Del Shannon’s Former Wife Remembers Battle Creek in the Early 1960s
Shirley Small lives in sunny Las Vegas these days. As a young mother of three, she held down the fort at their Battle Creek home while her husband went from carpet salesman to music legend. Shirley was married to Charles Westover, who became better known as Del Shannon. She’s 84 now. Six decades ago, the couple lived in Brown’s Trailer Park, 1301 Avenue A in Springfield. In the years after the Second World War, with a housing shortage, trailer parks were springing up everywhere and were thought of as a modern innovation. Shirley remembers going to the little store at the entrance to the park to pick up milk for the kids. .
“I always called him Chuck or Charles,” remembers Small. “That’s who he was at home with our three kids.” All three of their kids were born in Battle Creek at the old Community Hospital and were delivered by Dr. Walters. “One thing I remember is having family in town to visit, and going down for the tour at Kellogg’s. We used to take the kids out to Fort Custer to go hiking and there was a playground there.”
Westover and keyboard player, Max Crook, wrote “Runaway” at the Hi-Lo Club in Battle Creek’s Gilbert Hotel, which once stood near what is now the corner of Capital and Hamlin Avenue. The spacious night-spot had lost its luster over the years and was getting a bad reputation by the late 1950s. “I never went to the Hi-Lo,” remembers Small. “Chuck said it wasn’t a very nice place, and there were a lot of fights, and he wouldn’t let me come down there. Once, my brother came to visit, so I went down there with him, and Chuck was furious. That’s the only time I was at the Hi-Lo. Of course, I was always busy at home with the three kids.” Another factor in Westover's decision may have had something to do with all the young groupies that were attracted to the band members. Small said that Chuck worked at the Carpet Outlet at 537 West Columbia Avenue during the day, and then headed downtown to the Club four nights a week.
The song “Runaway” was a very unique song for 1961 and still is for that matter. Shirley remembers that January in 1961 when she and Westover, Max Crook and 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.”
While the men made the legendary recording at the studio, the wives got out to see some of the city. “We ended up at the game show, ‘Beat the Clock’. Joanne was very outgoing. I was a shy country girl, so when they were picking contestants, I slinked down in my seat and they picked Joanne. She ended up winning a nice suit.” Small said another thing that happened in New York was that both wives became pregnant. About nine months later, both children were born on the same day, just hours apart.
The Westovers returned to Battle Creek for a short time and then moved to Southfield after the record took off. “Chuck’s manager picked a home out for us because he couldn’t have us living in a trailer.” Small says they lived in Southfield for about three years and then headed to California. The couple divorced in the mid-1980s. Westover died in 1990. Small acknowledged that the life of a musician often brings hardships to families. "It took a toll. Charles never drank until his life in the music industry. That became a rough part of our lives."
"Runaway" is still considered on of history's great songs, and his records sell for a lot of money on Ebay.