pop culture

The Skipper, Mary Ann and Del Shannon

In the summer of 1989, my brother John and I went on a road trip to watch the Cubs. But the most memorable moments had nothing to do with baseball..

The Cubs package tour took us to the West Coast in July, 1989. We saw games in San Diego and Los Angeles with a group of senior citizens but the best part of the trip occurred as we prepared to fly home to Chicago.

In the LAX waiting area, we saw Alan Hale Jr., aka “The Skipper” from Gilligan’s Island. We knew it was him because he was wearing his trademark captain’s hat and carrying a small suitcase on which “Alan Hale Jr.” was written in large letters. He and his former Gilligan’s Island co-star Dawn Wells (aka “Mary Ann”) were flying to Chicago for a “three hour cruise” radio station promotion.

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I will go to my grave with some regrets, and while failing to ask The Skipper to hit me with his hat is not in the top 100, it’s on the list.

After that initial excitement, I was casually reading the newspaper when my brother nudged me and remarked, “Hey, that guy looks like Del Shannon.”

Having seen Shannon perform recently in an oldies show, I immediately realized THAT REALLY IS DEL SHANNON!

This was a big deal, as we’d been fans of the singer-songwriter since became famous in the early 1960s with hits like Runaway, Keep Searchin and Handy Man.

Being fans, we rushed at him, which seemed to freak him out. After all, it had been decades since Del Shannon was a hit-making pop star.

He relaxed a little when I showed him my cassette of his most recent album.

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Shannon, who was also flying to Chicago, briefly chatted with us. I recall asking about a rumor he might replace the recently deceased Roy Orbison in the Traveling Wilburys. He said no one had talked to him about it, but it seemed as though he’d like to be asked.

After a few minutes we wished him well and assumed our Del Shannon story was over.

But…

I had forgotten to ask for an autograph. In the air, I summoned up the nerve and the most amazing thing happened: Del asked if I wanted to hear what he was working on!

He handed me a cassette and I rushed back to the seat so John and I could listen.

On the tape were tracks from the album he was recording with producer Jeff Lynne (ELO, Tom Petty, Traveling Wilburys). Some tracks were finished and fully produced while others were works in progress. These had only guitar and voice. Other instruments would later be added.

We thought the finished tracks somewhat over-produced. But the unfinished tracks, with Del’s still-amazing voice as the sole focus, were thrilling.

When we returned the tape, we told him we loved the unproduced tracks and suggested  he release them as they were.

This was before it became a thing for singers to issue stripped-down “unplugged” recordings and Del was incredulous. “There are no drums,” he said.

“Your voice is what people want to hear,” we insisted.

After his initial success in the early 60s, Del found hits hard to come by. Though he only had one top 40 in the last decade of his life (Sea of Love hit #33 in 1981) he never stopped performing. He was always appreciated by his contemporaries and rockers who care about musical roots.

He influenced people like Tom Petty,  who name-checks Del on Runnin’ Down a Dream and who produced Drop Down and Get Me, the last Shannon album released in Del’s lifetime.

Del thanked us for the feedback, but clearly didn’t agree. He wanted hits and believed Lynne, the hottest producer in pop music, was his ticket back to prominence.

It was not to be.

On February 8, 1990, Del Shannon, who’d been fighting depression and other issues for decades, took his life.

Lynne finished the album and Rock On was released in 1991. Despite decent reviews, it was not a big hit.

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Del Shannon was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. He’s cited as a link between Elvis and the Beatles.

It’s not always wise to meet your idols, but we were thrilled for the chance to tell Del Shannon, born December 30, 1934, how much he meant to us and how much we loved his music.

Happy birthday, Del. Rock On!

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