. I really would welcome that, because collectors know that Bear Family is really top quality in research, sound and packaging, especially when it comes to CD-boxes. It would be a true homage to "Chuck", the respect he deserves. I personally hope that all the unreleased material throughout Shannon's career is going to be released, rather sooner than later. I have never seen the reason why record-companies are so timid when it comes to this. My personal point of view is that they can show their integrity and respect to the artists that worked and earned the money for them. I hope that Shannon will live on in the hearts of everybody who has read this story. Thank you and ... rock on!