When The Shangri-Las released their debut album, “Leader of the Pack,” in 1965 they had already established themselves as the premier “bad girls” of pop music. Up until then girl groups had always been prim and proper in the style of The Dixie Cups or the Chordettes. Even more sophisticated acts like The Supremes and The Ronettes (who featured the first true “bad girl” of pop, Ronnie Spector) were debonair and lady-like compared to the street smart Shangri-Las. But The Shangri-Las sang songs about taboo subjects, tragedy and bad boys. They smoked, they fought, and in the process, they revolutionized the images of women in rock n’ roll.
Formed as a vocal group at Andrew Jackson High School in the Cabrina Heights neighborhood of Queens, The Shangri-Las was made up of two sets of sisters – Mary and Betty Weiss, and twins Margie and Mary Anne Ganser. The four were playing school dances and sock hops around Queens through the early sixties, and even cut a few singles. But still following the cookie cutter images of the girl groups before them, the girls weren’t going anywhere until they caught the attention of aspiring song writer and record producer George “Shadow” Morton, who became the architect behind the Shangri-Las image, music and, eventual success. Without Shadow Morton there might not have been a Shangri-Las, but without the Shangri-Las there probably never have been a Shadow Morton.
The story goes that Morton was looking to become a writer at the Brill Building when he met songwriter Jeff Barry, who wrote a lot of the early “girl groups” hits including “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Then He Kissed Me,” “Be My Baby” and “Chapel of Love.” But when Barry met Morton, with his shaggy hair and his eyes hiding behind dark glasses, he instantly disliked him and accused him of being a phony. Morton left the Brill Building more angry than defeated, and determined to show Barry up, he set out to write the next hit for the next “girl group.” Inspired by the sweethearts walking along Long Island beach, and the squawking of the sea gulls above, Morton wrote a song about lovers walking together, but with a dark cloud hanging over him, he decided to throw in a bit of pathos and doom. A broken heart, a cruel lover, and maybe just a hint of an unwanted pregnancy. The result was “Remember (Walking in the Sand).” It was something different, and Morton thought it was pretty good.
Getting a job as a producer at the newly formed Red Birds Records, Morton was in search of a girl group for his song, and learning of The Shangri-Las, saw them gigging at a local restaurant. The girls were still all teenagers – Mary was 15, Betty was 17 and the Ganser twins were 16. Getting the consent of their parents, the girls shuffled into Red Bird Records to record “Remember (Walking in the Sand).” Unknown to them at the time there was another future music legend in the studio that day. A fourteen-year-old pianist named Billy Joel was playing the keys on the track, making it his first paid gig (he was paid $65), and the earliest recording of the future Piano Man. With Mary on lead vocals, the girls were able to create all the drama, passion and tragedy of the doomed love affair from Morton’s lyrics into the recording. With the added touch of the sound of sea gulls, that Morton recorded from the same spot that he wrote the song, the girls were on their way. “(Remember) Walking in the Sand” was released in the summer of 1964 and rose to the top of the charts, stopping at #5 on Billboard’s Top 100. Screw you, Jeff Barry!
The Shangri-Las started getting offers to appear on local television shows, and their team wanted to do something that never had been done before. Taking inspiration from the tough youth culture around Queens, it was decided the girls would wear tight leather pants and not skirts. They wanted the Shangri-Las to have a tougher look, inspired by the girls who had boyfriends in gangs, and weren’t the type of girls that you brought home to mother, however, still have them to have beauty, grace and charm of girls that would be desirable and likeable. Were the Shangri-Las “wild girls” or were they just misunderstood? This was the question that Morton and his colleagues wanted you to ask and somehow the girls managed to walk that fine tight line between angel and harlot with little difficulty. Stories of the girls fighting, brawling and misbehaving became part of the mythos, although extremely over exaggerated.
But there were some dangerous truths within the Shangri-Las camp that their management did not want you to know. For instance, it was a closely kept secret that Betty was an unwed teenage mother and had a baby at age 17, and it was eventually revealed that while touring in the coming years, Mary was packing a gun for protection. These girls weren’t Lesley Gore or Annette Funicello. They were something a lot more.
So how do you follow up a massive debut hit? With more drama, more angst and higher stakes of course. The girls came back with Morton’s next musical melodrama, “Leader of the Pack.” With the death of James Dean still fresh in the minds of the public, and street gangs being replaced by biker gangs, Morton wrote a cinematic melodrama about a good girl named Betty and a misunderstood rebel named Johnny whose relationship ends in tragedy when Johnny crashes his motorbike after Betty is forced by her father to break off their relationship. The formula of Mary’s dramatic vocals, the tragic lyrics and even the cinematic sound effects were back, and the Shangri-Las had the biggest hit of their careers. American teenagers flocked to the song, and the Shangri-Las were sealed in rock history.
With two hit singles bringing the Shangri-Las to international attention, Morton got to work to put together an entire album for the girls. This became their first LP, “Leader of the Pack.” Inside was more songs with an entire range of taboo subjects not yet tackled in rock n’ roll, and especially not sung by teenage girls. The album dealt with runaways (“I Can Never Go Home Anymore”), gang violence (“Dressed in Black”), more teen death (“Give Us Your Blessing”) and in the most haunting track on the album, rape (“Past, Present, Future”). Mary was a dramatic vocal powerhouse who really felt the emotions on the songs she sang. It was reported that when she went in to record her vocals, she’d cry real tears while finding her own truth in the words, making it convincing to the listener that she was living the drama that she was recording.
But not all the songs on “Leader of the Pack” are doom and gloom. My favorite of all of the Shangris-Las songs is the first track on the first side called “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” where Mary describes to the girls the hunk she’s dating. It’s fun, lively and an often funny. When the girls challenge Mary by saying “Yeah, well I hear he’s bad,” she replies “Um, he’s quite bad, but he’s not evil.”
But, if there were four girls in the Shangri-Las, why was there only three girls on the cover? Betty was missing on the cover because around 1965 she started to step away from the group, missing television performances and photo sessions. As stated above, she was a young mother of a baby which the management was trying to keep a secret, but she was also suffering of anxiety during an era when little was known, nor tolerated, when it came to mental illness. Betty was on all of the Shangri-Las recordings, but in photos and in public appearances the group was often believed to be a trio.
By the summer of 1965 the Shangri-Las were a hit coast to coast, appearing on all the shows ranging from “Shin-Dig” to Soupy Sales, and were touring as opening acts for The Animals, James Brown, The Rolling Stones and, the topper most of the poppermost, The Beatles in their final US tour. The girls were riding high as the most popular girl group in the world.
But the time at the top was fleeting. The Shangri-Las released one more album, “Shangri-Las ‘65” in 1965 (obviously) but by 1967, after nearly three years of extensive touring, the girls were starting to get tired. Shadow Morton had moved on to other artists, working with Janis Ian and the Vanilla Fudge, and the girls were shuffled off to Mercury Records, who did not share the same enthusiasm for the group’s image and sought to turn them into “good girls,” which was the opposite of what made them unique. Meanwhile, Mary Anne started getting messed up with drugs and liquor, Betty was more out than in, and, finally, Margie had enough and called it quits. Although a backing vocalist with Mary getting most of the press, Margie was often referred to being the leader of the group, and when she wanted out it all fell apart. The Shangri-Las quit being a band, leaving behind a slew of outstanding concert and recording obligations that would haunt them via lawsuits and litigation for decades to come.
Mary eventually moved her way up in the furniture and home decorating industry and eventually became an interior decorator based in Greenwich Village. Betty raised her daughter and worked various jobs around Long Island. Mary Anne tragically died of a heroin overdose in 1970 at age 22. Margie worked for NYNEX phone company and died of breast cancer in 1996.
The Shangri-Las were unique for their time, ushering in a new attitude for women in rock, paving the way for future artists like The Runaways, Patti Smith, Wendy O. Williams, Madonna and Miley Cyrus. Unfairly, The Shangri-Las still are not in Cleveland’s Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame despite “Leader of the Pack” being one of the most recognized female driven rock standards in the history of the medium.