Why did Del Shannon kill himself?
No one knows, but a lot of people still shake their heads and wonder. All we know is that in early 1990 -- 29 years after scoring his only No. 1 song -- he appeared to be still going strong as a performer and producer. And then he shot himself in the head. He was 55.
To say Shannon never matched the success of "Runaway'' -- one of the greatest songs of its era -- diminishes his career accomplishments and ignores the impact he had on the music scene and the artists who followed him.
He was a successful songwriter whose early hits included "Hats Off to Larry'', "Little Town Flirt'', "Stranger in Town'' and "Keep Searchin' (We'll Follow the Sun)'', and I'm sure he played them all when a buddy and I went to see him at the Medina Ballroom in 1987. It was a fabulous night of drinking, dancing and singing wickedly bad falsetto.
That was a Del Shannon concert for you. His music made you behave like a fricking go-go girl. And the beer, at some point, made you think you could sing three octaves above your range.
Tom Petty captured the feeling in the song "Runnin' Down a Dream'' from his 1988 Full Moon Fever album:
It was a beautiful day, the sun beat down
I had the radio on, I was drivin'
The trees went by, me and Del were singin'
Little 'Runaway', I was flyin'
Shannon had been running down a dream since his childhood in Michigan, where he grew up as Charles Westover, learned to play the kazoo and then tackled the guitar with a mission. Just out of school he was selling carpet by day and playing by night with Charley Johnson and the Big Little Show Band.
When the words and music to "Runaway'' suddenly came to him, Shannon reportedly said: "If this record isn't a hit, I'm going to go into the carpet business.'' That wouldn't be the case. "Runaway'' was selling 80,000 copies a day at this time in 1961, propelling Shannon to stardom on the tiny Big Top label.
Watching a video of him perform with David Letterman's band in 1986 -- right around the time my buddy and I saw him in the Twin Cities -- you expect he'd be playing "Runaway'' to eternity:
There is also video of Shannon's final concert on March 3, 1990, in Fargo, N.D. -- seven days before he committed suicide -- and you get the same impression. Reportedly he was preparing to join Petty and buddy Jeff Lynne in the Traveling Wilburys, as a replacement for Roy Orbison.
He seemed like a guy who had run down his dream and was living it. But you never know. And now all we can do is wonder. In the case of Del Shannon, wah-wah-wah-wah wonder.