Sunday, January 15, 2017

Del and Dylan: Fewer Than Six Degrees of Separation


Del Shannon, 1965
Where to begin, where to begin . . . let’s start on the weekend of April 17-18, 1964 in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the spring of my freshman year in college. Among the performers we had booked for what was then known as the Freshman Jubilee Weekend were two men whose names will be forever linked, however remotely, in music history. Saturday night was a big dance featuring 30-year old Del Shannon whose 1961 chart-topping hit “Runaway” has been covered over the years by such luminaries as Elvis, John Mayall, The Beach Boys, The Traveling Wilburys, and Bonnie Raitt who performed it at Shannon’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.

Dylan in NYC, 1962*
The Friday night show was a much quieter affair, a performance by Bob Dylan, then just 23 years old but shaking the foundations of the music world having already released three albums and played Carnegie Hall. It had been rumored all week that another young folk singer named Joan Baez would make a surprise appearance as the two had been inviting each other to do guest spots at concerts. Sure enough, after intermission, out she came dressed all in white and looking quite distinct from the scruffy denim-and-leather troubadour by her side. The show took place at a local high school, and we were transfixed by this Midwestern hick, the raven-haired beauty with whom he shared the stage, and their still relatively new sound, a sound that in retrospect was nothing less than the leading edge of a mighty (and now well-documented) shift in popular music. Nevertheless, we were clear that Shannon was the “featured” performer that weekend.

Three years earlier, both artists were just getting started in New York City. On January 21 at the Bell Sound Studios, Shannon, his keyboard player Max Crook who was using his own invention, a precursor to the synthesizer he called the Musitron, and session musicians including legendary guitarist Al Caiola spent just three hours laying down tracks for “Runaway.” The song was released on the Bigtop label, and in less than two months, “Runaway” had reached #1 on the Billboard charts and was selling 80,000 copies a day.

Bob Dylan arrived in New York City on January 24 having thumbed his way east from Minneapolis. Crashing in fellow folkies’ living rooms, visiting Woody Guthrie whose songs he was singing in Greenwich Village coffee houses, and telling tall tales of his early days as a roustabout out West, Dylan wasted no time getting himself up to, on, and off the music history launching pad in record time.

Tracking music careers often presents a dizzying array of sidemen, cities, and circumstances. It’s tough to keep it all straight, especially when the careers are as lengthy and meandering as Shannon’s and Dylan’s were (and still are in Dylan’s case). Throw in misunderstandings, disappointments, false starts, and the usual issues surrounding the plethora of business deals and promotional decisions that must be made for songs to become hits, hits to become albums, and albums to become popular and it’s easy for casual observers to lose track ofall but the most well-publicized of details. The two decades that flew by between that April weekend in 1964 and the last six years before Del Shannon, suffering from depression and disappointment, took his own life were filled with ups and downs for both men, musically as well as personally. But their careers nearly intersected once more during the two years, 1988-1990, when Dylan was a member of the Traveling Wilburys.

Shannon had collaborated with Tom Petty in 1978 and ten years later was working with Petty and fellow Wilbury member Jeff Lynne on an album called Rock On! When Roy Orbison, also a Wilbury, died of heart failure in 1988 just after their first album was released, it was rumored that Shannon might take his place in the group for their second album. It was not meant to be apparently, and on February 8, 1990, Shannon committed suicide. To honor him, Lynne and Petty completed production on Rock On! and released it posthumously.

Shannon was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. Two bold markers honoring him stand tall and easily accessible in Michigan, the artist’s home state. One is in Battle Creek where Shannon wrote “Runaway,” and the other in his home town of Coopersville, halfway between Grand Rapids and Lake Michigan.

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Phil Fitzpatrick is an author and poet who last year presented Home Is Where The Start Is: North Country Echoes in Bob Dylan's Life and Music. If able, Mr. Fitzpatrick will make the presentation again at the 2017 Duluth Dylan Fest. 

*Photo courtesy the William Pagel collection; Photo credit: Ted Russell

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