When the name Jackie DeShannon is mentioned, many people immediately think of her two popular songs “What the World Needs Now is Love” and “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.” However, DeShannon wants people to know that there is more to her musical career than just those two hits.
DeShannon’s musical legacy is vast and diverse. As a singer and songwriter, she has strong ties to influential artists such as Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Burt Bacharach, Jimmy Page, and the Wrecking Crew. Her music covers a wide range of genres, from soul to folk-rock to standards, showcased in numerous solo albums and covers of her own songs. However, her story goes beyond her well-known achievements, with a previously untold and formative part that is now being revealed to her devoted fans.
Sharon Lee Myers, known as DeShannon, was born in Hazel, Kentucky. She started her singing career as a child, showcasing her talent in country songs at the young age of 13 in 1954. Her impressive performances even landed her a regional radio show. Two years later, her mother secretly recorded these shows at home. These recordings are now being released under the title The Sherry Lee Show, which was her stage name at the time. In these previously undiscovered recordings, she covers popular hits by country stars such as Patsy Cline, George Jones, and Don Fleming. When asked about her thoughts on the little girl she once was, the now 82-year-old enthusiastically exclaimed, “I love her!” She also acknowledged hearing an innocence in her voice but also recognizes a strong determination and ambition.
A perceptive audience member will also notice subtleties. When she was 15, DeShannon had a remarkable ability to understand the emotion and narrative in the country songs she performed. This may have been influenced by her upbringing in a family of musicians from multiple generations. “On weekends, we would all gather on my grandmother’s porch with our fiddles and guitars and sing and play,” DeShannon shared.
The band that her father and uncle formed was inspired by the Delmore Brothers. According to the singer, their music was a mix of country and blues, as her dad was influenced by artists like Jimmy Reed and Bobby Blue Bland, and so was she.
The recordings on her radio demonstrate her appreciation for R&B and rockabilly, with covers of popular songs by Fats Domino and Elvis Presley. These recordings were secretly made by her mother, resulting in a raw and primitive sound. DeShannon takes pride in this, stating that there is too much polished and sanitized music out there and we need more rebelliousness.
DeShannon was initially attracted to Elvis’s early records because of their authentic sound. As she got older, she not only admired him as a singer, but also became friends with him. Despite rumors of them dating, DeShannon clarifies that she simply enjoyed his company and would often visit his home to sing gospel music with him and his band, the Jordanaires. She describes Elvis as polite and humble during their interactions.
In 1960, singer Jackie DeShannon was advised by rocker Eddie Cochran to relocate to Los Angeles in order to further her career. During this time, she adopted the gender-neutral stage name Jackie DeShannon and began working with fellow songwriter Sharon Sheeley. According to the singer, they collaborated on lyrics while she focused on creating melodies, often starting from a catchy lick or hook.
The duo secured a contract with Liberty Records, who then presented their songs to whoever was scheduled to record in the studio at that time. Their first successes were with Brenda Lee, as their songs “Heart in Hand” reached the Top 20 and “Dum Dum” reached the top five. DeShannon later signed a solo recording deal with Liberty, but faced the challenges placed on female artists during that era. Despite being allowed to write and record her own music, which was rare for women at the time, she also had a specific vision for how her songs should be produced and arranged. However, this was not well-received. According to DeShannon, the prevailing belief was that a woman would not know how to handle studio work. She recalled instances where her suggestions were dismissed and she was labeled as “difficult.”
DeShannon’s issues with Liberty began when she released her first album in 1963, which was self-titled. The inspiration for this project came from attending Bob Dylan’s first concert at Town Hall. During the first half of the concert, Dylan sang traditional blues songs such as “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” which did not impress DeShannon. However, during the second set, he performed songs like “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” “With God on Our Side,” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” which she loved.
So she informed Liberty that she desired to create an entire album featuring songs by Dylan, which would have been a groundbreaking statement at the time. However, they hesitated and only allowed her to record a few songs, including “Don’t Think Twice,” which she believed should be the single. But Liberty disagreed, and shortly after, Peter Paul and Mary’s version of the song became a top 10 hit. For her second album in 1964, DeShannon wrote and recorded “When You Walk in the Room,” which became a classic. Although her version barely made it onto the Top 100, a cover by the Searchers became a global success and inspired countless later renditions. The folk-rock sound of the song, with its jingle-jangle chime, was credited solely to the Byrds the following year. Interestingly, The Byrds also covered another DeShannon tune, “Don’t Doubt Yourself Babe,” on their debut album in 1965. DeShannon stated, “I don’t want to be the one to claim credit. It just happened the way it did.”
However, this pattern continued due to the way Liberty Records saw her, according to DeShannon. She stated, “Without my knowledge, the label focused on developing their publishing company using me as a songwriter rather than promoting me as a performer. Needless to say, it was extremely disappointing.”
During the same period, DeShannon had some incredible opportunities. In 1964, she was included in a group of performers who opened for the Beatles on their debut American tour. Due to the overwhelming frenzy of Beatlemania, this was a double-edged sword for some of the performers. “A few of them were quite disappointed that the audience wasn’t cheering for them,” DeShannon remembers. “I couldn’t help but laugh and say, ‘well, are you getting people to come to the show?’ The crowd would chant, ‘we want the Beatles!!’ But I kept singing and had a great time.”
The following year, she achieved her first major success. Burt Bacharach and Hal David had been highly successful in writing songs for Dionne Warwick. However, when they presented Warwick with “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” she found it too preachy and declined. DeShannon commented, “The song appealed to me greatly! It had a church-like quality in the melody that I connected with. And the lyrics were beautiful.”
Shortly after, DeShannon established another significant relationship. While in England for a recording session, she required a guitarist and was recommended Jimmy Page, an art student who also did session work. “I had been fortunate to work with talented guitarists like James Burton and Glen Campbell,” DeShannon stated. “So I told the producer, ‘He has to be extremely skilled.’ When Jimmy Page played my song for me, he sounded like Segovia. I knew right away that he was a brilliant musician.”
The attraction between them was mutual, and they went on a few dates. It has been written that he wrote the wistful song “Tangerine” for her later on. DeShannon stated that she is unsure if this is true, but she feels honored that it may have been written for her.
During that period, she was responsible for composing the majority of the content on her albums. This was before the emergence of other female singer-songwriters such as Laura Nyro, Janis Ian, Joni Mitchell, and Carole King (who were also writing at the time but had not yet released recordings). Unfortunately, DeShannon is not often recognized for this achievement. She noted, “You need marketing and publicity for that, which I didn’t have.”
In 1968, she had gained enough influence to have more control over what could potentially be her most significant album, Laurel Canyon. Although the lyrics she penned for the album glorified the renowned music scene of Los Angeles during that era, the soulful melodies she produced were reminiscent of Dusty’s work in Memphis. DeShannon expressed, “The Laurel Canyon album was my pride and joy. It was a natural creation that encapsulated a specific place and moment in time.”
Despite not having success on the charts, the following year saw DeShannon’s song “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” reach the top five. In 1975, she collaborated on a song (Bette Davis Eyes) that received little attention at the time. However, six years later, a version by Kim Carnes became a worldwide hit. DeShannon’s original rendition has a unique rhythm that differs greatly from Carnes’. When asked about the difference, DeShannon jokingly stated, “I had no control over the situation. My demo was more of a rock’n’roll sound, but the producer turned it into a shuffle.”
In spite of these difficulties, DeShannon reiterated multiple times during our conversation that she harbors no resentment. “I am content with the accomplishments I have achieved,” she stated.
She is pleased that her entire career is receiving more attention now. In celebration of her new album, Sherry Lee will be recognized by the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville this April. Additionally, there will be an album released next year featuring unreleased demos from 1961 and 1962 that have a soulful sound, including original songs and covers of early tracks by Ray Charles. DeShannon expressed her happiness about finally having all of this material released.
She is delighted that the power balance between genders in the music industry has shifted, with Taylor Swift and Beyoncé being recognized as its top stars. She reflected on how challenging it was to be a woman in the past, but is thrilled with the progress that has been made.
The latest episode of The Sheryl Lee Show is now available.