In August, 1960, Del Shannon was working as a carpet salesman in Battle Creek, Mich., by day and singing at the HiLo Club by night. In the carpet store, the 20-year-old penned lyrics for a song that made him so rich he could have bought the store and the club several times over.
The song was “Runaway.” When it was released in 1961, it did just that.
“Runaway” shot up to No. 1 in England and America just a few weeks after it appeared on Big Top Records. Shannon appeared on TV’s “American Bandstand” and played to capacity crowds in England, Australia and Japan. He performed with the Beatles at Royal Albert Hall in England, a country where he was voted most popular male singer in several polls in 1962 and 1963.
In recent years, Shannon hadn’t written much. His wife of 27 years, Shirley, had left him. “She said she had to find out who she was,” he said.
But in 1986, Shannon received a call from TV producer Michael Mann asking him to watch a tape of a then-proposed NBC show, “Crime Story.” The show was about Chicago cops battling organized crime. Mann wanted to use “Runaway” as the show’s theme song.
Shannon thought the show was violent, but said to himself, “That’s not my business. My business is to sell.”
“I was deeply moved by the song when it first came out when I was a kid,” said Mann. “I thought it was very romantic.”
At Mann’s request, Shannon rewrote the song to pertain to two detectives, rather than two lovers. The original lyric went:
I’m a-walkin’ in the rain
Tears are falling and I feel the pain
Wishing you were here by me
To end this misery.
The “Crime Story” version goes:
I’m a-walkin’ in the rain
Tears are falling and I feel the pain
Watching all the plays go by
Some live and others die.
Shannon spent 12 hours recording the song at the Cherokee Recording Studios in Los Angeles. Mann arrived at midnight. He liked the new version.
The series did well enough in the ratings to get renewed for a second season, and Shannon’s career took off again. His depression over his personal life, however, didn’t lift until months later when he had finished a Las Vegas show with Fabian and Lou Christie at the Union Plaza Hotel. Actor Dennis Farina, the lead in “Crime Story,” and other cast members came backstage, elated that the series had been renewed.
“They were on a real buzz,” Shannon said. “I said to myself, ‘I’ve been here, and this is great. This is where I want to be--buzzin.’ ”
Shannon, the son of a trucker, grew up in the small farm community of Coopersville, Mich.
“I was an outcast growing up with a bunch of Christian people,” Shannon recalled. “My father didn’t go to church, and that was not good news if you lived right in the middle of it.”
At 13, Shannon taught himself to play guitar. “I started on an old acoustic like that one over there,” he said, motioning to one of several guitars in his Sand Canyon home. “I had put it together with baling wire. It was so far off the frets that my hands used to bleed.”
Admittedly not a scholar, he did get a B in a high school English class. “I saw I could rhyme words. It came simply to me,” he said. “But I wrote some pretty horrible songs that I still have on tape.”
He entertained at high school shows and, after a two-year stint in the Army, played at Michigan clubs. He was so hungry to perform that he’d drive 200 miles in the snow to reach a small club.
He performed at the HiLo, a club where people “drank a lot, and dreamed a lot and fantasized about what they would be,” he said.
One day, disc jockey Ollie McLaughlin from Ann Arbor radio station WHRV heard him sing. McLaughlin set up an audition for Shannon in Detroit. Shannon later flew to New York City to record.
Shannon was apprehensive. “I’m up there, and they have violinists on my first session. I said, ‘Violins?’ I mean, it was just scary.”
Before releasing “Runaway,” Charles Westover became Del Shannon. Although he kept his birth name legally, he changed it for singing. “It was not rockin,’ ” he said. “It was too English, too proper.”
After releasing several successful songs, Shannon moved to Van Nuys in 1965 and became an independent record producer. In 1970, he produced the hit “Gypsy Woman” for his friend Brian Hyland, who had recorded “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” in 1960. But Shannon missed the spotlight and went back on the road in 1972.
At first he balked at doing nostalgia shows with other ‘60s-era singers, but later relented. “The only person I base anything on in entertainment is Sinatra,” he said. “He does his old records, and I think it’s marvelous.
‘Me Is My Hits’
“So I do me, and me is my hits. I’m out there really to satisfy the people.”
But, in those years and, continuing until 1978, he had a drinking problem. “In those days, if you weren’t drugging, you were drinking, and I drank a lot,” he said. “I hated the taste of booze, but I liked where it got me--into oblivion.”
Nine years ago, he checked himself into a hospital to quit. He later moved to Sand Canyon, where his one-acre property in the mountains is surrounded by maple and oak trees.
Today, wearing shorts, Reeboks and a white straw hat, Shannon, 48, looks relaxed in the office of the home he now shares with his fiancee, LeAnne Gutierrez, whom he will marry Sunday.
Life is good for Shannon. Sales of the original version of “Runaway” are “way up” since the show’s premiere in the fall of 1986, said Bob Cahill, national director of sales and marketing for Rhino Records, which distributes the song on an album called “Runaway Hits!”
A ‘Chunk of Money’
Then there are royalties. Typically, the writer of a theme song for a prime-time network television show on the air for at least 13 weeks earns several hundred dollars each week the show is shown. Although Shannon declined to give the specific amount he is paid for “Runaway,” Shannon said it is “a very nice chunk of money.”
Just back from performing at the Oklahoma State Fair, he is scheduled to leave soon to sing at Madison Square Garden, then appear at a nostalgia show in Dallas, along with the Coasters and Freddie Cannon.
Shannon says he spends 170 days a year touring and performing “wherever there’s rock ‘n’ roll,” at places from clubs to dude ranches in countries from Japan to Australia to England. Yet he rarely performs in Los Angeles.
When he is home, Shannon rides his bicycle (“an old Pee Wee bike with the wide white wheels and saddle bags”) and runs. He frequents a health-food restaurant, sometimes accompanied by his mother, Leone, who lives nearby in a home bought by her son.
Sometimes he tools around town in his ’84 Cadillac with “my car guitar, a great Gibson.”
“I love to perform,” he said, peering over his white picket fence at open acreage. “But I don’t like the traveling. If I could perform in that field, that would be a dream.”