The Shangri-Las 48th Anniversary of No. 1 Hit 'Leader of the Pack'
My friends from high school can attest that I know all the words to “Leader of the Pack,” the Shangri-Las second hit and perhaps their most famous song—melodramatic lyrics and elaborate sound effects and all. By the time I was a teenager, they were hopelessly outdated and campy, but to me, they were still a lot of fun.
If you think “Teen Death” music is out of style, take a look at Lana Del Ray’s “Born to Die” video and think again. Bad boys and deadly smash-ups remain important themes in pop music.
To celebrate the 48th anniversary of "Leader of the Pack" hitting the top of the charts, here are some details about the Shangri-Las, one of the great Girl Groups of the 1960s.
REALLY young! Betty Weiss and her younger sister Mary (Born 1946 and 1948 respectively) went to Andrew Jackson High School in Queens with the Ganser twins, Mary Ann and Margie (1948.) They loved rock 'n' roll, and practiced harmonies together after school. The four girls ranged in age from 15 to 17 when they formed the Shangri-Las under the direction of George “Shadow” Morton in 1963. Morton was an aspiring young song writer/producer with more guts than resume, and their first hit “Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand)” catapulted his career to the famous Brill Building and the girls into the national spotlight. Experienced hit-writer Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry from Red Bird Music signed the group up for a five-year exclusive deal, but given the girls’ age, their parents had to sign the contract.
What’s in a name? “Shangri-La” is the name of a mystical harmonious valley in Tibet, described in James Hilton’s bestselling 1933 novel, Lost Horizon. The book, one of FDR’s favorites, was not the girls’ inspiration, nor was the fairly cheesy Frank Capra film from 1937. It was the name of their local Chinese restaurant in Queens. Shangri-La has a bit of exotic orientalism that is an understandable choice for four young girls from a New York City outer borough who wanted to be sophisticated and a little edgy. In fact, they were considered the bad girls of rock ‘n’ roll.
'Shocking' Lyrics. The words to their biggest hit, "Leader of the Pack," were considered so shocking that some radio stations refused to play the song initially. With today’s jaundiced eye, it’s hard to fathom the outrage. Is it that the girl met the misunderstood bad boy at a candy store? Or that her parents didn’t approve?
Even Ellie Greenwich thought the song was too much. Motorcycle guys are just too dangerous, I guess, especially if they die in a reckless crash after being dumped by a 16 year old.
Terrific sound effects. Phil Spector is famous for his “wall-of–sound” productions, but Shadow Morton’s sound effects in “Leader of the Pack” amazed the radio-listening audience—and the local police. Unable to replicate the sound of a loud motorcycle revving, he brought a motorcycle into the studio and laid down a very authentic effects track. The process proved so noisy that neighbors complained, and a policeman issued him a ticket for disturbing the peace. Other songs by the Shangri-Las include dramatic sound effects as well.
Sang with the Best. The Shangri-Las performed with the Beatles in 1964, and the following year toured with the Zombies and Dusty Springfield, which built their significant Japanese and British fan base. Betty Weiss did not tour for the first two years, so most people thought the girls sang as a trio. By 1967, when Mary Ann Ganser left the group, their stardom had faded, and the music world was changing with new acts like Janis Joplin and the Mamas and the Papas shining on stage. The girls disbanded in 1968, reportedly bitter that, while the record companies had sold millions of their recordings, they were paid very little.