Petty’s Return Recalls Legacy Of Del Shannon
By Roger Catlin
Hartford Courant — September 19, 1991
The song was “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” a nod to Del Shannon, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were performing it the last time they were at the Hartford Civic Center, Feb. 8, 1990.
It was the same night Del Shannon took his life.
The sadness of his death was made more puzzling by the fact that Shannon was working on one of his most satisfying recordings in a long time.
It had been eight years since Petty produced Shannon’s earlier comeback album, “Drop Down and Get Me,” and Shannon was busy completing tracks on his album, produced by the Heartbreakers’ ace guitarist, Mike Campbell.
Jeff Lynne, who has produced the last two Petty albums, “Full Moon Fever” and “Into the Great Wide Open,” was also involved in Shannon’s album.
Petty co-wrote the opening tune “Walk Away” with Shannon and Lynne and also played guitar and sang on the track. Petty also lent vocals or guitar to three other songs. Fellow Heartbreakers Howie Epstein and Benmont Tench also joined in on various tracks.
The album was nearly complete when Shannon died, according to his longtime manager Dan Bourgoise.
Now, with Petty in town for another Heartbreakers concert at the Hartford Civic Center tonight, Shannon’s final album — “Rock On!” — is about to be released on MCA Records.
Like Roy Orbison’s posthumous album, Shannon’s work shows he maintained the strong voice and rocking sensibility that made him a star in the pre-Beatles 1960s and keeps him sounding contemporary because of his influence on so many performers.
More than that, “Rock On!” looks as if it were an audition for Shannon’s rumored joining of the Traveling Wilburys, the sideline group formed by Orbison, Petty, Lynne, Bob Dylan and George Harrison. It’s logical that Shannon was being groomed for the classic-rock-voice slot left open by the death of Orbison. Not only was he eminently qualified, he had associated with nearly every member.
Lynne, a diehard Shannon fan long before he met Petty, convinced Shannon to record three tracks with him as producer in 1973, when Lynne was still a member of Electric Light Orchestra.
Just one of those tracks was released, and only overseas. In 1975 Lynne produced another single for Shannon called “Cry Baby Cry.” Shannon met Harrison when he was on tour in England in 1963. Subsequently, Shannon’s recording of “From Me to You” became the first John Lennon-Paul McCartney tune to chart in the United States — some six months before the Beatles made their first trip here. Harrison’s slide guitar is unmistakable on one track of Shannon’s new album — “When I Had You” — although the ex-Beatle is uncredited.
Petty has always acknowledged Shannon as a major influence. By 1981, Petty was a growing talent, with three hit albums under his belt (“You’re Gonna Get It!,” “Damn the Torpedoes” and “Hard Promises”) and two hit singles (“Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Refugee.”)
He ran into his hero when Shannon was going through one of his periodic Nashville stints, trying to establish himself as a country talent.
“When I met him in the office, he said, ‘What are you doing going down to Nashville? You’re a rocker, man!’ ” Shannon once recalled of his first meeting with Petty. “That’s all I really had to hear. He let me be Del Shannon, and he didn’t try to change this much or that much.” Their subsequent album together, “Drop Down and Get Me” in 1982, garnered Shannon’s first Top 40 hit in nearly 20 years: a remake of Phil Phillips’ “Sea of Love.” And there was always a connection with Orbison; Shannon used to sing Orbison’s “Crying” in concert, as captured in the 1973 “Live in England.” “Del was a natural” to become a Wilbury, Bill Holdship writes in the liner notes to “Del Shannon: Greatest Hits,” released last year on Rhino Records. “After all, his version of ‘Crying’ is as right in its own way as Roy’s definitive take.” At any rate, Lynne’s production on “Let’s Rock!” is similar in style to his work for Harrison, Petty and the Wilburys.
There are traces of the past all over “Let’s Rock.” Lynne adds the “Runaway” organ to “Are You Lovin’ Me, Too.” Campbell brings the Byrds’ 12-string sound to “Callin’ Out My Name,” and Shannon’s voice sounds as clear and direct as it did a generation ago.
Being associated with oldies is inevitable for anyone who had so many hits in the early ’60s — from “Runaway” and “Hats Off to Larry” to “Keep Searchin’ (We’ll Follow the Sun)” and “Stranger in Town.” Shannon also made a good living covering oldies, including “Handy Man” in 1964 and “Sea of Love” in 1981.
On the new album, only “What Kind of Fool Do You Think I Am,” the 1964 hit by the Tams, gets a cover version. (Some may think his version of Peter and Gordon’s “I Go to Pieces” is a cover, but Shannon actually wrote that song).
If Shannon’s post-hit career was a coin flip between rock and country, he seems to have resolved the conflict in the final track on the short collection. “Let’s Dance” tunes up fiddles and guitars for a hoedown that slows for a bit of Jerry Lee Lewis country.
“I hadn’t seen him this excited in years,” Bourgoise says in the liner notes. “Del was doing what he loved most and was working in the studio with some of his best pals.” Seventeen months after his death, Del Shannon’s voice remains alive on the new release, and his spirit continues in the many musicians he influenced — particularly Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers perform tonight at the Hartford Civic Center. Chris Whitley opens the show at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets are $19.50 and $25. For more information, call 727-8010.