How A Battle Creek Dad Became a Music Legend
Charles Westover was just a young dad working in a carpet store in Battle Creek in 1961. The job put food on the table for his wife, Shirley, and their three young kids. “Chuck” had finished his service in the Air Force, which had brought the family to Fort Custer in Battle Creek. Shirley even worked as a ticket agent for North Central Airlines at Kellogg Airport for a time. The family lived at Brown’s Trailer Park on Avenue A, just west of town.
After work, Chuck moonlighted, playing guitar and singing at the Hi-Lo Club four nights a week with his group, “The Charlie Johnson Band.” One day, a new song came to him, with help from his keyboard player Max Crook and the band, and his life would soon change.
Sixty years ago today, January 21st, 1961, Charles “Chuck” Westover recorded the timeless hit, “Runaway” in New York City, under the stage name of Del Shannon. The song was so new and different that it was an instant hit, propelling him to instant stardom.
One night in 1960 on the bandstand at the Hi-Lo Club in Battle Creek’s Gilbert Hotel, Westover heard Crook playing a unique-sounding chord progression—one different than the simple 12-bar blues, or du-wop chords used in the songs of the day. Crook, from Ann Arbor, was a student at nearby Western Michigan University and had joined the band a few months before. Westover heard the chords and a new song started to come to him. He said later that he scratched down some of it between customers at the carpet store.
The band and local fans immediately loved the song that would evolve into “Runaway.” They played it over and over at the Hi-Lo Club to perfect it, so much that the manager of the club had to tell them to knock it off and play something else. Meanwhile, Westover’s songs were getting noticed and there was a chance to go to New York and record them.
Shirley, now 84, remembers that January in 1961 when she and Chuck, and Max Crook with his wife, Joanne, piled into a 1957 Plymouth, with rusted out floorboards and no heat and headed for New York City to record the song. “Chuck smoked stogies, and Max was allergic to smoke. So they both had the windows down, in the middle of January, with no heat.”
The studio hired some of the top musicians in the city for the date, including session guitarists Al Caiola, and Bucky Pizzarelli, bassist Milt Hinton and Joe Marshall on drums. Bill Ramall, who was the arranger for the session, also played baritone sax. But the attention in the studio focused on the young keyboard player from Michigan, Max Crook. Crook was experimenting with electronics to get a new keyboard sound, several years before the first synthesizer. Crook called his gadget the Musitron, and its new and fresh sound blew everybody away. Between that, the unique chord progression used in “Runaway” and Chuck’s (Del’s) vocals, the producers knew they had a hit. "Runaway" was released in February 1961. Three weeks later, it was selling 80,000 copies a day!
From the Battle Creek Enquirer, March 29, 1961
Charles Johnson of Battle Creek who sings under the professional name of Del Shannon opens March 31 at the Paramount Theater in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is also scheduled for a TV appearance on Dick Clark’s show on April 10, according to his pal, Chuck Marsh of WELL. Del, before departing for the coast happily reported that his to Big Top recordings, “Runaway” and “Jody” both of which he wrote, are doing real well.
The Westover family returned to Battle Creek for a short time and then moved to Southfield after the record took off.