Charles Westover was born in 1934 in Grand Rapids, Michigan and grew up in Coopersville, a small farming town. As a child his mother taught him to play the ukulele and by 14 he was a proficient guitar picker. His guitar became everything to the young teenager and when he was sent to school detention, which was quite often, it was to the changing rooms where Charles learned all about sound acoustics in a confined space. Later as a young musician, working the Michigan clubs, he developed a series of minor chords and riffs which he put to good use in his recording career. Charles had an untrained voice but with an amazing vocal range including a powerful falsetto. After being drafted (he served his time on Germany), he returned to Michigan and worked as a carpet salesperson by day and country-rock musician by night. He took the stage name Del after a car model, the De Ville Del, made by Cadillac Coupe de Ville and Shannon was the surname of his friend, Mark Shannon. Once discovered he moved to New York and recorded "Runaway" (1961) which became an instant international hit.
Featured in Runaway was an early form of synthesiser called the musitron. Now under the management of Irving Micahnik and Harry Balk of EmBee Productions Del wrote most of his own material and favoured brooding themes of abandonment, loss, and teenage rejection. All of which had mass appeal to male adolescents in particular. He followed Runaway with Hats Off to Larry (both recorded in a single day), then So Long, Baby which sold less well.
Keen to keep him fresh the company flew Del to Nashville to develop a new sound. He recorded Roger Miller's "The Swiss Maid" but this did nothing in the US although it became a smash hit in the UK.
His next two singles "Little Town Flirt" and "Two Kind of Teardrops" re-established his popularity.
In the UK he met and worked with the Beatles and was so impressed with the Fab Four he recorded a version of ‘From me to you’ (1963). Not only was he the first American artist to cover a Lennon and McCartney composition, his version scored higher in the US charts then the Beatles.
About this time Del fell out with his record company over unpaid royalties and left EmBee Productions to start his own label, BerLee Records. His former manager, Irving Micahnik had Del Shannon blackballed in the industry with the threat of legal action to any label signing the artist. In early 1964, Del rejoined EmBee and started to work with a young Bob Seger but by the end of the year had signed with Amy Records. There he met the Royaltones who became his backing band. Two new singles made the charts i.e. Handy Man and Do You Wanna Dance.
These were cover versions of originals but he was able to use his own compositions too. 'Keep Searching ' and "Stranger In Town", were chart successes.
Del also wrote "I Go To Pieces," which was recorded by Peter and Gordon (1965).
Another change of label found Del working in California where he cut a version of the Rolling Stone, Under my thumb. The single did well locally but failed to become a national hit.
In the very late 60s, Del Shannon came to London and had a brief working relationship with record producer, Andrew Loog Oldham (manager/producer of the Rolling Stones). Loog Oldham produced material for a new album entitled Home and Away but this was never released. Del Shannon had a great respect for UK musicians and vice versa and worked with session greats such as John Paul Jones, Nicky Hopkins, Madeline Bell, and P.P. Arnold, with contributing writers Billy Nicholls, Andrew Rose, David Skinner, and Jeremy Paul. Liberty finally decided not to release the album because it did not reflect current trends of psychedelia and only became available much later. It is difficult to say what might have happened had this decision not been taken.
More and more Del Shannon became a support act rather than headliner although he continued to write and produce for others acts such as Brian Hyland. Del was always a great favourite on the retro revival circuit and kept busy on tours and recording. By the end of the 60s, his commercial appeal had peaked although he continued to record and produce albums throughout the '70s and '80s. He had a constant battle with alcoholism for most of the 70s but the artist continued to have enormous following in Europe. He made an album in the 80s which was produced by Tom Petty and a single release surprisingly saw him back in the charts again with a cover of "Sea of Love."
He was also asked to write material for the movie "Grease 2." "Something To Believe In," was rejected but became part of the soundtrack for the Australian film, "Street Hero."
After the sudden death of Roy Orbison in 1988, the rumour was Del would be a natural replacement for the Travelling Wilburys but tragically this would not take place, as fighting depression; Del Shannon shot himself on 8th February, 1990. Del was throughout his career a great inspiration to other musicians including Mark Knofpler (Dire Straits).
Worth a listen:
Hats Off to Larry (1961)
Hey little girl (1961)
Little Swiss Maid (1962)
Little Town Flirt (1962)
From me to you (1963)
Keep searchin’ (1964)
Handy Man (1964)
Do You Wanna Dance (1964)
Keep Searchin' (1964)
Stranger in town (1965)
Stranger in Town (1965),
Under My Thumb (1966)
Peter and Gordon
I go to pieces (1965)