The Story of Max Crook’s Keyboard Solo from Del Shannon’s Runaway

Max CrookTwo years before the Mellotron and more than five years before the Moog, Max Crook invented his own monophonic synthesizer – which he called the Musitron – using a modified clavioline, household appliance parts, resistors, television tubes, an amplifier, and a reel to reel tape deck.  The Musitron featured a three octave keyboard and a slide that allowed Max to play in a range from 2 cycles per second all the way up to beyond what humans can decipher by ear.  Over the year his Musitron developed a cult following, the most notable fan being Jeff Lynne (ELO, The Traveling Wilburys).

The Musitron itself is perhaps most famous for Max Crook’s keyboard solo in Del Shannon’s 1961 #1 hit single, “Runaway.”   I recall being about 12 years old, watching Children of the Corn (1984), and being mesmerized by the scene where the children played “Runaway” on the record player. There was something haunting about that song and I had to seek out a 45 of my own to listen to the whole thing. The first thing I noticed was how creepy the keyboard sounded in that solo.  I fell in love with the particular sound before I even realized just how great the solo itself was! The song would continue to be a life long favorite of mine and in my band, Vintage, we cover it at almost every show – although we turn it into a rocking guitar number in our version.

The solo itself has gone down in history as one of the greatest keyboard solos on record and it most certainly is a key reason as to why Rolling Stone magazine rated “Runaway” one of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time in 2010.  So let’s do a little history lesson on how this song – and solo – came to be.

Del Shannon (using his previous stage name Charlie Johnson – his real name was Charles Westover) played regular gigs at the Hi-Lo Club in Battle Creek, Michigan in the late 1950s.  He originally began playing there as part of another band, The Moonlight Ramblers.  When the bandleader of The Moonlight Ramblers was fired by the club owner for repeated drunkenness, Del Shanon became the leader.  He immediately re-formed the band around some of his own players, which came to include keyboardist Max Crook.  Del Shannon was tired of “every song sound like Blue Moon” and every chord progression being C Am F G.  When Crook was riffing to just Am and G one Friday night in October, 1960 at the Hi-Lo Club, Del Shannon jumped in, got the band to follow along, and for about 20 minutes they just rocked out to a two chord jam session in front of the crowd.  This was the conception of the idea that would, the very next day on Del Shannon’s lunch break, become “Runaway.”  After penning the song that afternoon, Del Shannon felt it was ready to play that night.  So that Saturday evening at the Hi-Lo, Del Shannon introduced the song to the band and they launched into the first live performance ever of one of rock’s most memorable tunes.  Before they started, Del Shannon said, “Max, when I point to you, play something.”  After the first chorus, Del Shannon just pointed to Max who was standing behind his Musitron… and that’s when that magical solo was born.

What Max played was recalled note for note and the band immediately recorded their “Runaway” demo after the show.  The song went on to become so popular that the crowds at the Hi-Lo would make them play it 4 or 5 times a night. At its peak success, “Runaway” sold 80,000 copies per day.

Listen to “Runaway” here – and pay particular attention to the historic keyboard solo.

 

3 thoughts on “The Story of Max Crook’s Keyboard Solo from Del Shannon’s Runaway

  • May 21, 2023 at 4:42 pm
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    Sixty years later, and the song is STILL magic, especially Max Crook’s legendary solo on his “Musitron”. I don’t think there is any doubt that he INVENTED THE SYNTHESIZER with that thing!

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  • February 6, 2024 at 10:50 am
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    Runaway, what can you say to do it justice. Jeff Lynne, when asked how influenced him the most said Del Shannon and I don’t think he was wrong. I am lucky enough to own a Runaway single with the B side saying Judy but it is The Snake by Max Crook. I know this because , in an interview Del said there was by mistake about 6 singles that were sent for sale in the UK with this error. The person who sold it didn’t realise the significance of what he had and thought he was cheated in sum way. My good fortune

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