The Shangri-Las: Leaders of the Pack
by David Galassie
In the summer of 1964, in the middle of Beatlemania, a new "girl group" hit the airwaves with "Remember (Walkin' in the Sand)." This lament of teenage lost love eventually rose to number 5 in the charts and helped define the way we looked at girl groups from then on.
This American group consisted of four singers- identical twins and another set of sisters- The Shangri-Las from Queens, New York, started out as most girl groups of the time, adorned in the typical matching outfits of the "good girl" mode.
But that soon would change with their second hit- "Leader of the Pack." The record executives sought a new tougher image for their singers to fit the song. And though their new attire hence forth would smack of motorcycle gangs, hipness, and a sassy attitude, today their outfits appear positively conservative in today's anything goes fashion world.
Who were these girls and how did they capture the attention of the teen market when all that was new and exciting at the time was British, if not Beatles?
Mary Weiss and her sister Liz (Betty) grew up in Queens around the corner from twin sisters Margie and Mary Ann Ganser. At Andrew Jackson High School during the 1963-64 school year, they became good friends and discovered their mutual love for music. Soon, their spare time was consumed with imitating the pop songs of the day, rehearsing routines, and mastering their harmony.
Singing at local high school dances, they eventually earned a recording contract with an obscure label, Spokane Records, but they were soon forgotten. That is, until they were referred to a fledgling songwriter/producer named George "Shadow" Morton.
Morton's story is legend in the music world. One day he reintroduced himself to a childhood friend (Ellie Greenwich, who'd become a successful songwriter). She was married to another hitmaker, Jeff Barry though Barry wasn't too impressed with Morton.
When Barry asked him what he did for a living, the cocky Morton said he, too was a songwriter. Barry was so annoyed with him, he challenged him to write a song and days later, Morton wrote the lyrics to "Remember."
The singers he hired were The Shangri-Las and within weeks, the song hit the Top 10 where it stayed for 7 weeks. Morton had just found himself a new career, and was hired by Jerry Leiber, co-author with Mike Stoller of such hits as "Hound Dog," "Jailhouse Rock," "Poison Ivy," and "Kansas City."
In a music world built entirely on the successes of singles (45s) and radio airplay, the girls hit the road immediately to promote their smash hit, quite an exciting undertaking as they were all minors- Liz was all of 17, the Ganser twins 16, and Mary 15.
The group alternated as a threesome and a foursome, yet Mary was always at the forefront, pouring her heart into every song of teenage anguish. Throughout the remaining years of the group's popularity, Liz rejoined from time to time as the twins drifted in and out of the group, yet she was always there to record and The Shangri-Las' records usually reflected a strong foursome.
With "Remember" riding high on the charts, a strong follow-up was needed. Now employed at Red Bird Records, Shadow Morton enlisted the help of Greenwich and Barry and the end result was "Leader of the Pack."
Social mores change with the times and looking back from today's vantage point, a song like this seems rather tame to us now.
Yet 1964 wasn't that far removed from the McCarthy Era. Take the '50s fears of juvenile delinquency and teen violence, add in the conservative family values of Donna Reed, Father Knows Best, and Leave It to Beaver, shake well and the result is a cultural stalemate and, inevitably, a virtually unrecordable song.
Yet, Shadow Morton would not be dissuaded and "Leader of the Pack" was finally released after much tinkering and hand wringing.
Though many radio stations eventually refused to play it and parts of the UK banned it, the kids loved it and the song exceeded everyone's wildest expectations, rocketing to number 1, beating out The Beatles for a time. The Shangri-Las were getting a reputation for the teenage "soap opera" type of song and the public just ate it up.
Fame, however, is a fleeting thing and The Shangri-Las were no strangers to the concept. After their whirlwind year of 1964, the recordings continued but save for "I Can Never Go Home Anymore" which charted at number 6, and "Give him a Great Big Kiss" at number 18, nothing proved as popular nor as explosive as those first two hits.
Moreover, the sinking of the girls' label, Red Bird Records into a sea of red ink led to the group signing with Mercury Records in 1966. But Mercury, which already had a stable of successful artists, hardly seemed to remember they even had The Shangri-Las in their employ and they were minimally marketed.
Instead of immediately allowing them to record a new album, the company chose to release a greatest hits package which, in the music business, often allows the artists to be seen as stale with the buying public.
By 1968, the girls decided to 'take a break," and The Shangri-Las became, like so many other popular groups before them, just a fading memory.
In 1989, Mary, Liz and Margie, made a celebrated return to the stage, albeit for one show only at the Palisades Park Reunion Show at The Meadowlands in New Jersey on May 24, 1989.
Largely, this was in response to their learning the previous year that a group was performing around the country and billing themselves as the original Shangri-Las.
Taking the bogus singers to court, the girls weren't able to stop them, but their legal efforts brought much needed publicity and awareness to a problem that continues to this day- the use of famous musical acts' names in shows that rarely contain any connection to the original groups they pretend to be.
Today, the Shangri-las are no more. Liz is semi-retired and the Ganser sisters have passed on. But Mary Weiss, the lead singer who'd put so much heart into her performances that her tears often fell onto the microphone, was recently signed by Norton Records and has a studio recording date scheduled for later this year.
After spending her post-Shangri-Las career as a decorator and furniture store manager, Mary may gain a whole new generation of fans this time around. I know her longtime fans will be overjoyed, including this one.
And though she once sang "I Can Never Go Home Anymore" I hope she proves us all wrong. Welcome back, Mary.
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