The Shangri-Las

TrackSingle
Past, Present And FutureRed Bird RB 10-068
Leader Of The PackRed Bird RB 10-014
Remember (Walkin’' In The Sand)Red Bird RB 10-008
Give Him A Great Big KissRed Bird RB 10-018
Footsteps On The RoofMercury 72670
Out In The StreetsRed Bird RB 10-025
Sophisticated Boom BoomRed Bird RB 10-048
I Can Never Go Home AnymoreRed Bird RB 10-043
Right Now And Not LaterRed Bird RB 10-036
The Sweet Sounds Of SummerMercury 72645

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Contributor: Joyce Gibson

When I was 8 years old I heard this old record on the radio, which quickly shot up the charts. It was about the illicit romance between a high school girl and a bad boy biker, whom she met at that den of iniquity, the candy store. Part spoken, part sung in heartfelt fashion, more than 40 years later I still think it sounds like nobody else. The song was, of course, Leader Of The Pack, by The Shangri-Las. This was 1972 and the song was the same age as me, also originally seeing the light of day in 1964.

Even just a few short years after their heyday, very little seemed to be known about The Shangri-Las over here in the UK. There were no live appearances on Top of the Pops, or interviews. I heard that one of them had died, and that she was a twin – this resonated with me as I am also a twin – but the mystery remained. To add further to the mystery, in some photos there were 3 of them, in others, 4. This was because Betty Weiss had left the group just as they found fame, but rejoined a year or so later.

Leader Of The Pack had a third flirtation with the charts in 1976 and this time I bought the record – and thus began a lifetime’s love affair with The Shangri-Las.

The band formed in Queens, New York, taking their name from a local diner. Featuring two sets of sisters, twins Marge and Mary Ann Ganser and Mary and Betty Weiss, they released a couple of independent singles in 1963 before signing to Leiber and Stoller’s legendary Red Bird label in 1964, when the girls were still minors.

They paired up with producer George “Shadow” Morton, a man with a penchant for sound effects and drama, and their first single was the atmospheric Remember (Walkin’ In The Sand). The single became a hit on both sides of the Atlantic in 1964 and legend has it Billy Joel played piano on the demo version.

Crucial to The Shangri-Las sound was the plaintive cry of Mary Weiss’s vocals. She was still a teenager while the bulk of the group’s hits were recorded and the emotion she conveyed is extraordinary.

Leader Of The Pack’s original release came in 1964 and it reached number one in the US, just missing out on the top ten in the UK. Probably the best “death tune” to make it to vinyl, the sound effects were rumoured to have been laid down by Morton by bringing a real bike into the studio and revving it up.

An album of the same title followed though quality wise it’s a little mixed – the hit singles, B-sides and a couple of fillers are on side 1, with a live set mostly of covers on side 2. This just reinforces to me that The Shangri-Las were a singles band and there’s no shame in that.

The opening line of Give Him A Great Big Kiss: “When I say I’m in love, you best believe I’m in love L-U-V” is perhaps the best opener ever, and almost certainly the most recycled. It’s a great feel good song; when I was 12, I used to go to discos on a Saturday afternoon where the standard fare was 50s rock ‘n’ roll (strange set up for 1976 looking back, but I loved it) and this song always got a spin. It was not a hit in the UK but did chart in the US.

It was followed by Out In The Streets – a song about a gang member bad boy giving it all up for his girl. Beautifully sung by Mary Weiss, this was later covered by Blondie, but for me the original is by far the best version.

I Can Never Go Home Anymore is the highly emotional story of the girl who abandoned her mother for a boy, only to realise far too late (after the angels had given mama a home) how much Mum had done for her. A real tearjerker of a song, but the most astonishing part of it is the power and emotion in Mary Weiss’s voice – when she sings “Mama!” you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved. This returned The Shangri-Las to the US top 10 and an album (only released in the US) of the same name followed.

Some of the group’s B-sides have become more popular than the A-sides; Dressed In Black and Sophisticated Boom Boom are cases in point.

Past, Present And Future is my favourite Shangri-Las song and the one which defines their sound. There is much debate over the meaning of the song – some say it’s about rape, which Mary Weiss has denied, but the line “don’t try to touch me” does make me wonder. Set to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, it’s a uniquely dark piece of pop music, mostly spoken and desperately sad. It has inspired countless imitations over the years but nothing has ever come close to the original. Criminally, this only reached number 59 in the US, and never charted in the UK, but for me this is Shadow Morton’s masterpiece.

Red Bird collapsed in 1966 and the band signed to Mercury Records, staying with Morton. Apparently, they recorded a full album’s worth of material, but only two singles were released, neither of which troubled the charts. These singles are often overlooked but there is much to like in both and they are well worth investigating. Morton was also losing interest in the group, having started working with Janis Ian (the classic Society’s Child dates from this time) and also Vanilla Fudge.

The Sweet Sounds Of Summer from 1967 doesn’t quite capture the headiness of Remember (Walkin’ In The Sand) but it’s still a strong pop song with great girl group vibe. The band’s final single, Take The Time, was good but I prefer the B-side, Footsteps On The Roof, which apparently became a bit of a favourite on the Northern Soul scene years later.

Mercury released a compilation of the Red Bird hits but that was the end for the girls. They split up and Mary Ann Ganser died in 1970 at the tragically young age of 22. Her sister Marge lost her battle with breast cancer in 1996 at the age of 48. Mary Weiss released a solo album in 2007 after many years away from the music business and Betty has slipped out of the public eye completely.

They did briefly reform in the mid 70s at the behest of Seymour Stein, head of Sire Records, but this came to nothing. Given the youthfulness of those earlier recordings, this was probably for the best as their legacy remains intact.

Melodramatic, emotional, angsty but never ever dull – for me The Shangri-Las are the greatest girl group of them all. Ever since I first heard that opening line “Is she really going out with him?” when I was a young child, they have held my attention and a huge place in my heart. I’ve spent a lot of time and a bit of money collecting all of the original UK Red Bird and Mercury singles – each one of them a classic in their own special way.

Mary Weiss official website

Unofficial website dedicated to The Shangri-Las

The Story of The Shangri-Las

Shadow Morton obituary

The Shangri-Las biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #237

3 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    Mar 29, 2014

    Leader of the Pack is really one of the most incredible singles. That musique concrete motorbike, before Tomorrow Never Knows and Revolution #9.

  2. Peter V
    Mar 29, 2014

    Excellent piece on an iconic group. Leiber & Stoller’s autobiography confirms Billy Joel, and the tales of dodgy dealings at Red Bird Records. If I had to squeeze another song in, it would be their cover of You Cheated You Lied, its false credit to “Levon Helm” dating back to the Ronnie Hawkins version. But the song, a male doo-wop hit of 1958, seems tailor-made for them.

  3. Dave Stephens
    Dec 23, 2017

    A pop music love affair. Just what the ideal Toppermost should be. Brilliant Joyce.

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