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The Riff

Imagine Hearing Del Shannon’s ‘Runaway’ in 1961

Shannon’s haunting voice and the mystifying Musitron created a completely new sound

A Del Shannon record today is as immediately identifiable as when it crackled from a transistor radio 60 years ago. Shannon’s debut single, “Runaway,” was released in February 1961, a year when Billboard’s top three singles were “Tossin’ and Turnin’” by Bobby Lewis, “I Fall to Pieces” by Patsy Cline and “Michael” by the Highwaymen.

Shannon was born Charles Westover in Grand Rapids, Michigan. By 1958, Shannon sold carpet by day and played guitar by night at a local club, where he met keyboardist Max Crook at a Battle of the Bands contest.

Crook, an electronics geek, recorded some of Shannon’s earliest songs and they began to write together. Shannon’s voice was paired with one of Crook’s inventions: the Musitron, an electric keyboard that pre-dated the Moog synthesizer by three years. The Musitron created one of rock’s most memorable instrumental breaks.

“We were playing at the Hi-Lo nightclub in Battle Creek, Michigan, a few nights a week and Del decided he was getting tired of the same-old, same-old blues progression songs. Let’s try something different, Del told me,” Crook recalled in Forbes magazine.

“So he started singing random words — some here, some there. Then he told me to play something for the musical bridge in the middle of the song. At that time, I had built a little instrument called the Musitron, and it was sitting alongside the keyboard of the piano. So when the time came to make the bridge, I just played what came out of my head. What you hear on the record is precisely what I came up with on the Musitron, with no changes whatsoever.”

Harry Balk of Detroit’s Talent Artists arranged for the pair to record “Runaway” in January 1961 at New York’s Bell Sound Studios with Balk producing.

“Runaway” by Del Shannon

Crook brought his Musitron from Grand Rapids to New York, where he set it up before skeptical engineers at Bell, then one of the first four-track studios in the world. Shannon’s website explains that when Balk returned to Detroit, he felt that Shannon’s singing was flat and should be re-recorded. Instead, Bell engineers sped up Shannon’s vocals to nearly one-and-a-half times its original speed.

When Shannon heard the way his voice was manipulated, Balk recalled, he was angry.

“He said, ‘Harry, that doesn’t even sound like me!’ I just remember saying, ‘Yeah, but Del, nobody knows what the hell you sound like!’ Two weeks after its release, forget it! It’s selling 50,000. It’s selling 60,000. Eventually, it topped off selling 80,000 records a day. After ‘Runaway’ became a million-seller, Del came in and thanked me for what I had done.”

Tom Petty paid tribute to Shannon in 1989’s “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” Petty sings, “Trees flew by / Me and Del were singin’ little ‘Runaway’

“Runnin’ Down a Dream” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

“Runaway” reached №1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the spring of 1961 and stayed on top of the charts for four weeks. While “Runaway” has been recorded by everyone from Elvis Presley to Bonnie Raitt to the Traveling Wilburys, one of the most surprising covers was by Lawrence Welk in 1962.

Shannon followed “Runaway” with memorable hits like “Hats Off to Larry,” “Little Town Flirt” and “Keep Searchin’ (We’ll Follow the Sun).” The hits dried up in the 1970s but in 1981, Shannon reached the Top 40 with “Sea of Love,” which Petty produced.

“Sea of Love” by Del Shannon

Shannon was plagued by depression and took his own life in 1990. “This business will eat you up,” Shannon said of fleeting success in the music industry. “If it becomes your love and you don’t have humans to love, I think you’re in a lot of trouble.”

Shannon was inducted posthumously in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999.

Check out my book, Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever, available on Amazon.

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