The Shangri-Las were another of the great 60's girl groups. They gained recognition not only for the content of their songs but also for their visual appearance.
Twenty-two year old producer George "Shadow" Morton -- so named for his habit of disappearing for several days at a time -- recruited two sets of sisters out of Andrew Jackson High School in Queens, New York to be the Shangri-Las. Mary Weiss and her sister Betty joined with twins Marge and Mary Ann Ganser to form the group. While the girls were still high school students the charismatic Morton conceived the idea of having them record Remember [Walkin' In The Sand]. He made a demo tape and took it to Kama Sutra Productions and Artie Ripp. Brill Building songwriters Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich were added to help with the actual production of the song [Greenwich had attended the same high school as Morton], the sound of seagulls screaching in the background was added, and it was leased to Red Bird Records. The song entered the charts in September, 1964 and peaked at the number 5 position. The Shangri-Las were on their way.
They followed up their initial hit with an even bigger one. Leader Of The Pack again featured sound effects -- a motorcycle was brought into the hall just outside the recording studio and the sound of its revving engine was incorporated into the mix, along with that of a motorcycle crash toward the end of the song. The hit topped the charts and helped to establish the Shangri-Las' image as tough, streetwise girls who might be part cheerleader, part biker's moll. It fit the mold of teenage disaster songs that were popular in the early 60's and was spoofed by a group known as the Detergents with Leader Of The Laundromat, which was itself a top twenty tune. Leader Of The Pack was very popular in the UK, charting four separate times from 1965 to 1976, although it was the Shangri-Las' final hit on the UK charts.
The girls were hot. They came to epitomize the Brill Building sound and had a wide appeal with the young record-buying public. When making public appearances or posing for publicity photos, it was a frequent occurrence to see only three of the four. Allegedly one or the other would rotate out of these appearances due to bad habits.
They continued to turn out hits on the Red Bird label. Give Him A Great Big Kiss had the sound of a big smooching noise. Give Us Your Blessing was followed by I Can Never Go Home Anymore, their final top ten entry, and Long Live Our Love, their last tune to reach the top forty, which was released in 1966. Another curious song that the Shangri-Las recorded before leaving the charts for good was Past, Present and Future, which the Who's Pete Townshend has listed as one of his all-time favorite recordings.
Red Bird went out of business and the Shangri-Las did some recording for Mercury but had no more hits. There are other recordings in existence that some attribute to the Weiss and Ganser sisters, but it is unclear who really did them. This list would include Wishing Well by the Shangri-Las on Spokane, Only Seventeen by the Beatlettes on Jubilee, and What's Wrong With Ringo? by the Bon Bons.
George Morton went on to produce Janis Ian, Vanilla Fudge, Mott The Hoople, the New York Dolls, and others. There were rumors of a Shangri-Las reunion in the 70's, but Mary Ann Ganser contracted encephalitis and died in 1971, and her sister Marge battled breast cancer and died in 1996.
Their vocal style and physical appearance, along with the energy and flair of their producer, George Morton, combined to make the Shangri-Las one of the great girl groups of the 60's and an icon of the era of the Brill Building sound.
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