Charles Weedon Westover was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan on December 30, 1934. He was working days as a carpet salesman and nights as a club performer when his keyboardist, Max Crook, happened upon an unusual chord progression. The two worked it into a song, “Runaway,” and recorded it for Big Top Records.
“Runaway” introduced the musitron, an early kind of synthesizer, and hit #1 in April 1961. It also introduced to the world “Del Shannon,” a stage name Charles concocted from that of a friend, Mark Shannon, and the Cadillac Coupe de Ville automobile (Cad-DEL-ac). At the same session, a follow-up hit, “Hats Off To Larry,” was also recorded. There was even a third Top 40 entry in 1961: “So Long Baby.”
Following his 1962 hit “Little Town Flirt,” Del went to England, where he appeared in the movie “It’s Trad, Dad.” While touring with the up-and-coming Beatles, Shannon asked for permission to record and release one of their songs in the U.S. John Lennon replied, “That would be great, mate,” allowing Del to become the first American artist to score with a Beatles song (“From Me To You”) in the United States. Shannon’s 1964 hits were also fresh interpretations of other artists’ material: Jimmy Jones’ “Handy Man” and Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Wanna Dance.”
While touring in 1965, “someone cut all of our tires,” Del recalled. “I didn’t mind because I had a really hot song in my pocket — an idea. We’ll follow the sun.” From that came ”Keep Searchin’,” his final Top 10 success. Its follow-up, “Stranger In Town,” reached #30. Shannon’s song “I Go To Pieces” became a Peter & Gordon hit in 1966. In 1969, he discovered the group Smith and arranged their hit, “Baby It’s You.” The next year, he produced Brian Hyland’s ”Gypsy Woman.” Elton John’s 1973 chart-topper “Crocodile Rock” was a salute to the sound of Del’s ”Runaway.”
Tom Petty produced Shannon’s final hit, 1981’s “Sea Of Love,” his first ride on the Hit Parade in 16 years. Backing Del on that record was Petty’s own band, The Heartbreakers. Restlessness, loneliness and heartbreak were recurring themes in Del Shannon’s music, and life. On February 8, 1990, he shot himself to death. Nine years later in 1999, Del Shannon entered The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and the Hit Parade Hall of Fame in 2009.