“Runaway” was written by Shannon and keyboardist Max Crook, and became a major international hit. Singer-guitarist Charles Westover and keyboard player Max Crook performed together as members of “Charlie Johnson and the Big Little Show Band” in Battle Creek, Michigan, before their group won a recording contract in 1960. Westover took the new stage name “Del Shannon”, and Crook, who had invented his own clavioline-based electric keyboard called a Musitron, became “Maximilian”. The Musitron is what is heard during the break in this song. It is No. 472 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, compiled in 2010.
Del explained how the song was born:
“‘We were on stage [at the Hi-Lo Lounge in Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1960] and Max (Crook) hit an A minor and a G and I said, ‘Max, play that again, it’s a great change.'” The drummer, Dick Parker, followed them and after 15 minutes, the manager of the club shouted, ‘Knock it off, play something else.'”
Charlie went to work the next day in his job as a carpet salesman with those chords stuck in his mind, and by the time he took the stage that night, he’d written a song called “Little Runaway” around them—(A-minor) “As I walk along I” (G) “wonder, what went wrong…”. It would be three more months before Shannon and his band could make it to a New York recording studio to record the song that Shannon now saw as his best, and possibly last, shot at stardom. As he told Billboard magazine years later, “I just said to myself, if this record isn’t a hit, I’m going back into the carpet business.” Del Shannon sold his last carpet a few months later, as “Runaway” roared up the pop charts on its way to #1 in April 1961.
Like most stars of his generation, Shannon was primarily regarded as an Oldies act through the 70s and 80s, but he was in the midst of a concerted comeback effort in early 1990, with a Jeff Lynne-produced album of original material already completed (“Rock On”) and rumors swirling of his taking the late Roy Orbison’s place in The Traveling Wilburys. This only added to the shock experienced by many when Shannon shot himself in his Santa Clarita, California home on February 3, 1990. Following his death, the Traveling Wilburys honored him by recording a version of “Runaway”.
Shannon’s widow would later file a high-profile lawsuit against Eli Lilly, the manufacturer of the antidepressant Prozac, which Shannon had begun taking shortly before his suicide. That suit was eventually dropped, but the case brought early attention to the still-unresolved question of the possible connection between suicidal ideation and SSRIs, the class of drugs to which Prozac belongs.
Shannon was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999 and the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame in 2005.
Tom Petty makes reference to this in “Runnin’ Down A Dream”. The line is, “…The trees went by, me and Del were singing, a little runaway…”
Here is Del doing “Runaway” on the David Letterman Show in 1987.