I’m a-walkin’ in the rain.
Tears are fallin’ and I feel the pain…
To fans of Pleistocene rock and roll, Del Shannon will forever be known for the plaintive falsetto of his 1961 hit “Runaway.” But in the years since that bittersweet classic topped the charts, Shannon had become something of a runaway himself, trying to escape personal demons he imagined were always just over his shoulder. “Over the years, I think he privately became, in a sense, the morose character in his songs,” says Dan Bourgoise, Shannon’s longtime manager.
On the night of Feb. 8, Shannon, 55, apparently gave in to his demons. His wife, Bonnie, who had been out shopping, returned to their home in the Santa Clarita Valley, north of L.A., to find the singer slumped in a chair, a bullet wound in his right temple and a .22 caliber rifle at his feet. “Del had gone through bouts of depression,” says Mike Crowley of the L.A. County Sheriffs Department. “We’re pretty sure it’s a straight suicide.”
Yet the singer left no note, and family and friends, while acknowledging that Shannon sometimes grew dispirited, could not cite any event that might have sparked his fatal decision. Bourgoise, insisting Shannon had no financial worries, says that royalties and concert fees brought the former pop idol well into six figures annually. He and Bonnie, 36, his second wife of just two years, had recently moved into a new $800,000, four-bedroom house, and he was planning a tour of England that was to start in April. Bonnie believes her husband’s death was an accident. “Del was too loving, too considerate a person to do something like this,” she says. “He would never do it, knowing it would hurt those who loved him.”
Others who knew him suggest that Shannon may simply have succumbed to a despondency that had grown slowly but steadily since his heyday. Born Charles Weedon Westover in Coopersville, Mich., Shannon was working in a carpet store and moonlighting at the Hi-Lo Club in Battle Creek, Mich., when “Runaway” soared to the top of the charts. And while Shannon followed up with a string of successful singles, including “Hats Off to Larry,” “Little Town Flirt” and “Keep Searchin’,” he never felt secure in his success. “He was always afraid it would be taken away,” says Bourgoise.
With the British music invasion in the mid-’60s, that nearly happened. Various attempts to repackage himself as an artist failed, and a nascent drinking problem got out of control. “When I was 20, I was drinking,” Shannon told the Los Angeles Times last year. “When I was 30, I was drinking more, and at 40, way too much.”
In recent years Shannon had put booze behind him, and the ’80s had seen improvement in his professional fortunes. Friend and fan Tom Petty helped Shannon record his first LP in eight years, Drop Down and Get Me, in 1981, and in 1986 Shannon rewrote the lyrics to “Runaway” for the TV series Crime Story. He frequently played oldies shows and was in the process of recording another album.
But Shannon remained troubled. “A lot of people couldn’t see it on the outside, but he worried about everything,” says Bourgoise. Around 6:30 P.M. on Feb. 8, Shannon called his onetime manager and close friend of more than 30 years, Wayne Carter. “He was depressed, but I’d heard him sound that way many times,” Carter says. “I told him we ought to get together for breakfast and rap about what was troubling him.”
By the next morning, however, Shannon was dead, leaving behind Bonnie, her daughter, Shannon, 16, and three children—son Craig, 33, and daughters Kym, 29, and Jody, 28—from his first, 30-year marriage to Shirley Nash, 53. Following a memorial service, Bourgoise and Craig plan to scatter the singer’s ashes over the desert. For now, Shannon’s family and friends, like the character in the singer’s most famous song, can only wonder why.
—Cynthia Sanz, Dan Knapp in the Santa Clarita Valley