Hello there! This week our blog features a great early 60s tune, Runaway. We will discuss the original version of the song by Del Shannon. Next, we will show the cover by Bonnie Raitt, and finally a cover by the instrumental group The Ventures.
Del Shannon and Runaway:
We discussed Del Shannon in an earlier blog post on the song Handy Man. Here we will briefly review his life and career.
Charles Weeden Westover was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1934. As a youth, he was a fan of country and western music.
In 1954 Westover was drafted into the Army. When he was discharged two years later, he returned to Battle Creek, MI and worked as a carpet salesman. In his spare time he played rhythm guitar in a country band. In 1958, the lead singer for Westover’s band was fired for drunkenness, and Westover took over as band leader, taking the name Charlie Johnson.
Eventually, Westover and a couple of his band members recorded a few demo tapes and attempted to land a recording contract. At that time Westover adopted the stage name Del Shannon.
Below is a photo of Del Shannon circa 1970.Embed from Getty Images
Shannon and his keyboardist Max Crook eventually scored a deal with Bishop Records. While recording in New York City, they re-wrote an earlier tune called ‘Little Runaway.’ The song was re-worked into Runaway. That song, released in Feb. 1961, became a blockbuster hit, reaching #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The song describes a man who is bereft because his girl has deserted him. He obsesses about their relationship, why she left, and where she might be.
As I walk along, I wonder
What went wrong with our love
A love that was so strong
And as I still walk on
I think of the things we’ve done together,
While our hearts were young.
I’m a walkin’ in the rain
Tears are fallin’ and I feel a pain
Wishin’ you were here by me
To end this misery
And I wonder, I wa-wa-wa-wa wonder
Why a why-why-why-why-why
She ran away
And I wonder where she will stay
My little runaway
My run-run-run-run runaway
So here is Del Shannon in a “live” performance of Runaway.
This is from 1961, and Del is simply lip-synching to the audio of his record, while go-go girls circle around him. But what a record! Del’s vocals make you experience the pain the singer is feeling.
Aside from the catchy melody, Runaway contains two quite distinctive features. The first is Shannon’s rapid switch to falsetto on lines like “wa-wa-wa-wa-wonder.” And the second feature is a keyboard backing that sounds like an organ on steroids.
The “organ” part is actually Max Crook playing his invention ‘the Musitron.’ This was a primitive form of synthesizer, and it provides a truly unique instrumental backing to Del Shannon’s vocals.
Max Crook had taken a clavioline, an early French electronic instrument, and cobbled together some resistors, TV tubes, and parts from amplifiers and household appliances. He came up with an early version of an analog synthesizer. Unfortunately, Crook was unable to patent his ‘Musitron’ because the individual parts comprising his instrument had already been patented.
Before he met Del Shannon, Crook traveled around the Midwest with his Musitron, until Berry Gordy brought Crook into his Detroit studio. There, Crook cut a demo of a tune called Bumble Boogie, which later became a hit for B. Bumble and the Stingers.
As you can tell, the Musitron makes a huge impact in Runaway: it gives the song its unforgettable sound. I am not aware of subsequent appearances of the Musitron in rock music, as it was replaced by more sophisticated synthesizers, or by other electronic instruments such as the Mellotron.
Shannon followed up his blockbuster Runaway with a second top-10 single, Hats Off To Larry. But after those two hits, Shannon bounced around from one record company to another, until his career had a positive bounce in the mid-60s.
By the late 60s, Del Shannon’s solo career had slowed down considerably. He kept touring, and also remained active in the music business with songwriting and producing. Shannon wrote I Go To Pieces, which became a major hit for the British Invasion duo Peter and Gordon in 1965, and he produced a big hit for singer Brian Hyland in 1970.
In the 70s, Shannon made a number of comeback attempts, but these were hindered by his struggles with alcoholism. In 1987, Del made a live appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman. Here he is, performing Runaway.
Here Shannon is accompanied by Paul Shaffer and the Late Show Band. As Dave points out, at the peak of his success Del Shannon was selling 80,000 copies of Runaway a day! It’s great that 25 years after recording the original, Del can still hit the falsetto notes on this tune.
One year after this performance, it looked like Shannon might get another big break. Del had recorded with Jeff Lynne, and after Roy Orbison died in late 1988, it was announced that Shannon would be Orbison’s replacement in Lynne’s supergroup The Traveling Wilburys.
Alas, in February 1990 Del Shannon committed suicide. Shannon was being treated for depression at the time, so his potential return to stardom never materialized. However, in 1991 Jeff Lynne produced one final album that was released after Shannon’s death.
In 1999, Del Shannon was inducted posthumously into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was a talented rock ‘n roller who had a couple of big hits in the early 60s, and we remember him fondly.
Bonnie Raitt and Runaway:
Bonnie Raitt is an R&B singer-songwriter. She is known not only for her musical ability, but also as a life-long activist. She was born in 1949 in Burbank, California, the daughter of Broadway music star John Raitt.
Below is a photo of Bonnie Raitt playing guitar early in her career.Embed from Getty Images
Bonnie enrolled in Radcliffe College, intending to major in social relations and African Studies. Instead, she dropped out in her sophomore year, moved to Philadelphia and became a blues singer.
She signed a record contract with Warner Brothers and released her first album in 1971. Both her singing and her bottleneck guitar playing were praised; unfortunately, the album did not sell. This began a pattern (critical acclaim but paltry sales) that would continue for another 15 years.
However, Bonnie Raitt experienced a reversal of fortune in 1977, when she released a cover of Runaway. Her R&B take on the Del Shannon classic tune was panned by critics; on the other hand, the song reached #57 on the Billboard Hot 100, which was encouraging for Ms. Raitt, and helped her negotiate a new contract with Warner Bros.
So here is Bonnie Raitt in a live performance of Runaway.
Isn’t this terrific? It is from a 1977 presentation of the TV show Midnight Special. Ms. Raitt converts the doo-wop stylings of Del Shannon into a slow, funky blues tune. Bonnie’s vocals are just terrific on this song.
And as an extra treat, check out the stunning harp solo by Norton Buffalo, who changes harps six times during his bit! I am really fond of this tune, and am surprised that it did not rise higher on the pop charts.
Ms. Raitt struggled for some time. She had very little commercial success, in 1983 Warner Brothers dumped her (she was in good company, as they dropped Van Morrison and Arlo Guthrie at the same time), and she struggled with drug and alcohol abuse. Eventually, inspired by seeing Stevie Ray Vaughan achieve sobriety (while improving his guitar playing), Bonnie was able to kick her habit with help from Alcoholics Anonymous.
However, 18 years after she released her first album, Bonnie Raitt’s fortunes finally improved dramatically in 1989. That year she issued an album, Nick of Time, that shot up to #1 on the Billboard album charts and sold over 6 million copies.
Suddenly, Bonnie Raitt was the “hot new thing.” Her gritty R&B sound was prized, along with her exceptional slide guitar work. She began to pile up Grammy Awards and her songs charted well.
In 2000, Bonnie Raitt was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. What an encouraging outcome for someone who persevered through commercial disappointment and addiction issues, and eventually triumphed.
In addition to her music, Bonnie Raitt has been a long-time social activist. She was a founding member of the anti-nuclear power organization Musicians United for Safe Energy and also the later incarnation No Nukes.
She has also been active in a group called Little Kids Rock, an organization that provides free musical instruments and music lessons to children in public schools across the country.
We salute Bonnie Raitt and wish her all the best – keep on rockin’!
The Ventures and Runaway:
The Ventures are an instrumental band that formed in Tacoma, Washington in 1958. Bob Bogle met Don Wilson at Wilson’s father’s used-car dealership. The two bonded over their interest in guitars, so they formed a band called The Versatones.
Alas, they discovered that their name The Versatones had already been taken, so they chose The Ventures. At left is a photo of The Ventures from the 60s.
The Ventures underwent a few changes in personnel until they settled on their “classic” lineup, with Nokie Edwards on lead guitar, Don Wilson on rhythm guitar, Bob Bogle on bass and Mel Taylor on drums.
In 1960, The Ventures struck it big with their recording of the instrumental song Walk, Don’t Run. This was actually a cover of a Chet Atkins tune, which itself was a cover of an original 1954 song by jazz guitarist Johnny Smith.
Once Walk, Don’t Run hit #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, The Ventures were on their way. Not only did they have a number of top-rated singles, but they sold a slew of albums. Their albums were notable in that they were generally crafted around a coherent “theme,” rather than simply being a collection of otherwise-unrelated singles.
And here are The Ventures in a live version of Runaway.
That’s Don Wilson on rhythm guitar and vocals (and straining to hit the falsetto notes), Nokie Edwards on lead guitar and Bob Bogle on bass. You can easily recognize Nokie Edwards’ guitar licks that characterize songs by The Ventures. Furthermore, the drumming also helps create the Ventures’ signature ‘sound.’
The Ventures were wildly successful commercially – selling over 100 million records and placing 38 albums on the Billboard charts, they are the best-selling instrumental group of all time. But more than that, the Ventures were trend-setters in guitar technique. Among other innovations, they introduced fuzz guitar and pioneered the use of flanging effects (look it up). Although The Ventures did not consider themselves “surf rockers,” nevertheless they were the archetypes for the surf-rock genre.
The Ventures used Fender guitars and bass for most of their career, except for a period in the mid-60s when they signed a contract with Mosrite guitars, who issued special “Ventures Model” instruments. Once that contract ended, the group returned to using Fender products.
The Ventures’ fortunes declined in the 70s in the States, although they are still considered rock gods in Japan (being an instrumental band, there is no language barrier to surmount). However, the band experienced a resurgence in popularity in the 80s in the U.S., when surf-rock music came back into fashion.
The group saw a big bump in the 90s, when Quentin Tarantino featured a cover of Nokie Edwards’ Surf Rider in his blockbuster film Pulp Fiction. In 2008, The Ventures were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Alas, the only original Venture still alive today is Don Wilson. We wish him all the best and we applaud the accomplishments of his bandmates.