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Del Shannon: Prince Of Despair

Troubled troubadour Del Shannon gave in to his demons and took his own life 12 years ago.

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With a falsetto voice as angelic as Roy Orbison’s, Del Shannon went from selling carpet in Battle Creek, Mich., to touring the world on the heels of his 1961 hit ”Runaway” within a year. But the despair and loneliness that fueled some of his best work apparently caught up with him on Feb. 8, 1990, when the 55-year-old shot himself in the head with a .22-caliber rifle in his Santa Clarita, Calif., home.

Born Charles Westover in Coopersville, Mich., Shannon started singing at age 8 and took up guitar at 14. Blending the names of a friend and a Coupe DeVille for his nom de musique, Del Shannon was 26 and spending his nights playing Battle Creek’s Hi-Lo Club with keyboardist Max Crook when the two stumbled onto the minor-to-major notes of ”Runaway.” Their emotional cry for a lost love raced to the top of the U.S. and U.K. pop charts, to be followed by hits like ”Hats Off to Larry,” ”So Long Baby,” and ”Little Town Flirt.” Shannon even preempted the British Invasion, becoming the first Stateside artist to record a Beatles song with his 1963 version of ”From Me to You.”

Still, the Brit wave overcame him, and his popularity foundered. Shannon spent the ’70s touring in England and collaborating with the likes of Dave Edmunds and ELO’s Jeff Lynne, while facing a growing problem with alcohol. (He stopped drinking in 1979.) He made a small comeback with a 1982 cover of ”Sea of Love,” produced by longtime fan Tom Petty, and his rerecording of ”Runaway” for Michael Mann’s 1986-88 TV series, Crime Story. He was also rumored to be joining Petty in the Traveling Wilburys after Orbison’s death in 1988. ”He was one of those guys who had everything I wanted when I started to write songs,” Petty said, ”great stories, a really good sound, and that great, big, high voice.”

Shannon put that sound to work once again, recording the Lynne-produced album Rock On! (released in 1991) up until his death. Though Shannon had always suffered bouts of depression — shortly before his suicide, the road-weary rocker spoke of his reluctance to tour — those close to him were stunned. His second wife, LeAnne (he had three children with first wife, Shirley Nash), blamed Prozac (a suit against the drug’s manufacturer was dropped). Perhaps the fears that drove his music finally overtook him. ”He came from a small town and shot to fame instantly,” recalls friend and manager Dan Bourgoise. ”The characters [in his songs] emerged out of this paranoia he had of having all he achieved taken away from him….He feared being alone. And I think, in the end, he felt very alone.”