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Jonathan Thomas
Jonathan Thomas

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INTRODUCTIONMost people probably think of Del Shannon, if they think of him at all, as "that 'Runaway' guy." But he was more than a one-hit wonder, way more. He was a rock and roll original, a hitmaker many times over, who was popular worldwide. He was also a talented and prolific songwriter; a stellar singer, a celebrated guitarist and an inspiring live performer. In addition, he was an accomplished producer/arranger/talent scout, a successful businessman; and, possibly most important, a major influence on the rock musicians and rock music that followed in his wake. As for Del the man, though he struggled with depression and moodiness, and was plagued with the common rock star failings (drugs, alcohol1, infidelity), his positive traits (generosity, humility, loyalty, passion) and his vulnerability show him to be a man that an audience could easily sympathize with. Del Shannon deserves a movie to provide a fuller understanding of the man. And music biopics are a "thing" these days. Studios released at least 21 pop star biopics in the five years leading up to the pandemic shutdown. Another 19, at least, are currently on the way. Yet only three of the 40 (Elvis, Heart, Easybeats) tell the stories of classic rockers in the mold of Del Shannon. Plus, Del's life story reads like a movie, no embellishment needed: A small town boy born into poverty and social irrelevance; an unsupportive father and a sympathetic mother; an early obsession with popular music; a tepid education, ameliorated by a caring educator/father figure; a young adulthood spent in menial jobs; an early marriage, burdened with financial struggles; an Army enlistment/posting/discharge; more menial jobs/financial struggles; a part-time band gig in a rowdy club, leading to a fortuitous encounter; a label signing; a failed first recording session; a hugely successful second session, an overnight triumph; a string of hits, major tours; a conflict with management (mismanagement, royalty disputes); a British invasion; a slow, gradual sink into obscurity; a succession of record deals; a string of deserving but commercially unsuccessful recordings; a descent into self-destructive addiction; oldies tour grinds; scattered behind-the-scenes successes (writing, producing, arranging, promoting); an addiction conquered, some hints of a comeback; a shocking, unfathomable ending. And think of this: his music would sound great blasting out of movie theater speakers. With that in mind, let me make an extended argument about why Shannon's life has earned him his own bio-pic. The first part here is an attempt to show how much Shannon has been underrated. It lists his many accomplishments and accolades. The true Del Shannon devotee may want to skip this part as old news. The second part is a potpourri of items under various headings (backstory, characters, anecdotes) that I see as suitable for inclusion in a successful script2. It might help if in reading this section if you envision these snippets as they might play out on the big screen In this spirit, I have recorded the occurrences recounted there, and in the coda, in the present tense where appropriate. The coda consists of items I consider to be possibly dubious, but nonetheless worth consideration or at least investigation by the hoped-for future screenwriter. You'll also find footnotes and a list of sources at the end. I promise that, in any case, the reader who stays with me to the end will find the coda to be both revelatory and entertaining. 1. ACCOMPLISHMENTS/ACCOLADESHIT SINGLES, ETC. (numbers discrete, not cumulative)AmericaUKAustraliaTop 10s3 (+43)8 5 (4 of them #1s)Top 20s133Top 40s533Top 100s88Six singles on the Philippine charts at the same time (1967) "Runaway" and 18 other Shannon songs used on at least 61 movie, tv or video game soundtracks (most recently "Keep Searchin'" in season one of the current Netflix series Only Murders in the Building)."Runaway" covered by over 200 other artists. "I Go to Pieces" (written by Shannon) covered by at least 21 other artists. "His Latest Flame" first recorded by Del Shannon; later by Elvis and at least 87 other artists. Michael Hill (in his Rock Hall of Fame essay celebrating Del's induction) on Del's disappearance from the top 40 between "Stranger in Town" (1965) and "Sea of Love" (1981): "In between... Shannon pursued some of his most remarkable work, artfully incorporating contemporary sounds into his classic style." An oft-repeated sentiment among other observers. SIGNIFICANT ALBUMSLittle Town Flirt (1962). Reached #12 on Billboard's Top 200 Albums chart. Del Shannon Sings Hank Williams (1965). A departure for Del; favorably reviewed (in 1985, he will record some additional country songs, including the #56 country hit "In Your Arms Again"). "[O]ne of the best straight forward country albums you'll ever hear." (Koda) Home and Away (recorded in 1987; released in 2006). Produced by Rolling Stones producer Andrew Loog Oldham; said to be Oldham's attempt to create a UK Pet Sounds; cult favorite. "One listen confirms this was one of the finest lost albums of the 1960s." (Guarisco) The Further Adventures of Charles Westover4 (1968). Concept album, cult favorite. "The overall effect is stunning, managing to fit the tag of psychedelic pop but still retaining the haunting, emotional kind of songwriting that distinguished Del Shannon's music." (Deming) Del Shannon Live in England (1973). Showcases Shannon's eminence as a performer; includes a reunion of sorts with Del's former keyboard player Max Crook, whose contributions were later dubbed in. Drop Down and Get Me (1981). Produced by Tom Petty; includes the #33 hit "Sea of Love;" reached #123 on Billboard's Top 200 Albums chart. Greatest Hits-Del Shannon (1990). Rolling Stone 5-star review. Rock On (1991). Posthumous album produced by Jeff Lynne (ELO) and Mike Campbell (of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers); critically praised. HONORSVoted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1999). Voted into the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame (2005). Voted into Rock Hall Projected5 (2018). "Runaway" is in the Grammy Hall of Fame (2002). His contributions to the genre recognized by The Rockabilly Hall of Fame. "Runaway" is #472 in Rolling Stone's "top 500 greatest songs of all time" (2003). "Runaway" is #16 among the 100 best rock and roll singles according to trailblazing rock critic and Crawdaddy founder Paul Williams (1993). "Runaway" is #192 in Troy L. Smith's (Cleveland.com) 250 greatest Rock & Roll Hall of Fame songs (Feb. 27, 2018; updated May 19, 2019). Three Shannon songs appear in rock critic and author David Marsh's 1,001 Greatest Singles Ever Made (1989): "Stranger in Town" (327), "Keep Searchin" (371), "Runaway" (534). "Hats Off to Larry" is #51 in rock critic and author Colin Larkin's All-Time Top 100 Rock Singles (2000). Hats Off to Del Shannon is #27 in Larkin's top 50 rock and roll albums (1994). Rock is here seen as a distinct category--Larkin has separate lists for heavy metal, punk, indie, etc.. Three songs (#1, #17, #33) are in the current Michigan Rock and Roll Legends list of legendary Michigan songs (other artists on the 145-song list include Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Bob Seger, Jackie Wilson, Stevie Wonder, Madonna and 27 other renowned performers). FIRSTS/DISTINCTIONSFirst American rock star to perform at London's Royal Albert Hall (April 18, 1963; supporting act: The Beatles).First American artist to release a Beatles song in the U.S. ("From Me to You," 1963). "Runaway" possibly the first song ever to feature a synthesizer (Reid). One of the few white artists at the time of his breakthrough who wrote his own songs. Arrived on the scene with original, energetic rock and roll at a time considered a down period in popular music, awash with manufactured teen idols and novelty tunes (early 1960's). Achieved worldwide popularity: United States, England, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Philippines, Japan, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Sweden, Chile, and across Europe. His Wikipedia biography has been translated into 28 different languages.Founded Berlee Records in the summer of 1963 after a major dispute with his managers, operating from his basement; produced and released two Del Shannon singles, one of which, "Sue's Gotta Be Mine" (1963) became a minor hit (#71 in the U.S. and #21 in the UK). Discovered a teen-aged Bob Seger singing in a bowling alley; produced and paid for the first Seger demos; shopped the demos to Dick Clark, which led to Seeger's getting his first record deal (1964-1966). Discovered country music singer Johnny Carver; secured Carver's first record deal; wrote, produced and arranged both sides of Carver's first single ("Think About Her All The Time," 1966); Carver went on to have fifteen top 40 country hits. Discovered the band Smith; worked with them for six months; secured their first record deal; arranged and possibly produced (and then cheated out of being credited) their #3 hit "Baby It's You" (1969). Produced and arranged Brian Hyland's #3 hit "Gypsy Woman"; produced and played guitar on the ensuing Brian Hyland album (1970). Wrote or co-wrote songs recorded by Waylon Jennings, Barbara Lewis, Beth Moore, JuiceNewton, Peter and Gordon, Dave Edmunds. Re-recorded "Runaway," with slight lyric changes, to be used as the theme song for Michael Mann's TV series Crime Story (the show ran from September 1986 to May 1988). Was rumored to join the supergroup The Traveling Wilburys after Roy Orbison's death; true or not (likely not), that the rumor had "legs" and says a lot about the high regard in which Del was held by music industry people and his followers. INFLUENCECredited (especially with the song "Little Town Flirt") with being a major influence on what was to become known as "the Mersey Beat" in England in the early 1960's. Influenced The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Mark Knopfler, Chris Isaak, TheTindersticks, The Smithereens, Elton John, Nils Lofgren, Jeff Lynne and others. A Del Shannon tribute album (Songwriter, v.1) featuring 16 different Del Shannon songs was released in 2013; spotlights 16 bands and solo artists, fans of Del (among them Marshall Crenshaw, Randy Bachman, and the Pixies' Frank Black). His song "Cry Myself to Sleep" (1962) was the inspiration for Elton John's "Crocodile Rock" (1972). The Beatles' "I'll Be Back" (1964, written by John Lennon) was a reworking of the chords from "Runaway." "Runaway" influenced the writing of the Beatles' "From Me to You," according to Paul McCartney. Del is referenced in Tom Petty's hit song "Runnin' Down a Dream" (1989). Max Crook's "Musitron" (a pre-synthesizer synthesizer that Max invented) solos on both"Runaway" and "Hats Off to Larry" and influenced (according to Wikipedia) such luminaries as Berry Gordy, Joe Meek, Ennio Morricone, John Barry, and Roy Wood (of ELO). Bug Music (estab. 1975), a label celebrated for doggedly pursuing and acquiring copyrights and royalties owed to recording artists (Johnny Cash, Muddy Waters, Woody Guthrie among them), grew out of a successful attempt by Del's long-time friend and, for a time, manager, Dan Bourgoise (Bug's founder) to help Del acquire rights and royalties that were his due. ACCOLADES"Del Shannon was many years ahead of his time... He never imitated anybody, and he never sounded like anybody but Del Shannon" ("A critic," quoted in Bak). "While his contemporaries on the bill were all jaded to various degrees, Del`s eyes sparkled brightly. When he took the stage, his whole body was infused with the youthful brio of one for whom rock was a genuine means of expression. He wasn`t just going through the motions." (Eden, quoted in d21c) "An underrated song writer and brilliant singer, Del Shannon provided the connection between 1950s rock primitivism and the relative melodic sophistication of the Beatles... the enthralling 'Stranger in Town' is possibly one of the most paranoid--and thrilling--performances in all of rock and roll... Del Shannon should in fairness be recalled not as one of many '50s teen idols, but rather as one of the genre's first true artists--a rock and roll natural." (Francke) "He was one of those guys who had everything I wanted when I started to write songs," Petty said, "great stories, a really good sound, and that great, big, high voice." (Tom Petty, quoted by Graff)"He was a great artist, underrated for sure. The guy was just a natural. It thrilled me to hear him sing anything up-close with a guitar. It was just mesmerizing." (Dion DiMucci) "[T]here is a convincing case to be made for Shannon as one of the true godfathers of modern pop music... pop's first great miserabilist. It is not too extravagant to say Del Shannon created the template for Scott Walker, Leonard Cohen, Morrissey and others of the pale and interesting tendency to follow... The tough-romantic urban loner stance of these records...is not a million miles from that adopted a couple of decades later by Bruce Springsteen." (Independent)"Like the old saying says, a good song has 'three chords and the truth,' and Del Shannon was a master of that craft." (Tupica) "Del Shannon is the reason I picked up my first guitar." (Mark Knopfler) "I've always loved Del. He was my first hero when I was young." (Jeff Lynne) "[He] was in many ways the perfect pop songwriter, but no one blends melancholia with a toe tapping pop tune in quite the same way." (Bore) "[An] abundance of vision, a seriousness of intent and a uniqueness of style. Nobody at the time seemed to run as deep as Shannon." (Graff) "I'd say he was an original more than he was an innovator. I don't think he appreciated quite how original he was." (Stanley) 2. BACKSTORY/RECORDING "RUNAWAY"/CHARACTERS/ANECDOTES/DEL ON DELDEL'S BACKSTORYBorn (December 30, 1934) into poverty; Del grows up in Coopersville, MI, a small farming community. He feels outcast growing up; Coopersville is largely Christian yet his Dad doesn't attend church. Del's mother buys a ukulele (Arthur Godfrey model) for him when he's still a child; she teaches him a few chords; the boy practices constantly. Eight-year-old Del sings the Georgia fight song ("Glory, Glory") on the way to school, regularly annoying neighbors. He buys his first guitar at age 14, a $5 acoustic guitar from Sears Roebuck; he waits expectantly at the train station on the day of its arrival (possible opening scene of the movie?). Del's dad says, "Get that guitar out of here;" Del's mom says, "That's okay son, you can sing for me." A friendly neighbor teaches him a few guitar chords. Del furthers his musical education by clandestinely entering roadhouses to study the playing methods of local country guitarists. Del uses pieces of cardboard as picks--he can't afford real ones; he plays till his fingers bleed. He brings his guitar to school daily; plays it in classes, hallways, at football games, anywhere; finally, to end Del's disruptions, principal Stephen Conran says he can play in the boys' locker room; entranced by the acoustics, young Del plays for hours in bathrooms; once he gets an electric guitar, he places his amp on the lids of bathroom toilets. Conran pushes Del to graduate; though not a fan of rock, he supports and advises Del throughout Del's life. Not popular with girls, Del is deeply hurt when a girl named Karen breaks her promise to go to the prom with him in favor of another boy; this hurt may emerge later in his many songs of alienation and heartbreak. During seasonal work picking strawberries, Del often tells his co-workers, "I'm going to be famous! I'm going to be a movie star!" Other jobs in his youth include selling flowers from a truck and putting school desks together in a furniture factory. At 19, Del marries the sister of a friend; he's drafted into the Army in 1954; is sent to Fort Knox, then, in 1956, to Germany; his wife Shirley goes with him to Germany. He plays with a band called Cool Flames while in Germany; is voted the 7th Army's best instrumentalist for his guitar playing; earns a regular spot on the Army's "Get Up and Go" radio show. Upon discharge (1958), he returns to Coopersville, works in a furniture factory, then in sales at a carpet store, and joins the house band at the rowdy Hi-Lo Club in Battle Creek; he later replaces the band's leader when the leader is fired for drunkenness, assuming the stage name "Charley Johnson." Ann Arbor DJ Ollie McLaughlin comes to hear the band, having been invited by keyboard player Max Crook, hired by Del in 1959 to replace a departed guitar player; McLaughlin likes what he hears, and in July of 1960 secures both Crook and Shannon writing and recording contracts with Harry Balk's and Irv Micahnik's Talent Artists, Inc. Del is immediately flown to New York for his first recording session. The session (at New York's Bell Studios) goes poorly; country boy Del is nervous, in awe of studio musicians, sings flat; afterwards McLaughlin tells Del to write something more up-tempo than the two songs recorded during this session. One night at the Hi-Lo Club, not long after the failed session, keyboardist Max Crook plays an unusual chord change (A minor/G) that catches Del's ear; Del shouts "Hold it!" in the middle of a song, tells Crook to keep playing that sequence, then starts singing some impromptu lyrics; after 15 minutes of this, the club owner yells "Knock it off!" Having established the musical structure of "Runaway" the previous night, Del writes the lyrics while sitting atop a carpet roll at work the next day; that night, he tells the band what to play and says to Crook, "when I point to you, play something;" the famous "Runaway" keyboard solo results, exactly as heard on the record. "Runaway" is born, becomes a big hit at the club. RECORDING "RUNAWAY""Runaway" is soon one of several songs on demo tapes given to McLaughlin in hopes of securing a second session. But only a snippet of "Runaway" has survived, having been accidentally recorded over. The little that McLaughlin hears though is enough. He has it re-recorded, brings the completed version to Balk and Micahnik, and asks them to schedule another session at Bell. They initially resist, saying "Runaway" sounds like not one song but three. McCloughlin guarantees it's a surefire hit, that they will be missing out if they don't record it. The men relent. In the dead of winter (January, 1961), Del, Max and their wives drive 700 miles to New York in Del's rattle-trap of a car, a 1957 Plymouth. The heater is broken, the road can be seen through holes in the floorboard, the wives are in the back seat wrapped in blankets. Del smokes cigars, sticking his head out of an open window because Max is allergic to smoke. At the session, Max befuddles studio musicians as he sets up his Musitron and other equipment (wires everywhere) and repositions the preset studio microphones; they gawk as he modifies the studio's expensive Steinway grand, jamming a guitar contact microphone onto its soundboard using a folded scrap of newsprint. During recording, Del once again is nervous. Recording finished, the still-unmixed song is played then and there over a phone hookup to distributors nationwide. Orders go through the roof. Balk is not happy with Del's voice on the recording, thinks it once again sounds flat. Balk has the recording sped up to get Del on key. Del: "That doesn't even sound like me." Balk: "Del, nobody knows what the hell you sound like!" "Runaway" is released in February of 1961; by March, the public is snatching up 80,000 copies a day. CHARACTERS (ECCENTRIC---HUMAN AND OTHERWISE)Peter Vice, Del's boss at the carpet store, sold poor quality carpets. When he saw disgruntled customers approaching the store, he w


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