This article was first posted on October 1, 2008.
It was in the fall of 1958 that Del Shannon (real name: Charles Westover) began his career in his hometown of Battle Creek, Mich. (aka “The Cereal City” because both the Kellogg’s and Post cereal companies are headquartered there). Through a friend he was introduced to the leader of a country band called the Moonlight Ramblers, who had a regular gig at a bar/lounge called the Hi-Lo Club, and shortly thereafter snagged a spot in the band. Shannon (his stage name at the time was Charlie Johnson) didn’t quit his day job at a local carpet store. Playing clubs was barely a living, so almost everyone had two jobs. Shortly after Shannon joined the group, however, the leader was fired by the club owner for repeated drunkenness and Shannon was enlisted to take over. He kept the bass player from the group, but otherwise started a new band called Charlie Johnson & The Big Little Show Band, which had a changing lineup through the end of 1958 and the beginning of ’59.
It was drummer Dick Parker who suggested to Shannon that he hire an Ann Arbor-based keyboard player named Max Crook, who had dazzled the crowd at a Battle of the Bands at the Kalamazoo Armory with his deft and imaginative keyboard work. When he showed up to audition for Shannon’s group, he brought along a miniature, custom-built keyboard he called a Musitron, which would later produce one of the most famous instrumental breaks in rock history. Shannon hired Crook on the spot.
“The Musitron is a three-octave, monophonic [single-note-playing] keyboard with a slide on it that allows me to play at a range of two cycles per second up to beyond human hearing,” Crook commented at a Del Shannon tribute in the late ’90s. “Also, I can bend the notes, which was something uncommon at the time for mini-keyboards. I bent the notes in the middle of [Shannon’s] ‘Don’t Gild the Lily, Lily,’ the B-side of [the hit] ‘Hats Off to Larry.’ The Musitron is also totally tunable. I can tune it to anything. I built the Musitron out of a variety of things: A clavioline was part of it, but I also threw in some resisters — it was too early for transistors — tubes from television sets, parts from appliances and other such household items.” Crook’s Musitron preceded Joe Meek’s “Telstar” ingenuity by a year, the Mellotron by two years and the Moog synthesizer by more than five years.
Shannon and Crook soon became lasting friends and started a partnership, writing and recording demos for the next year to audition for Crook’s music friend, Ollie McLaughlin, a black DJ who hailed from Ann Arbor and had previously published two (unsuccessful) sides Crook had made for Dot. Crook invited McLaughlin, who had connections in Detroit, to sit in at the Hi-Lo after-hours to hear their new songs. McLaughlin recorded a few numbers on his tape recorder and played them for Irving Micahnik and Harry Balk of Artists Inc. in Detroit. Micahnik and Balk were executives affiliated with Big Top Records of New York, having already achieved success internationally with Johnny & The Hurricanes. The two swiftly signed Shannon and Crook to a recording contract.
Shannon was immediately flown (without Crook) to New York in August of 1960 to record a couple of songs, but Shannon was nervous and the session did not go well. Shannon and Crook soon found themselves back at the ol’ Hi-Lo playing four nights a week, encouraged to “write something a little more uptempo.” Two months later, on a Friday night in October of 1960, Crook sat down at his bench and began running riffs on the piano. Shannon jumped up: “Max what was that?” Crook simply replied, “An ‘A-minor’ and a ‘G.’” Shannon was tired of hearing what he called “Blue Moon” chords (C, A minor, F and G progressions) and began playing those two chords over and over again on his guitar, yelling ‘Follow me! Everybody follow me!’ and humming a few words here and there. Soon, drummer Parker had jumped in. The band worked on the song for the next 15 to 20 minutes as the crowd looked on curiously. Finally, the owner of the club came over to the stage and told them to knock it off and play something else!
The next morning, Shannon took his guitar with him to work at The Carpet Outlet and, sitting on a roll of carpets, began writing the words to his new song: “As I walk along, I wonder…” A friend of Shannon’s named Wes Kilbourne stopped by that Saturday morning, and recalls, “Del’s original title of the song was ‘Little Runaway.’ He was working out lyrics like ‘I’m a-walkin’ in the storm’ and ‘I’m a-walkin’ beneath the clouds’; things like that. In fact, he had an entire second verse that he wrote but totally scrapped it because it didn’t fit in as well as the first verse.”
Shannon finished the song by lunch and telephoned Crook. “Max, bring your tape recorder with you to the club tonight. I’ve finished our song. It’s called ‘Little Runaway.’” Shannon began writing the B-side that afternoon. It was titled “Jody,” after a girl who frequented the club.
Shannon and his bandmates performed “Runaway” that night for the first time before a live crowd. Before they began playing the song, Shannon said, “Max, when I point to you, play something,” and Crook obliged by coming up with the famous Musitron solo. The song was an instant success with the crowds at the Hi-Lo. Crook remembers that they would sometimes have to play it four or five times a night.
After Crook’s first recording of the song was accidentally taped over, the group cut another version after-hours at the Hi-Lo Club and the tape was sped off to McLaughlin, who again approached Micahnik and Balk. Though initially believing the song sounded like three different songs coming together, Micahnik and Balk agreed to throw “Runaway” in with the next batch of songs to be recorded. Balk recalls, “Okay, we decided to give Del another shot. But I loved that organ of Max’s. To be honest, I didn’t care much for Del’s voice, but I really wanted to do something with Max Crook and that organ!”
A session was set up, and on January 22, 1961, Shannon and Crook and their wives, Shirley and Joann, left Battle Creek in Crook’s beat-up Plymouth to make the 700-mile trip to New York. They arrived in New York City on January 23 and stayed at the Forest Hotel, where many musicians who were recording would book a room as the studios were nearby. The next day, they parked their car in front of Bell Sound Studios, located at 237 West 54th St. Crook was a sight to see as he began unloading electronic gadgets and devices from the trunk.
“I’ve got suitcases, I’ve got a secret black box, I’ve got the Musitron, gadgets and gizmos,” Crook remembers. “Gizmos meaning contact microphones, mechanical volume-control vibrators, pedals and other effects. We get into the studio, and they had open mics already strategically placed. That’s not what I wanted, and I immediately crawled under the piano.” Bill MacMeekin, who was the studio engineer, asked Crook what he thought he was doing. “I’m placing a mic down here,” replied Crook. “This is not the sound I’m wanting.” MacMeekin turned to Harry Balk, who produced the session: “Harry, what’s this guy doing?” Balk responded firmly, “Bill, wherever he’s got a wire coming out, plug it in. It’s not even open for discussion.”
Bill Ramal, the arranger on the session, recalls, “We brought in Bucky Pizzarelli [father of current guitar sensation John Pizarelli] and Al Cassamenti on guitars, Milt Hinton for bass, Joe Marshall on drums and I played sax. Max played piano and Musitron. Del was put in the sound booth and did his vocals. I still remember Irving partially paying me for the session with a fur coat.”
Crook took a small guitar contact microphone and wedged it onto the soundboard of the studio’s Steinway grand piano with a piece of newspaper. “I then started setting up all of these little boxes,” Crook says. “Needless to say, the entire studio came to a halt. Everyone came out of the control booth and gathered around me to scope out what I was doing. They were maybe hoping to pick up a trick. But in those days, I had all of my equipment camouflaged because I didn’t want anyone to steal my ideas. I hooked up a box that had a hole on the top. What that did was control slap echo. I arranged it myself with a garden spring, and when I played a note on the keyboard it would fade out: wap, wap, wap, wap. I could control the speed and amount of feedback. It wasn’t reverb; it was true echo.”
In early 1961, Bell Sound Studios was one of the hottest recording studios in the country, and one of the first studios with a professional 3-track setup. Shannon and Crook were given three hours to record four songs: “Runaway,” “Jody,” “The Snake” and “The Wanderer.” Shannon and Crook’s wives added handclaps to “The Snake.”
Upon his return to Detroit, however, producer Harry Balk listened to the tapes of “Runaway” and determined that Shannon was singing too flat. Balk liked the song’s potential and suggested to Micahnik that Shannon be flown back to New York to recut the vocals. Again, Shannon was nervous and singing flat. Having spent a lot of money on studio time and expenses, Balk and Micahnik were understandably concerned. The solution: A custom-built machine at Bell Sound that enabled tapes to be sped up and slowed down. Balk sped up Shannon’s vocal nearly one-and-a-half times its original speed to bring him into key. “We finally got Del on key, and it sounded great, but it didn’t sound like Del,” explains Balk. “We mixed it anyhow, and it came out wonderful.
“When I brought Ollie and Del into my office to hear it, Del had a bit of a fit,” Balk continues. “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.” And Shannon’s haunting falsetto on the chorus became as iconic as Crook’s Musiton solo.
“Runaway” hit Number One in the spring of 1961 and stayed on top of the charts for four weeks. Later that year, Shannon hit the Top 5 with “Hat’s Off to Larry,” and he had several other lesser hits through mid-’60s, including “Little Town Flirt” and “Keep Searchin’ (We’ll Follow the Sun).” After a quiet spell in the 1970s, he scored another hit with the Tom Petty-produced and Heartbreakers-backed “Sea of Love” in 1981. Tragically, Shannon took his own life in 1990, but with one incredible, indelible song, he earned a spot among rock’s immortals.
This article was abridged from a longer discussion of “Runaway” that appears on Brian Young’s Website,delshannon.com. Check it out!