The Shangri-Las – They were the Leaders of the Pack [I confess to a genuine fondness for the Shangri-Las, whom I saw live at the Brooklyn Fox in 1965, and whose records I personally collected.]
They were a girl group unlike any of their contemporaries. Groups like the Dixie Cups, the Crystals, or the Ronettes projected a sweet-16 girlishness, a youthful innocence, if you will. But the Shangri-Las looked mean. They looked like they might carry razors. And their songs were unlike those of the other girl groups. They weren’t “Going to the Chapel.” They hung out with “The Leader of the Pack” – of motorcycle gangs.
And they had three major hit singles in 1964 – “Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand),” “Leader of the Pack” and “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” – as well as “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” in 1965.
Originally high school girls from Queens, New York, the Shangri-Las were Mary and Betty (or Liz) Weiss and identical twins Marge and Mary Ann Ganser. Mary sang lead, and her sister only occasionally performed with the group, making it more often than not a trio. Mary had long straight blonde hair, while the Ganser twins were brunettes. All of them projected Attitude.
The girls had formed a group on their own and sang at school shows, talent shows and teen hops. They made a few records prior to their run of hits, apparently under the supervision of Kama Sutra’s Artie Ripp. These include “Simon Says” for Smash (a Mercury subsidiary) and “Wishing Well” for Spokane.
But their career took off when a budding producer named George “Shadow” Morton used them to make a demo of a song he’d hastily written, “Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand),” which was released by Leiber & Stoller’s Red Bird label. Morton had been running what others thought was a bluff – he’d had no prior experience as a record producer – and he wrote the song only after lining up the recording date, but he turned out to have the goods. (The pianist on the date was a very young Billy Joel.) “Remember” was released on July 20, 1964 and made it to No. 5 in the charts by late September. Later that fall it went to No. 14 on the British charts as well.
Hoping to keep the momentum going, Morton, with Brill Building songwriters Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, wrote and produced “Leader of the Pack.” This one had it all: narration (“Is she really going out with him?”), a tragic story line, and the sounds of engineer Joe Veneri’s motorcycle revving. It went to No. 1 by the end of November. It also hit the top of the Australian charts, and in the U.K. it reached No. 11 – and came back in 1972 to hit No. 3, and again in 1976 to be No. 7 in the British charts. The Shangri-Las were the only American vocal group to do this. When they performed the song onstage, as they did many times on Murray the K’s tours, they wore leather and an actual Harley was wheeled out with them to supply the sounds of the cycle revving. (The song also inspired the parody, “Leader of the Laundromat,” by “the Detergents,” which itself made the top 20.)
The group made a lot of TV appearances, on Hullabaloo, Hollywood a Go Go, Shindig, and the Steve Allen, Soupy Sales, Bruce Morrow (“Cousin Brucie”), Clay Cole and Dick Clark shows. They projected a sullen, pouty, sexy look which did nothing to harm their popularity. Their third hit was “Give Him a Great Big Kiss,” a more typical girl group song, lacking the underlying tragedy of their earlier hits. It reached No. 18.
Their next few songs failed to chart as well, although “Out in the Streets” had a Stravinsky-esque opening and reached No. 54. In March, 1965, Red Bird released an LP, Leader of the Pack (RB 20-101). It consisted of the A and B sides of their first three singles, on side one, and a live show on side two. What was impressive was the way they sang even the B sides, like “Bull Dog” – a Leiber & Stoller song – with the kind of emotion one expected of far more mature singers. And the live show, with rock classics like “Twist and Shout,” “Maybe,” “So Much in Love,” “Shout,” “Good Night My Love, Pleasant Dreams” and “You Can’t Sit Down,” showed their mastery of the material and the audience.
In the fall of 1965 “I Can Never Go Home Anymore,” another Morton composition, climbed to No. 6, their last major hit. Only a month earlier Red Bird had rushed out a second LP, Shangri-Las-65! (RB 20-104), with a red sticker proclaiming “Included in this album ‘Right Now and Not Later’” The back cover includes liner notes by Faith Whitehall which mention that there had been a “Shangri-Las Day” at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. The success of “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” caused Red Bird to quickly reissue the album with the same front cover, but with a white sticker which said, “Included in this album is ‘I Can Never Go Home Anymore’.” The album kept the same catalog number, but substituted the new hit for a track on side two called “The Dum Dum Ditty.” And this version of the album has no liner notes. Collectors take note: the earlier version of the album is rarer.
Red Bird issued these albums only in mono, although some of the singles were recorded in stereo. In addition to the two Shangri-Las albums, Red Bird released Red Bird Goldies (RB 20-102) on which three Shangri-Las hits are used. After “Past, Present and Future,” which made it to No. 59 in the summer of 1966, Red Bird effectively folded, and the group moved briefly to Mercury, still under the watchful eye of Morton. In 1966 Mercury issued two singles and an LP, Golden Hits of the Shangri-Las (MG 21099/SR 61099). Most of the short album is made up of their Red Bird hits. Interestingly, the stereo version of “Leader of the Pack” is used, and it’s missing the first line of the second verse (“One day my dad said, ‘find someone new’”) – which is true of all the stereo versions of this song released thus far.
In 1985 Mercury/Polygram reissued Golden Hits of the Shangri-Las (824 807-1) this time using the mono (complete) version of “Leader of the Pack,” and the use of fake (“rechanneled”) stereo for the mono recordings was dispensed with, with seven out of the 12 tracks in mono. In 1969 Buddah released a collection, Incense and Oldies (BDS-5014), which uses the stereo version of “Leader of the Pack” with the missing line, and uses alternate takes of “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” (without overdubs at the beginning, and without the voice overdub at the end) and “Remember” (no beach sounds overdubbed).
The group broke up in 1968, after having been reduced to playing local Brooklyn bars. In 1989 the three then-surviving members of the group reformed and appeared for the first time in over 20 years with Cousin Brucie at his first Palisades Amusement Park Reunion on June 3rd. They closed the show with motorcycles and “The Leader of the Pack.” There were no follow-up appearances, and none are now likely. Betty Weiss married Jeremy Storch and later remarried to become Betty Weiss Nelson. Mary Weiss became an interior decorator and married a man named Stoker. Mary Anne Ganser died in 1971 of encephalitis. Her sister married to become Marge Ganser Droste, and died in 1996 of breast cancer.