Classic Tracks: Del Shannon's "Runaway"

Oct 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Brian Young


Education Guide

Mix is gearing up to present its longstanding annual Audio Education Guide in its November 2014 issue. Want to have your school listed in the directory, or do you need to update your current directory listing? Add an image, program description, or a logo to your listing! Get your school in the Mix Education Guide 2014.

Photo: Courtesy

Photo: Courtesy

This month's “Classic Track” is dedicated with great affection from all of us at Mix to our late, great colleague, writer Stephen St.Croix, who loved the song “Runaway” so much — more proof of how cool he was! — Eds.

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!”

Acceptable Use Policy
blog comments powered by Disqus

Mix Books

Modern Recording and Mixing

This 2-DVD set will show you how the best in the music industry set up a studio to make world-class records. Regardless of what gear you are using, the information you'll find here will allow you to take advantage of decades of expert knowledge. Order now $39.95

Mastering Cubase 4

Electronic Musician magazine and Thomson Course Technology PTR have joined forces again to create the second volume in their Personal Studio Series, Mastering Steinberg's Cubase(tm). Edited and produced by the staff of Electronic Musician, this special issue is not only a must-read for users of Cubase(tm) software, but it also delivers essential information for anyone recording/producing music in a personal-studio. Order now $12.95



Delivered straight to your inbox every other week, MixLine takes you straight into the studio, with new product announcements, industry news, upcoming events, recent recording/post projects and much more. Click here to read the latest edition; sign up here.

MixLine Live

Delivered straight to your inbox every other week, MixLine Live takes you on the road with today's hottest tours, new sound reinforcement professional products, recent installs, industry news and much more. Click here to read the latest edition; sign up here.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]

The Wire, a virtual press conference offering postings of the latest gear and music news, direct from the source. Visit the The Wire for the latest press postings.