Hats off to Charles Westover.

I just came across a fine article at "The Best Years of Music" on '60s R&R singer Del Shannon. I hate to date myself (though I save $50 a weekend when I do), but I personally learned a key business lesson from this early rock maverick. More on that in a moment.

Shannon—whose real name was Charles Westover—heard my LA rock band, The Band of Angels, at a small nightclub in the San Fernanco Valley in the early '70s and expressed an immediate interest in producing us.

In addition to his success as a recording artist (known for his piercing falsetto and highly original compositions), Shannon had produced hits for others ("Baby It's You" by Smith and "Gypsy Woman" by Brian Hyland), and had discovered Bob Seger a few years earlier. He was also the first American artist to recognize the Beatles' songwriting potential—after they had opened for him in London in 1963—and got his own version of the Beatles' "From Me to You" onto the US record charts long before they did.

So when Shannon dubbed us "a combination of the Rolling Stones and Everly Brothers" we took notice. But not enough notice, apparently, because we got busy and he got busy, and nothing came of it. (Come to think of it, that seemed to happen a lot in my music career at the time.)

But we did get to play a concert with Shannon at the Hollywood Bowl in 1972, a highlight of my rock & roll years. But back to the business lesson.

Shannon was the first fellow I met who beat me over the head with the message that the serious dollars in the music biz are to be made from songwriting, not from making records and touring. (Merchandising was not on anyone's radar in those days.) He exhorted me and my band mates to write, write, write. (And then write some more.)

He didn't use the term "passive income," but that's what he meant. Hit songs lead to ongoing revenue streams for songwriters—due in part to "performance rights income" from radio play—that can last long into retirement. (There's even more dough to be made if you have a share of the publishing income.) Nowadays every financial self-help guru says the same thing: passive income is the path to freedom.

Del Shannon followed his own advice and had nearly a dozen hits in the US (more in the UK), including three top-tens—"Runaway," "Hats Off To Larry" (a hit forty-nine years ago this month), and "Keep Searchin' (We'll Follow the Sun)."

Now it's true he was wired pretty tight and a bit of an eccentric. (When he shared the bill with other artists on the rock reunion tours, he was known to come back for an encore even after the next act had been introduced by the MC—always a delightful surprise for everyone involved.) But he was a fun guy to be around, and a highly talented singer/songwriter/guitarist.

Here's a live 1988 performance of a Peter & Gordon classic—which most people don't realize Shannon wrote.


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12 Comments

  1. He was 30 years before my time but I spose he was a decent singer...but 'rock maverick'...'highly talented singer/songwriter/guitarist'? Am I missing something? But you can't knock passive income.

  2. In answer to your question, Anon: yes.

    In the post Presley-Berry-Holly-Richard era (in the day after "the day the music died") when you had the pretty boy clones of Buddy Holly singing sappy pop songs written by old dudes in an office (1960-1964), along comes this crazy fella who writes his OWN songs (and interesting ones at that, with curious major to minor chords), plays GREAT guitar, and sings with this amazing (especially for a white guy) falsetto. Shannon was truly an original in an era dominated by schlock - which was occasionally and mercifully interrupted by the some brilliant Motown gems - until the Beatles crashed the scene in 1964. Thank God for Charles.

  3. Dee, I always thought "Hats Off to Larry" was a pretty sophisticated tune for 1961. I've wondered if Del might have had some influence on Lennon & McCartney's early songwriting, given how many hits he had in England between 1961 and 1963, when L-M were starting to really crank out the songs. I'll have to see if the Beatles did any of his tunes in their club days.

  4. Thanks, Dee. I forgot how much I *LOVE* this song (another Hal David - Burt Bacharach gem). The early Beatles did a nice job on it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LEIGnc38dQk&feature=related

    This is one of the few songs I like almost EVERY version of! The Shirelles of course recorded it first. (They performed it at my college prom - a few short years ago.) Elvis Costello did a decent cover of it too.

  5. I love your reminiscences John and I remember the 60's with the same affection.

    Del Shannon was popular on this side of the pond. I didn’t realise his close affinity with The Beatles - or indeed your close association with another rock legend - what might have been eh? – Do you have any regrets about how things turned out?

    Sad to hear Del Shannon took his own life - …. As Stevie Wonder says it seems the good they die young.

  6. Trevor, very few things score high on my regretometer.

    As my friends have long pointed out, when greatness was thrust upon me, I ducked.

  7. Hey John!
    When I was learning to play drums, the first songs I learned on were 'Walk, Don't Run' by the Ventures and 'Runaway' by Del Shannon. Del was quite a guy, and I didn't realize how busy he was over the years.

    In addition to 'write, write, write,' it should also be stated that 'publishing, publishing, publishing,' is where the money is, the passive income.

    Del is missed for sure!!

    :-)

  8. Yes, Nick, the publishing is the other half of the songwriting income. Of course in the "old days" it was very rare for a musical artist to get a piece of the publishing. But once a song is making money the income is "passive" for the writer AND publisher. I now publish my own songs —under the name We Call It Music (BMI)—though I'm not QUITE ready to retire from my songwriting/publishing income. :-)

  9. Dee, the guys at "The Best Years of Music" are true rock & roll archeologists. This week I found another half dozen great articles there on early rock progenitors. Here's one on Huey "Piano" Smith of New Orleans, who I did not know wrote "Sea Cruise" - made famous by Frankie Ford. Ford used the identical instrumental track that Huey had previously recorded for the song and made it a huge hit. http://strathdee.wordpress.com/2010/05/31/huey-piano-smith-the-clowns/

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