It’s no longer much of a secret whatsoever Yours Quite Truly passed the vast majority of those dreaded Late 80s criss-crossing O Canada as part of the Great White Northland’s – ah-hemm, authorized however, I’ll have you know! – Beach Boys tribute combo known as Endless Summer. And as our reputation, not to mention skill at reproducing Big Brother Brian‘s vocals right there on stage grew, we found ourselves increasingly on call to accompany other such vintage acts whenever they toured the cooler side of the 49th parallel. A New Year’s Day soirée joining an understandably bemused post-Rain Man Dixie Cups on “Iko Iko” springs immediately to mind …but I digress.
It was in this very capacity one hot summer night we were beckoned upon to not only open for, but remain in place to back none other than Del Shannon as part of a gigantic 1986 Canada Day celebration just outside of Toronto. It was an especially particular thrill for me, having been riveted two decades earlier by the man’s utterly other-worldly trill spilling from my six transistors: yep, it was “Keep Searchin’,” its final 20-some-odd seconds especially, slowly but defiantly creeping up local 1050 CHUM-AM’s Hot Hit Parade in the midst of each and every British Invader.
Cut to the momentous evening of June 30th, 1986, in the basement office/rehearsal space of our Central Management agency. Word has just filtered through The Man has been picked up at the airport and is on his way! We tune-up, step up, and run through his set one more time. Quite soon though, a perfectly shadowy figure appears without fanfare in the doorway. Barely acknowledging us, his band-du-jour, the gentleman removes his coat, slings on his Epiphone Coronet, and gently asks where to plug in. Directed towards a nearby Fender Twin, he pauses. “Does this amp belong to one of you guys or is it a rental?” Assured it is the latter, he grins, fires up, turns up – to at least “11,” and lets the A-minors positively FLAIL for the next 90-minutes-plus. Even our resident lead guitarist, that summer endlessly hogging the cassette deck in our van with nothing but V. Halen’s 5150, can’t help but be mightily impressed.
But before packing things up for the night I venture to gently enquire why “I Go To Pieces” – quite possibly my favorite Shannonsong of all time – isn’t on the roster. “Oh, that’s a tricky one. It’s a duet you know,” Del says. I ask “Can we try it though? I’m pretty sure I know the harmony part.” Three minutes and four choruses later, with a verdict of “Not bad; we’ll see what happens at the show,” Del climbs back up the stairs, and… that appears to be that.
We follow him towards the office kitchen, where a fresh spread of hot dogs are being grilled and lemonade’s being poured. Asked to join us, Del nods non-committedly before stepping outside “for some air.” We watch through the main set of windows at the man now pacing, determinedly, in ever tighter circles as we begin shoveling condiments upon our franks. “Gary, go fetch him in. Tell him dinner’s ready” E.S. manager Don suggests, and as I approach, the ever-cryptic Del offers “It’s been a pretty busy year” – his first, and still biggest “Runaway” hit is about to gain fresh life via NBC-TV’s Crime Story – “but I’m feeling pretty good!” He seems to feel even better after a hot dog or three, before being driven back to his hotel room as we prepare to head to the festival site.
The following afternoon, after soundcheck (and more hot dogs), Don’s latest Lincoln Continental pulls backstage and out climbs Del, who darts immediately into his privately assigned dressing area while management tells me “I don’t know. I just don’t know. The man didn’t say a single word to me the whole two-hour drive here.” I nod, down another dog, and prepare for our opening set.
Spot on 9 PM, the P.A. booms “Ladies and gentlemen! Boys and girls! It gives me great, great pleasure to introduce our Star for the evening. To close our whole weekend of festivities, what you’ve all been waiting for… I give you… The Legendary Del Shannon!!” And as we vamp him on with – what else? – that trademark “Runaway” riff, the Star for the evening positively bounds from the wings, summoning some deep manner of unseen yet truly infectious raw energy… and it’s all us young ‘uns can somehow do to keep pace. Halfway through Our Hero even pauses to announce “Here’s one we don’t do too often,” turns to me, and we proceed to busk a fully charming “I Go To Pieces,” my patented Peter & Gordon vocal accompaniment acknowledged afterwards with a sincerely appreciative wink.
Now, in no way would my mere twenty-four-hour, quite limited interaction with the man qualify me as an expert on every, if any thing Del. But what I can say is that I instantly recognized, and remember most fondly to this day the profound, powerful spirit – of the Rock and the Roll – this man eminently possessed. It’s apparent in his music, of course. But to stand in the same room, let alone share the same stage with it, however fleetingly, is something I’ve rarely experienced to such an extent.
Others have said those who shine brightest burn most briefly. Del Shannon? Well, we’ll meet again soon …maybe.
CHARLES WEEDON WESTOVER.
Born December 30, 1934. Died February 8, 1990.