Born Charles Westover in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1934, the singer/songwriter known as Del Shannon committed suicide on this day in 1990. In a period when the American pop charts were dominated by cookie-cutter teen idols and novelty acts, he stood out as an all-too-rare example of an American pop star whose work reflected real originality. His heyday as a chart-friendly star in the United States may have been brief, but on the strength of his biggest hit alone he deserves to be regarded as one of rock and roll’s greatest.
Legend has it that while on stage one night at the Hi-Lo Lounge in Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1960, the young and unknown Del Shannon stopped his band mid-song to have his organ player repeat, over and over, an unusual chord sequence he had just ad-libbed: A-minor to G. Charlie went to work the next day in his job as a carpet salesman with those chords stuck in his mind, and by the time he took the stage that night, he’d written a song called “Little Runaway” around them—(A-minor) As I walk along I (G) wonder, what went wrong…”. It would be three more months before Shannon and his band could make it to a New York recording studio to record the song that Shannon now saw as his best, and possibly last, shot at stardom. As he told Billboard magazine years later, “I just said to myself, if this record isn’t a hit, I’m going back into the carpet business.” Del Shannon sold his last carpet a few months later, as “Runaway” roared up the pop charts on its way to #1 in April 1961.
“Hats Off To Larry” and “Keep Searchin’ (We’ll Follow The Sun)” were Shannon’s only other top-10 hits in the United States, but he enjoyed a much bigger career in the UK, where he placed five more songs in the top 10 over the next two years. Like most stars of his generation, Shannon was primarily regarded as an Oldies act through the 70s and 80s, but he was in the midst of a concerted comeback effort in early 1990, with a Jeff Lynne-produced album of original material already completed and rumors swirling of his taking the late Roy Orbison’s place in The Traveling Wilburys. This only added to the shock experienced by many when Shannon shot himself in his Santa Clarita, California, home on February 3, 1990. Shannon’s widow would later file a high-profile lawsuit against Eli Lilly, the manufacturer of the antidepressant Prozac, which Shannon had begun taking shortly before his suicide. That suit was eventually dropped, but the case brought early attention to the still-unresolved question of the possible connection between suicidal ideation and SSRIs, the class of drugs to which Prozac belongs.