While touring in Canada a couple of months ago, Del Shannon recalls getting a phone call from a booking agent in England, who berated him with, "Gene Pitney's No. 1 over here and (Roy) Orbison's No. 2. What are you doing? Are you sleeping?"
The 49-year-old singer of "Runaway," "Keep Searchin'," "Hats Off to Larry" and other early '60s classics has yet to match the recent re-emergence of his ante-Beatles contemporaries, but he most certainly hasn't been hibernating. Shannon has been playing about 100 dates a year, spread among Europe, Japan, Australia and the states. (He performs in Disneyland's "Blast to the Past" series this weekend.) Reached by phone in Reno where he had just finished a benefit show for the Special Olympics, Shannon said he has also been busy writing songs and recording.
Coincidentally, around the time he got the call from England, Shannon had started work on a song, "Walk Away," that could propel him back into the mainstream. Due out in Australia next week, and still pending an American deal, "Walk Away" boasts an authoring and production assist from old friends Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne, who helped the late Roy Orbison to his final success.
There has been an understandable amount of speculation that Shannon might be tapped to fill the vacancy left in the Traveling Wilburys by Orbison's lamented death last December. Along with Shannon's friendship with Lynne and Petty, he also shared certain qualities with Orbison: a distinctive, wide-ranging voice, and melancholy, driven songs that spoke from the vantage of an unwilling loner.
But Shannon said rumors of his joining the Wilburys are no more than that. "It's a nice rumor, and I do know Jeff, Tom and George quite well, but it hasn't been mentioned to me at all, not even hinted. And it's certainly not my business to bring it up with them. But it seems the more I deny it, the more people think I'm going to be in it."
Shannon said he thinks that the Wilburys are one of the best things going of late. "I loved the album. I called Jeff as soon as I heard it and told him it knocked me out. Today I can hear six songs in a row on certain stations and they all sound the same, same production, same drum machine. It's boring, and I don't hear any voices . I think that's what the Wilburys did well; you hear voices, guitars and drums again. People have to be turned on to basic rock 'n' roll again."
Where some performers can grow resentful of their oft-repeated oldies, Shannon said he doesn't have any trouble warming up to his old songs. "If the band is hot and the sound system is OK, I just automatically get into doing them. It's my job, and I feel great doing it. If it's a whole show of my own, I'll do more of what I think Del Shannon is. But for shows like Disneyland, I'll just do mainly hits. That's what they want to hear. I don't want to bore people. If I wanted that much to play nothing but 12 new songs, then I should go do it in a bar somewhere for peanuts."
Shannon's most requested song was also his first record, 1961's "Runaway," which had originated during an on-stage jam in a Battle Creek, Mich., nightclub. He composed the lyrics the following day, while working at a carpet store. At that point Shannon was Charles Westover, the name he had been born with in Coopersville, Mich., in 1939. "Shannon" had been the name of a wrestler he had met. His boss at the carpet store had bought a Cadillac Coupe de Ville, and the "Del" was a contraction of that.
Following an early interest in music sparked by country singers Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell and Carl Smith, Shannon grew serious about playing music after winning a talent contest when he was in the Army.
Starting with "Runaway," which spent 17 weeks at the top of the charts, he released a series of hits that may have been matched only by Orbison in adding a sense of foreboding and shadow to the pop charts. In his songs, Shannon was always walking alone, being deceived, going to pieces, searching for a place to hide and looking over his shoulder for the stranger in town.
"Nobody thinks mystery writers go around killing people," Shannon said, "but they always seem to assume singers are singing about themselves, especially if you write melancholy songs like me. Actually lots of those feelings were true, though maybe not when I wrote them. I think some came from a well of experiences, like being rejected when I asked a girl out when I was 13. And then, I wrote a lot of songs in those days which came true later in life."
Though Shannon was better prepared to face the British invasion than many of his contemporaries--he had starred in shows with the up-and-coming Beatles in England, and was the first American artist to cover one of their songs with "From Me to You" in 1963--he faced other troubles in the mid-'60s.