Classic Tracks: Del Shannon's "Runaway"

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


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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 enables 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, Check it out!

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