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Born Sharon Lee Meyers in Hazel, Kentucky on August 21, 1941, Jackie DeShannon was singing country songs on a local radio show by the time she was six years old. By 11, she was hosting her own show on the station, and was already single-minded about a career in music. After the family moved to Illinois, Myers continued to work at singing and songwriting, and recorded regional singles under various names as a teenager, including sides as Jackie Dee and Jackie Shannon. Her versions of a pair of country songs, “Buddy” and “Trouble,” caught the ear of rocker Eddie Cochran, who sought her out and introduced her to his girlfriend, singer, and songwriter Sharon Sheeley. Sheeley and Myers began writing songs together, including “I Love Anastasia” (a hit for the Fleetwoods) and “Dum Dum” (a hit for Brenda Lee).
Myers signed a recording contract with Liberty Records in 1960. By this point she had grafted the names Jackie Dee and Jackie Shannon together and become known as Jackie DeShannon, and it was under this name that her fine debut single, “Lonely Girl,” appeared later that year. Although she continued to release fine singles, including the Sonny Bono/Jack Nitzsche classic “Needles and Pins” and her own “When You Walk in the Room,” which innovatively merged folk-rock with a Phil Spector-like Wall of Sound arrangement (both songs were big hits for the Searchers), she only had moderate success on the charts.
Her biggest break came when she opened for the Beatles on the group’s first U.S. tour in 1964, and with a band that included a young Ry Cooder, she more than held her own. That same year the Byrds covered her song “Don’t Doubt Yourself Babe” on their debut album for Columbia Records, which only added to her visibility. DeShannon moved briefly to England the next year and began writing songs with a pre-Led Zeppelin Jimmy Page (speculation has long been that “Tangerine,” from Zep's third album, is about DeShannon), including “Don’t Turn Your Back on Me” and “Dream Boy.” Quickly becoming an A-list songwriter, DeShannon also penned “Come and Stay with Me” for Marianne Faithfull, who had a hit with it on both sides of the Atlantic. Moving to New York, DeShannon began writing songs with a pre-fame Randy Newman (“Did He Call Today Mama?” and “Hold Your Head High,” among others). In 1965, DeShannon finally conquered the pop charts with her version of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” and two years later in 1967 she played a folksinger in the movie C’mon Let’s Live a Little, which also featured singer Bobby Vee.
But DeShannon was tough to market and peg -- she was young but was stuck between the teen idol era idol and the upcoming singer/songwriter era, which was still a couple of years down the road. DeShannon was as much a writer as she was a performer, however, and she stayed creative and productive behind the scenes. In 1969 she returned to the pop charts with her own “Put a Little Love in Your Heart,” following it with the only slightly less successful “Love Will Find a Way.” DeShannon left New York and moved to Los Angeles, signing with Atlantic in 1970 -- although her work for the label was critically acclaimed, however, fine albums like Jackie and Your Baby Is a Lady failed to find large audiences. She was well respected in the industry, though, and artists like Van Morrison, who had DeShannon provide backup vocals on his Hard Nose the Highway album in 1973, were eager to work with her.
But DeShannon didn’t exactly need to be a household name to make her career work -- she was an accomplished songwriter, and versions of her songs kept hitting the charts even if she wasn't singing them. “Bette Davis Eyes,” which DeShannon co-wrote with Donna Weiss, was a huge hit for Kim Carnes in 1981. “Break-A-Way,” originally covered by Irma Thomas in 1964, hit big in a version by Tracey Ullman in 1983. “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” charted again in 1989 in a duet version by Al Green and Annie Lennox, and then again in 1993 by Dolly Parton. Pam Tillis' rendition of “When You Walk in the Room” topped the country charts in 1994. In all, an impressive litany of artists has recorded versions of DeShannon songs, including Bruce Springsteen, Ella Fitzgerald, Mahalia Jackson, and Cher, among many others.
DeShannon returned in 2000 with a critically acclaimed comeback effort, You Know Me, but the album -- perhaps predictably -- failed to connect with a large audience. In 2010 she was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and in 2011, she released When You Walk in the Room, an album featuring new acoustic interpretations of 11 of DeShannon's best-known songs. In 2023, a pair of archival albums were released featuring rare material from DeShannon's archives. Little Bit of Heaven: The 1964 Metric Music Demos collected 31 songwriting demos she recorded so her publisher could shop the tunes to artists and A&R men, and the release gave the private takes their first commercial release. The Sherry Lee Show preserved air checks of a teenage DeShannon performing country songs on radio broadcasts from Aurora, Illinois' WMRO-AM in 1956 and 1957. ~ Steve Leggett