The Story Of Jackie DeShannon

By Peter Lerner

Part 1
(From the unpublished Flamingo magazine)

What do you want to know about Jackie DeShannon?
The first successful woman singer-songwriter; the virtual inventor of American folk-rock; collaborator with Van Morrison, Randy Newman, Sharon Sheeley, Jimmy Page, Michael McDonald… knew Eddie Cochran, dated Elvis Presley… Oh yes, and she sings like a smoky angel, writes quality hit records, acts, paints…

Hazel, Kentucky is a tiny place, close to the State border with Tennessee, and not too far from the mining country which was home to the Everly Brothers. Sharon Lee Myers was born there in the 1940’s, daughter of Sandra Jean and James Erwin Myers. After a few years, the family farm ran into trouble, and James moved the family (by this time Sharon had a baby brother, Randy James) to Sandra’s hometown of Aurora, Illinois, not too far west of Chicago, where he resumed his old trade of barbering.

After a short while, the Myers family uprooted again, but not far, to the nearby small town of Batavia. By this time, Sharon knew two things; she didn’t want to spend her life in Illinois, and she did want to sing. Singing was indeed in her blood – mother and father both sang and played guitar and her grandmother performed traditional folk music. Sharon had already played and sung some country and gospel on the radio, in church, and on talent contests on television, and music seemed much more attractive than school work.

Sharon’s first musical love in those teenage, mid-1950’s years was country music, and her first recordings, under the name Sherry Lee, were certainly rural in style, although Sharon’s rich country vowels apart, the voice is instantly recognisable. These tracks were recorded for Harry Glenn’s Mar-Vel label just across the state line in Hammond, Indiana, and are now impossible hard to find – probably only a few hundred copies were ever issued.

For the next few years, Sharon’s recording and performing career becomes impossibly confused. Sherry Lee became first Jackie Dee and then Jackie Shannon, as odd singles were made for the Gone, Fraternity, and PJ labels, variously rock‘n roll, rockabilly, emotional ballad, and Ray Charles/gospel-influenced styles. A couple of these tracks were later picked up by the nationally distributed Dot label (home of Pat Boone) but were poorly promoted, and real gems such as an aggressively sexy version of Leiber and Stoller’s Trouble, were lost to a wider audience. This was a pity, as young Jackie showed enough promise as a female rocker to equal the emerging Wanda Jackson and Little Brenda Lee. Why the name changes? Girl singers did not sell records, they say, and Jackie Dee could have been a young boy. Hmmm. Why Shannon? Believed to recall Irish ancestry.

Finally, a record started to sell well. Young Jackie Dee had been encouraged to write her own songs, and her rockin’ tribute to her then favourite, Buddy (Holly of course) was picked up as a master by Liberty Records of Hollywood, and sold reasonably enough in the mid-west around Christmas 1958 for large ads to be placed in the music trade papers. But Liberty put more effort into promoting The Chipmunk Song (a number one, as it happened) and Jackie’s record stalled. Meanwhile, Jackie sang anywhere and everywhere; she filled bills on tours into Canada and even (with The Platters) to South America. She went to Nashville and placed her song My Baby Likes Western Guys on a very early Brenda Lee album. And she settled on the name she really wanted, recording three 45s of her own compositions for the grandly named but impossibly tiny Edison International label in 1959, the first recordings of Jackie DeShannon.

Eddie Cochran had met young Jackie in the mid-west, and told her that she was a real California girl. As a pretty teenager, with a superbly versatile voice and emerging talent for songwriting, she could have found success in Nashville alongside Brenda Lee and Patsy Cline, or in the Brill Building creative hothouse of New York, alongside Carol King and Ellie Greenwich. But perhaps it was Eddie’s advice which lured Jackie DeShannon to California, where she signed up with Liberty Records as a singer, and with Liberty’s music publishing arm, Metric Music, as a writer. Liberty knew Jackie already, of course, as Buddy must have made them a little money, and in 1960 it must have been an exciting company to work for. North Dakota’s Bobby Vee and Tennessee’s Johnny Burnette were starting to score hits for the company, and the prospect of turning this petite and talented young lady into another hit recorder of the new teen-slanted music must have pleased Liberty’s executives.

A student of discographies and hit lists might wonder why Liberty persisted with Jackie DeShannon through the early years of the 1960s. In short, she released a lot of records, and had nothing approaching a hit. While Liberty was signing and dropping artists as diverse as Buddy Knox, P.J. Proby, Scott Engel and Willie Nelson, Jackie kept on releasing unsuccessful records. Not that theses records were bad. She recorded her own heavily teen-slanted songs such as The Prince, You Won’t Forget Me, Just Like In the Movies, and a tasty Carole King song (Heaven Is Being With You) which should have worked the same magic for Jackie that King had worked for Bobby Vee and others. Many of the b-sides to these records were soulful ballads in a Ray Charles gospel vein, and Liberty liked these so much that they gave a catalogue number to, but never released, an album of Ray Charles songs (Hits of the Genius), which would have been Jackie’s first LP release. Maybe it is still in the vaults.

Eventually Jackie crept for the first time, for two whole weeks, into the Hot 100 with a half-spoken and very uncharacteristic cover of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys’ hillbilly ballad Faded Love, for which Liberty rewarded Jackie with a sultry and now highly collectable picture sleeve. It says much for Liberty, though, that Patsy Cline’s later version of the song is now the best remembered.

Jackie DeShannon’s lack of hits during this period matched Liberty’s lack of promotion and career direction for Jackie the performer. This was because Jackie was nevertheless earning them big money, as a songwriter. On moving to California, Jackie started to hang around with the West Coast based stars, such as the Everlys and Ricky Nelson. Jackie dated Elvis Presley, and shared accommodation for a time with a slightly older woman who had been on the local scene for some while. Sharon Sheeley had been Eddie Cochran’s fiancée and had written songs with him, as well as writing a number one hit for their friend Ricky Nelson, Poor Little Fool. Jackie and Sharon soon hit it off, and the two Sharons started to get into their own songwriting groove. Hit followed hit – Dum Dum and He’s So Heavenly for Brenda Lee; The Great Impostor for The Fleetwoods; Tears From An Angel for Troy Shondell. The girls landed two great songs, I Shook the World and the brilliant Jimmy Baby on Phil Spector’s Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans album, and the young British hitmaker, Helen Shapiro, chose DeShannon-Sheeley’s Woe Is Me to record when she came to Nashville to tread in Brenda Lee’s footprints.

Jackie and Sharon had almost unlimited use of Liberty’s studio facilities at that time, and they made professional quality demos of their songs, using available studio musicians of the calibre of Leon Russell, Glen Campbell, Herb Alpert and Hal Blaine. These demos are worth hearing, and indeed some made it, almost inadvertently, onto record as Jackie DeShannon singles, owing to Liberty’s somewhat sloppy quality control. Jackie has later said that she was none too pleased about this, but methinks she doth protest slightly too much, as she certainly put her all into her own vocals. Listening to these demos, it is fun to hear Jackie angling her vocal performance towards the singer she hoped would pick up on the song, be it Brenda Lee, Bobby Vee, Roy Orbison or even Elvis. And she made no concessions toward gender – the petite blonde’s demo of There’s Gonna Be A Fight (eventually recorded by Dick Lory and the UK’s Ken Kirkham) describes how the singer is preparing to do physical battle with some large male hunk for the hand of some sweet girl. Jackie’s demos were usually copied note for note by those who eventually recorded the songs, and in most cases sound better. Hint to EMI, a Jackie From the Vaults album would sell well, especially if you include her originals of those Spector/Bob. B. Soxx songs.

By 1963, the West Coast was warming up as a place where seriously big selling American music was made. Phil Spector ruled the roost, and following close behind were the surf and car craze sounds of the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean. The Byrds had not yet been invented, but their sound was presaged when arranger Jack Nitzsche and Sonny Bono got together to work on a guitar riff. The riff turned into Needles and Pins and Jackie DeShannon’s original Liberty recording of that song was three years ahead of its time. A unique and powerful recording, it only just dented the Hot 100, but Jackie and Nitzsche persevered with the sound and improved upon it, with a blockbuster recording of Jackie’s own song, When You Walk In the Room. This was the first of Jackie’s records to get any real radio play in the UK, and those of us who remember first hearing tit across the distant airwaves of Radio Luxembourg will never forget the impact of this combination of guitars, castanets, Spector-like production and heart-stopping vocals. Adding the simple hook of the melody, and the power and originality of the lyrics (look up that word “nonchalant” in the dictionary!), this should have been a world number one hit. It wasn’t though, and the world had to wait one year for the Searchers, and another year for the Byrds, before this heavy jangly guitar sound found favour.

By this time, Jackie was no longer writing with Sharon Sheeley, but other young Metric Music writers were coming to the fore, amongst them a young Randy Newman. Jackie recorded some of their joint compositions, including Hold You Head High and She Don’t Understand Him, also put on vinyl by Connie and Brian Hyland. But Jackie’s own tastes were veering at that time, quite unexpectedly if we imagine that she was becoming immersed in the West Coast sounds, towards folk music. Bob Dylan was making his initial mark on the scene, and Jackie was perhaps tiring of writing for, and about, teenagers. So, showing her own individuality, Jackie recorded a complete demo album, for Metric, of highly personal songs, featuring just her own vocals, and guitar. We now know that Jackie had been involved in folk music for some years during the very early 1960s, performing in clubs with a very young Ry Cooder, and producing (and singing with) The Nomads on their folksy 45 for the Pharos label, Oh Jennie b/w San Francisco Bay Blues.

Liberty clearly could not or would not appreciate that they had a major folk talent on their hands, and indulged Jackie at this stage, only far enough to allow her to put out an album of slightly watered down by nonetheless pleasant versions of Bob Dylan and other folk-styled songs, arranged and produced by Jack Nitzsche. Dylanologists will seek out the album for Jackie’s peppy version of the rare Walkin’ Down the Line, and British fans might be surprised to find composer credits for the reflective Little Yellow Roses (a minor hit in the States but a huge seller in Canada) to sitcom and Shakespearean actor Trevor Peacock. Jackie salvaged a couple of her own unused compositions – To Be Myself and Splendor In the Grass for much later studio recordings, and other turned up later recorded by talents as diverse as the Byrds (Don’t Doubt Yourself Babe), the black duo Joe and Eddie, and Peter and Gordon.

(continued next issue)

Links to the other parts of this biography.

The Story of Jackie DeShannon - Part 1
By Peter Lerner
The Story of Jackie DeShannon - Part 2
By Peter Lerner
The Story of Jackie DeShannon - Part 3
By Peter Lerner

Click on Jackie to return to page one.