When Del Shannon’s first and only number one hit, Runaway, appeared in 1961, there were good reasons to think he would have many more. Here was a distinctive singer with an obvious knack for writing songs that people wanted to hear. Runaway managed to combine haunted desperation with catchiness, a formula that is magical if all too rare. But while he did have a few more songs in the charts through the mid-60s, none hit with the power of Runaway. Still, he should be remembered for more than just that song. Six months before the Beatles first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, Del’s cover of From Me To You, which he learned while appearing with the Fab Four in England in 1963, became the first Lennon-McCartney song in the U.S. charts, providing the only American test of the duo as songwriters completely removed from the hurricane of Beatlemania. Del’s version sticks pretty closely to the original, except when he shows off his vocal chops on the coda.
Other than Runaway, my two favorite Del Shannon songs are Keep Searchin (We’ll Follow the Sun) from 1964 and Stranger in Town, from 1965. They are a matched set of sturdily strummed minor-key dramas, with paranoia as the overriding sentiment. Keep Searchin' exploits the Runaway formula (similar chord progression beginning with an A-minor to G major change, a simple, melodic organ solo, and perfectly controlled but thrilling leaps into falsetto). Stranger in Town continues the sketchily outlined story of the lovers on the run while substituting a sax break for the organ. These two minute chapters detailed the futility of escape, and were perfectly tailored to the era when The Fugitive was one of the most popular shows on the small screen.
After years out of the spotlight, working as a producer and on the oldies circuit, Del attempted a comeback in the 80s with the backing of Tom Petty. He was even asked to join the Travelling Wilburys after Roy Orbison’s death, and his falsetto would have filled that void as well as anyone’s could have. But by then his demons had finally caught up with him, and Del Shannon took his own life in February 1990.