In 1960, Jackie DeShannon made her first chart entry with the song "Lonely Girl." Since then, she hasn’t looked back. She’s been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame for having written or co-written a multitude of hits such as “When You Walk In the Room,” “Put a Little Love In Your Heart,” and “Bette Davis Eyes.”
Now DeShannon has revisited nine of those songs on her wonderful new album When You Walk In the Room, an intimate acoustic retelling of songs she recorded years ago or were made famous by others. In addition, she’s included a brand new song to the mix.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with DeShannon about the album and her long, impressive career.
How did you feel about revisiting your songs in this stripped down way?
Very nervous. I was really nervous. I think that the approach was the only way that I could live with the fact that I was actually revisiting them. Because it was so stripped down. What I kind of wanted to do was have a feeling like I dropped by your house with my guitar or sitting at the beach. Just something very casual and very much one on one.
I think you succeeded.
Well, thank you. We’ve had some very, very nice reviews, really good response. Some people are obviously saying, “Oh, how can you do that?” I didn’t want to step on the toes of the records because the people that I recorded with originally all became superstars in their own right, from Leon Russell to Glen Campbell to James Burton to Jimmy Page to all these different people. I worked with great, great musicians. You can’t round up all those people in the studio at the same time anymore. So I didn’t want to try to go in and do a watered down version of something.
It’s certainly not watered down.
Some people are not familiar with the songs or didn’t know that I wrote them. Like we revisited “Heart In Hand.” I never recorded “Heart In Hand.” It was a big hit for Brenda Lee. I took “Breakaway” in a different direction. In [the film] The Secret Life of Bees I was so thrilled to see Alicia Keys and all these great people singing the song while they were in the kitchen having breakfast. It was so thrilling to watch those ladies. They were just singing along with the great Irma Thomas’s record of “Breakaway.” I wanted to just take it and do it as a ballad and make it a very intimate experience.
It’s great that you’re not jaded after all these years in the business and that you still get a thrill from the music.
I do, I do! I think that I’ve always been one to follow my own muse. I’m a bit of a rebel. The kind of person who’s not great in groups. It started when I was first looking to make it in ‘showbiz’. There weren’t a lot of women doing the kind of thing that I was doing. From high school and early on, they didn’t understand it. They don’t understand why you quit the cheerleading team to go on a tour. That wasn’t working then. So I just kept kind of to myself and writing, and I don’t know if it’s a good thing or bad thing but that’s what I kind of came up as. And I was a bit more comfortable that way.
Experiencing the songs again, I learned something about them that I didn’t know. I’m more comfortable now because we’ve been doing the songs. I’m actually going to be singing at the Grammy museum in Los Angeles. That’s in January. We’ll be doing an interview and then singing some of the songs. I feel much better than I did at the beginning. I did a thing for Society of Singers. They’re a great group that helps singers in need. I actually did an hour and 20 minutes. I couldn’t believe I made it through. I made a couple of lyric errors here and there but out of 19 songs I did okay.
I think it’s just working up the courage to do it. I’ve had it in my mind. Actually, friends over the years have said, “Why don’t you just get your guitar, sit down and play for everybody the way you do for us?” And I said, “You have to be nutty. I’m never going to do that. Forget it.” So over the years, people would say, “Let’s go in and make a new record of 'Put a Little Love In Your Heart' and 'What the World Needs Now Is Love.' Let’s get an orchestra together and do it.” That did not feel good for me. I couldn’t get into that. I said the only way I possibly could do it is make it very personal. It’s scary because you don’t have the backing of a lot of musicians and people to help you carry the load. So you’re right out there in front.
But you’ve done some scary things in your time.
You toured with The Beatles. How scary was that?
It was pretty scary. Especially when you go out and sing to people who fill the baseball stadium and they’re going, “Boooo! We want The Beatles!” But I was very prepared for that in the sense that I was under no delusion as to who they came to see. I was just so happy to be part of the show and to be able to sing for that many people. If they heard a few notes, fine.
You collaborated with Van Morrison (“Sweet Sixteen”), Jimmy Page (“I’ve Got My Tears To Remind Me,” “In My Time of Sorrow,” “Leaves Come Tumblin’ Down,” “Stop That Girl”) and Randy Newman (“She Don’t Understand Him,” “Did He Call Today, Mama?”). What was it like working with songwriters who were so different from one another?
I think that when I wrote with Jimmy Page he was just coming out of art school and playing on a couple of sessions of mine. Everything was new and great. When I first heard him play I knew that he was just a genius. He knew every kind of blues music, jazz, folk, classical, everything. He was just brilliant and I was really happy to work with him. I knew then he was going to be very, very big.
Van was already well, well established. I was such a big fan and it was really a goal of mine to work with him. I loved Astral Weeks. He is just so soulful and he’s very much the master in charge, as was Burt Bacharach. He was so musical, you just were swept away with the whole musical experience. I don’t have any idea what I did but I think it turned out great.
As far as Randy Newman, he was actually working with the same publishing company that I was at the time. It was just one of those random things. He wasn’t a major artist at the time or a major songwriter at the time. We were just a couple of kids on the block writing a couple of songs together. I feel very privileged because he hasn’t written with a lot of people. So I have that under my hat.
What songs on the album do you like the best?
I think one of my favorites is “Breakaway.” Well, actually my favorite song I’ve ever written would be “Put a Little Love In Your Heart” because of the message and also that I sold a lot of records at the time and I wrote it. As a performer it’s great to be able to perform your own songs. When I started out here in Los Angeles, I was probably the only female that was doing producing, writing, singing. Of course they had the Brill Building in New York and all of those writers. But I was kind of on my own out here.
I like“Will You Stay In My Life,” the new song on the album.
I’ve been getting good response on that. That’s another thing that’s pretty interesting. [I thought] “Oh, how can I put a new song on here with all these other things that people might know.” But that song felt right. I have some new ideas that I’m working on. It’s just so nice to have people say, “Hey, we like the album.” That’s reward enough for me because it’s the love of the game that has always been my guiding light. I have to feel it instinctively. I have to love what I’m doing. If I love it, then I know that it’s right. It takes me a while to get to that place. I kind of rely on that. I think it’s good to trust your inner voice. If you feel like you can do it. No matter what anybody says, if it feels right for you, you follow your dream and follow your instinct. I think some of the most successful people have been told, “You can’t do it” or “Forget that, it’s not going to happen.” So many of us have proved them wrong.