For a while, I was posting regularly over in the world of MOG, when it was more of a blogging community and less of a streaming service, and that’s where most of my pre-Fool’s Paradise stuff was housed. But now those posts have vanished into the ether, and from time to time I’m going to bring some over here to preserve them for posterity (ha!). Sorry if that’s repetitive for some people. Here’s a riff on Del Shannon from the archives:
The first rock & roll show I ever saw was co-hosted by Murray The K at the Brooklyn Paramount, before the holiday shows moved over to the Brooklyn Fox. I was 10. I have the program in a carton somewhere, with photos of all the artists who appeared: The Chantels, Little Anthony & The Imperials, Gary U.S. Bonds, Rosie (of the Originals), Carla Thomas, Jackie Wilson, The Capris (I think; maybe it was The Earls, or maybe both), Sam Cooke. Two of the photos have autographs on them, obtained much later in my music-absorbed life: Dion and Del Shannon. You have to understand: I never ask for autographs, even in the casual presence of my heroes. But this was my introduction to live R&R, and I thought it would be poetic to get those two guys to sign the souvenir program.
I’m thinking about this because the internet is a the home of accidental encounters. I was jumping around looking for the abandoned album of standards that Linda Ronstadt recorded in the early ’80s with Jerry Wexler (Keeping Out of Mischief…ah! found it!), and that led me somewhere where Gene Pitney was doing a medley of his early hits as a writer (“He’s A Rebel,” “Hello Mary Lou”), and that led me to a broadcast of a 1982 Del Shannon show broadcast live from the Bottom Line on WNEW-FM.
Del was promoting his album Drop Down and Get Me at the time, produced by Tom Petty, and when he was in town to do the Bottom Line show, I got the chance to interview him for Creem Magazine (I think you can find that interview piece on Rock’s Backpages, if you care). This was a big deal for me. When I discovered rock & roll, Del Shannon’s early singles on Big Top (“Runaway,” “Hats Off To Larry,” “Little Town Flirt”) resonated with me: they sounded bitter and lonesome and dark, kind of like Roy Orbison’s things. They had an outsider sensibility.
A little later, in the mid-’60s, two singles, “Stranger In Town’ and “Keep Searchin’ (Follow The Sun),” took Shannon’s music to a new level of urgency. I’ve said often that they seem like a template for Springsteen’s tales of outcasts on the run, but you can also hear Petty & The Hearbreakers and Seger & The Silver Bullet Band in those tracks. They are searing, thrilling middle-America rock. Along the way, Shannon became the first artist to hit the charts with a Lennon-McCartney song (“From Me To You”), and wrote one of the few Peter & Gordon hits that John & Paul (well, Paul) didn’t write (“I Go To Pieces”). And he had hits with covers of “Handy Man” and “Do You Wanna Dance,” and he did an album of Hank Williams covers when rock & roll stars didn’t do country concept albums.
So I met Del in ’82 with a mixture of awe and trepidation. And he did open up to me, about the insecurity and rejection that shaped him, about how he and his band came up with that classic lick on “Runaway,” and about working with Petty. Hesitantly, I took out my old Murray The K program, and asked him if he remembered anything about that show. It was his first time in New York City, he told me, and he was nervous, and he accidently bumped into Dion backstage and scuffed Dion’s shoes. Well, you don’t mess up the shoes of a sharp-dressed Italian kid from the Bronx. But Dion and he bonded, and Dion took him shopping for clothes hip enough to wear onstage at the Paramount.
The Petty-produced album wasn’t a hit, but the Bottom Line show is incredible, and if I found it, I’m guessing that you can also.
The story doesn’t have a happy ending, but then, his songs didn’t either. He suffered from depression, and alcoholism, and his career never revitalized. He would’ve been a perfect substitute for Orbison in the Traveling Wilburys, but that didn’t happen. And in 1990, he committed suicide.
You wouldn’t think you could make “Do You Wanna Dance” sound dark and ominous. Listen to The Mamas and Papas do it, and it’s slow, sweet and romantic. Listen to The Beach Boys do it, and it’s something that could go on Beach Boys Party. And the Bobby Freeman original has bongos, for goodness sake, and nothing with bongos can be truly downbeat. But Del, he knows that going across the room and asking a girl to dance can, in the mind of some boys, be the longest walk, and the hardest question on earth. Maybe he needed a drink to get up his courage. Maybe he’s coming on a bit too strong, maybe she’ll say no, there are all these pent-up nerves in his voice.
In 1999, Del Shannon was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and like too many inductees, he wasn’t around for the ceremony. Had he been there, I’d have gone up to him, and thanked him again for making those records in the early ’60s, and congratulated him. But then again, I’d have remembered the story he told me about Dion and New York City, and I’d have known that even though he was being honored among Rock’s elite, he’d have felt out of place.