Transcript 81–Runaway

NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.

Well, hello there; and welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, a weekly podcast that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.

My name is Claude Call, but I don’t know that for a fact; I’m just taking my parents’ word for it.

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Here’s a fun trivia question for ye: back in the 60s there was a band called The Big Thing. Their usual material ran along the lines of protest songs, against things like President Nixon, the Military Industrial Complex, or pollution in the environment, but they also did covers of Top 40 hits before changing their name and making it big. What is the name we now know them by?

As usual, I’ll have that answer at the end of the program.

[INSTRUMENTAL]

Today we’re gonna talk about Charles Weedon Westover the son of Bert and Leone Mosher Westover, and a native of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Charlie grew up in the nearby town of Coopersville, Michigan and learned to play the ukulele and guitar, and listened to a lot of that old-school Country and Western music, largely because old-school is all the Country and Western music there was in those days.

Charlie was drafted into the US Army in 1954, and while he spent some time in Germany, he played in a band called “The Cool Flames.” After his tour of duty ended, he returned to Michigan, a city called Battle Creek. He spent his days selling carpeting and transporting furniture, and his evenings as the rhythm guitar player in a band called “The Moonlight Ramblers”, fronted by a guy named Doug DeMott.

In 1958, however, Doug DeMott was fired from that group for drunkenness, and Charlie Westover took over as the singer, calling himself Charlie Johnson and changing the name of the band to the Big Little Show Band. But it wasn’t until 1959 that things started to happen for Charlie and company, when he added a keyboard player named Max Crook to the lineup. You see, Crook had invented a musical instrument called the Musitron, and its sound really changed things for the Big Little Show Band.

So what is the Musitron? I’m glad you asked. The Musitron is a modified version of the Clavioline. And the Clavioline is one of the forerunners of the analog synthesizer. A typical Clavioline is basically a keyboard, a separate amplifier and speaker, and a bunch of switches in between. The switches are meant to change the sound of the tone that the keyboard produces, by maybe adding some vibrato or other effect to the tone. Here’s a brief clip of someone demonstrating a Clavioline. First he holds down a single key and plays with the switches. You’ll hear him speaking in German briefly, then he does a little bit on the keyboard, and finally he holds a single note but plays with a knob that adjusts the pitch. Notice, by the way, that the keys are kind of noisy:

[CLAVIOLINE DEMO into BABY YOU’RE A RICH MAN]

You’ve heard a more typical Clavioline in songs like “Telstar”, and on the Beatles’ “Baby You’re a Rich Man”, which John Lennon set to sound kind of like an oboe. Now, I don’t know the specifics, but Max Crook took a Clavioline and modified it pretty heavily to come up with the Musitron. One thing I do know is that it has a smaller range of notes; a Clavioline has three octaves of range while the Musitron, according to Crook, only has two-and-a-half octaves. Not a lot of notes’ worth of difference, but still different.

[INSTRUMENTAL]

It was Crook who made some recordings and caught the attention of a local disc jockey to listen to the band. That DJ, Ollie McLaughlin, brought the demos to Bigtop Records, and they were signed to a contract in 1960. The bigshots at Bigtop suggested that Charlie Westover change his name, so Charlie took on the name Del Shannon, deriving the name Shannon from a local wrestler, and Del from the Cadillac Coupe De Ville, which was his favorite car.

Bigtop Records wasn’t especially impressed with “Runaway,” which was still titled “Little Runaway.” They thought it was too gimmicky because of the Musitron’s prominence in the song, and it tried to be a couple of different things without really committing to any of them. Now, what’s interesting to me is that they’d really worked out that song when they were playing live. Both Del Shannon and Max Crook said in interviews that they’d play the song over and over, trying to nail certain sections until the club manager complained and told them to play something else.

But by 1961 he’d re-worked “Little Runaway” into “Runaway”, eliminating the Musitron early in the song, really up until the bridge, but then you hear it through the rest of the record. The song was recorded on January 21, 1961 at the Bell Sound Recording Studios and released just a few weeks later.

Now, while the Musitron definitely gave “Runaway” a sound that practically nobody had heard before, I want to call attention to Moe Wechsler’s work on the piano early in the song. Listen specifically for that:

[RUNAWAY]

There isn’t a lot of it, but to my ear that piano does two things. First, the opening makes the song sound like Surf Rock, but the piano immediately takes that notion away. And second, because it’s taking the place of the Musitron, it’s doing a lot of the heavy lifting in that first half of the song. A lot of the notes Wechsler’s playing are echoed in Max Crook’s bridge, but it’s really the other way around. Crook wrote the bridge when they first put the song together, so now Wechsler is just foreshadowing what you’re going to hear. So the piano, in my opinion, is the Sneaky MVP of this track.

The record was released in February of 1961 and charted almost immediately. After just eight weeks, on April 24, “Runaway” was the Number One song on the Billboard Hot 100, where it stayed for four weeks. Just a few weeks later it reached the top of the New Musical Express AND the Record Retailer charts in the UK, where it spent about three weeks, and it was a top Five hit in several European nations plus Australia and New Zealand.

The song has been covered many times, including a pair of re-recordings that Del Shannon himself did. The first was in 1967, and after its release it reached Number 122 on Billboard’s Bubbling Under chart. And in 1986 he recorded a version with slightly different lyrics, which was the theme for the NBC series Crime Story, which was set in the early 60s.

[ELVIS]

Elvis Presley covered the song during a series of concerts in the summer and fall of 1969, which appeared on the album On Stage February, 1970. As it happened, Del Shannon was in the audience one night and Elvis pointed him out to the crowd. I’m told you can hear that on the Collectors Gold album, but I’ll leave that one to you to hunt down.

[LAWRENCE WELK]

Here’s one from the What The Hell file: this is Lawrence Welk and his orchestra, and it managed to spend six weeks on the Hot 100, peaking at Number 56. It was also a Top Five record in Hong Kong and Number 8 on Canada’s C H U M Hit Parade. How about that!

[BONNIE RAITT]

I think my personal favorite cover comes from 1977. Bonnie Raitt did it in a more bluesy style for her album Sweet Forgiveness. As a single it went to Number 58. You hear that? It didn’t do as well as Lawrence Welk! What’s the matter with people?

[WILBURYS]

Supergroup The Traveling Wilburys did a cover, with Jeff Lynne singing lead. You can find that on the 2007 reissue of the Traveling Wilburys, Volume 3 CD. Of course, Roy Orbison doesn’t appear on the record since he’d already died by then, but this song is especially poignant because, after Orbison’s death, Del Shannon was being considered to replace him in the Traveling Wilburys. Unfortunately, Shannon was suffering from depression and took his own life in February of 1990. The Wilburys’ recording was a tribute to Del Shannon, and Jeff Lynne helped co-produce Shannon’s last album, which was released posthumously the following year. There’s no credit for Max Crook on the Wilburys album, but it does sound like they used the Musitron in the bridge.

Del Shannon had a bunch of hits but “Runaway” was his biggest. Shannon was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Class of 1999.

And now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I told you about a band that was originally known as The Big Thing before they became a Big Thing, and what their name was when they got famous. Well, The Big Thing got its origins in February of 1967, mostly as college students and having played with other groups. Later that year they added a bass player and another singer who could sing in the tenor range, and in mid-1968 their manager talked them into moving to Los Angeles and signing with Columbia Records. That’s when they changed their name to Chicago Transit Authority. Shortly after their first album came out, they shortened their name to Chicago to avoid a lawsuit being threatened by the real-life transit company with that name.

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