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Out In The Streets: The Story of The Shangri-Las

By John J. Grecco

Putting the wheels in motion, the girls were signed to an exclusive five-year contract with Red Bird in April of 1964. Since all of them were minors, Mr. & Mrs. Ganser had to sign for Margie and Mary Ann (16), and Mrs. Weiss had to sign for Mary (15) and Betty (17). A reworking of "Remember" was cut and about to be promoted when things came to a standstill, with the reappearance of Artie Ripp and his contract signing the girls to Kama Sutra Productions. Some negotiations and concessions were made between the powers that be at Red Bird and Artie, plus Kama Sutra was given recognition in the form of production credits on the label.

Shangri-Las poster

In the late summer of 1964, "Remember (Walkin' In The Sand)" broke out across the country like gangbusters, rising to the number 5 position nationally and the number 1 position in quite a few markets. George Morton was recently asked how they got the seagulls sound for the record. Did they tape it from the beach? George's response, with a little bit of a look that implied "you've got to be kidding", was answered in just three words: "Sound effects record".

Beating the Beatles?

With the first real chance at a hit record, these four young girls from Queens gave the Beatles and many others who ruled the charts at the time some pretty stiff competition. Because of the rising popularity of "Remember", the girls had to hit the road to promote it. Again, things almost came to a halt. Betty, not thrilled about traveling and having personal commitments that required her to stay close to home, would not be touring with the girls. She would, however, still sing on the records, but for now would be a somewhat of a ghost member.

Mrs. Ganser now found herself with three of her five children on the road. Her son Robert was now traveling, as he was signed to a minor league baseball team, and her twins were starting to tour the country as members of The Shangri-Las. With another daughter and son at home, Mr. Ganser was able to keep the household running, and Mrs. Ganser signed on as the girls' first official chaperone in the beginning of their career.

One of (if not the first) T.V. appearance for the Shangri-Las was on the Clark Race Show out of Pittsburgh. They performed at numerous dances, halls and also signed on for the Murray the K Shows. The early appearances had them attired in matching blouses and skirts. Sometimes they'd wear sequined shell tops and other times dressed much like The Young Rascals (almost one full year before the Rascals hit it big) with pixie-collared blouses and ribbon ties. But this was about to change very soon.

Mary Weiss of the Shangri-Las
A rare candid shot of Mary Weiss, taken late 1965.

"Remember" was riding the charts and a follow up was needed soon, so George Morton, along with Ellie and Jeff, had an idea for one. There was some bickering about the proposed track, a tune called "Leader Of The Pack", as the record company feared that either no one would play it or it may cause some backlash. To top things off, George (now nicknamed "Shadow"), wanted a different group he discovered on Long Island called "The Bunnies" to record the song. The honchos at Red Bird gave a resounding no to The Bunnies. With this in mind and not giving up on "Leader Of The Pack" (a tune which later in years would cause controversy as to who actually wrote it), Shadow decided to get The Shangri-Las and do the track on the sly. His idea may have been, if the song was laid down as planned, there would be no way for Leiber and Stoller to refuse to release it.

Varrroom!

On a hot July day in 1964, Shadow booked the studio, Ultrasonic Sound, (located on the second floor of a Manhattan hotel), he had the girls show up and also had a surprise. Although the stories still vary as to who actually wrote "Leader Of The Pack", the way the production itself went appears to stay the same. Possibly because no sound effects were available or because no one thought of it, an idea was struck as to how to get them. Yes, believe it or not, a motorcycle was driven through the lobby of the hotel and up to the floor of the recording studio. The hotel's guests and management were not too pleased about seeing this, and of course the police were summoned. As Shadow had conveyed in the summer of 2001, the officers who came out on the call were absolutely stunned at this stunt. No one was arrested, but a ticket was issued. Shadow was told to do his session and then get that motorcycle out of there, we don't care how it's done, but don't drive it through the hotel lobby again, he was told. Shadow didn't recall how they got it out of there, but somehow they managed.

So now we have a song that was not supposed to be recorded, a group that initially was not supposed to record it and a motorcycle that wasn't supposed to be where it was. With all this, it's a miracle the recording session ever got off the ground. Forging ahead, everyone--especially the girls--came through like troupers with vocals and harmonies that could not be equaled and no one else could have done. Jeff Barry had said many years back that on this tune, Mary had really given it her all, to the point that tears were coming down her face during her vocals.

The 'Leader' Takes the Lead

With the session done, the master was taken back to Red Bird and scheduled for release. The promotion wheels were set in motion and the girls had started doing the tune at some of their appearances. "Leader Of The Pack" was refused airplay at some radio stations, and was banned in parts of the U.K. With all this, "Leader Of The Pack" broke out and shot up the charts like the Polaris rocket, reaching number one in no time at all, even passing the current Beatles entry and knocking The Supremes "Baby Love" out of the number one spot.

With the tremendous popularity of "Leader Of The Pack" the girls were booked on the T.V. show "I've Got A Secret" during October 1964. The show was set up so a skit would be done where Robert Goulet, Bess Meyerson and Betsy Palmer would dramatically recite the lyrics to the song (leaving the title out), and the panel had to guess what they were doing. No one guessed correctly, but the teens in the audience knew what was going on. The girls were brought out on stage and Robert Goulet donned a motorcycle get-up and mounted a cycle on the stage. Betty was still not appearing with the group at this time, so Mary was on the left of the stage singing to Goulet while Margie & Mary Ann did the backgrounds to the right, including taking Betty's part and lip-syncing to it.

For this show, the girls still dressed as they had previously, with skirts, blouses and heels. After "Leader Of The Pack" took off, the team at Red Bird went about changing the girls' image to suit the song. A photo shoot was done for publicity stills and album covers with Mary, Margie & Mary Ann donning skin-tight slacks, spike-heeled leather boots, and puffy white blouses and vests. Thus began their bad-girl image, an image that was totally manufactured and suited to the song, but which was far from who the girls really were. Unfortunately for them, that image would be connected to them even to the present.

Aside from tunes like "Endless Sleep", "Last Kiss" and a handful of others that tugged at the heartstrings, the music world and public had never heard anything like "Leader Of The Pack" before. It was straightforward, with the lyrics and the girls' singing inspiring an image to the listener, and although the character meets a tragic end in the song, there is really no soppy sentiment.

The girls' schedule was booked solid for appearances, with tours in the U.S. and the U.K. Not many people are familiar with the flip of "Leader Of The Pack", but it is a great tune called "What Is Love," more or less in the style of the songs that the girls originally started singing when they formed. About 99 percent of all released Shangri-Las tunes had Mary on the lead, but "What Is Love" had Mary doing the intro and turning over the lead to what I had previously believed were Betty's vocals, but recently found out it may have actually been Margie who took lead on that one and may have also taken back-up lead on the tune "I'm Blue".


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© 2002, John J. Grecco. All rights reserved.

With the touring schedule getting more demanding, and larger blocks of time required for appearances, Mrs. Ganser turned over the duties of chaperone back to the powers that be at Red Bird. Because of their popularity, the girls found themselves performing on the rock and roll circuit with groups like Jan & Dean, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Supremes, The Nashville Teens, The Byrds, etc.

Shangri-Las in concert
A 1965 tour program from one of the girls' trips to England.

They were also a favorite on what was then known as the R&B circuit, appearing with acts like The Drifters, The Coasters, and James Brown. To illustrate the girls' mass appeal, they were deemed the "Number One New Vocal Group of 1964" by one of the leading music trade papers at the time, Cash Box Magazine, for the R&B category!

Golden Days

The end of 1964 saw the girls receive two gold records, one for "Remember" and one for "Leader Of The Pack". Late 1964 not only saw the simultaneous release of two singles, the dance tune "Give Him A Great Big Kiss" (which caused many a teen to spell "Love" as "LUV"), and their moving rendition of "Shout". At that same time, the girls were ready to invade England.

In early March of 1965 the girls started a grueling tour to promote "Leader Of The Pack", "Give Him A Great Big Kiss" and "Shout". Starting on March 7 and finishing on March 22 doing a total of twenty-eight shows in fifteen days at fourteen different towns, the girls sang their hearts out. They were also supposed to promote "Leader Of The Pack" on England's top teen show, "Ready, Steady, Go," but at the last minute the U.K. censors deemed "Leader Of The Pack" too violent and the performance of this song was scrapped in favor of other titles.

Shangri-las in Concert Photo Copyright © Blackheart Records 2001

The Shangri-Las performing at DJ Jack Spector's WMCA High School Hop. L to R: Mary Ann, Margie, Mary. This was in 1965, when "Give Him a Great Big Kiss" was on the charts. Kenny Laguna is on keyboards.(Click on photo to see it larger)

Not saying much for the influence of the British censors, the teenagers got turned on to the tune anyhow and before you could blink, it was riding the English charts. During their appearance on "Ready, Steady, Go" they shared billing with Dusty Springfield and were courted by The Zombies. Although they didn't get to meet The Beatles on this trip, they had previously shared the stage with them on a benefit show at the Paramount in New York in which Ringo would hang out with them in their dressing room. While in England, the girls heard a new group making some noise there, liked their sound and during an interview with 16 Magazine informed U.S. teens to keep a lookout for Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders. The interview was published in early 1965, and a month later The Mindbenders had a top ten hit with "Game Of Love".

1965 would prove to be the girls' most successful year, as not only did "Leader Of The Pack" and "Give Him A Great Big Kiss" carry over on the charts from the previous year, but they would also place five more records on Billboard's Hot 100 chart by the end of the year. Aside from their recordings the girls were now a very hot item, not only showing up on programs like Shindig, Where The Action Is, Shivaree, Lloyd Thaxton, Hullabaloo and Hollywood A Go-Go, but also making an appearance on the Soupy Sales Show. At the time, The Soupy Sales Show was "the" show to do as just about everyone, young and old, watched it. Just to illustrate what celebrities would go through to be on that show, Frank Sinatra took a pie in the face during his appearance.

Another place to be at the time was the New York World's Fair and not only did the girls appear there, the World's Fair honored the occasion, naming that day "Shangri-Las Day", and the girls also had the group's name emblazed on the front car of the Monorail. When the girls weren't touring the country and overseas, they would do legendary DJ Jack Spector's "High School Hops" sponsored by New York's own WMCA. Always in good company, backed in 1964 by Billy Joel, the girls' appearances at the "High School Hops" were backed by a young musician destined to be very instrumental in many facets of the music industry, Kenny Laguna.

Revlon Girls

With everyone clamoring for a piece of them, Madison Avenue was not far behind. There were other groups that did endorsements for soft drinks, and nobody could forget the regional endorsements the Supremes did for loaves of White Bread, but the Shangri-Las surpassed all that. Starting in March of 1965, they broke out nationwide as the spokes-group for Revlon's line of Natural Wonder Make-Up. The girls also helped to promote Revlon's contest that year called "Swingstakes", which ran from March 3 to May 5, the lucky winner of the contest winning a trip to England with the Dave Clark Five. Since many teens idolized the Shangri-Las, and they were called upon to do public service announcements for dating etiquette, recording two different announcements.

Shangri-Las and Revlon

With their records riding the charts, appearances on all the major television networks, interviews on radio for the Armed Forces Network, and endless tours here and abroad, the girls never forgot where they came from. These young girls with the manufactured tough image really had hearts of gold. Back in Queens, they footed the bill to sponsor the Cambria Heights Little League baseball team.

Even during the height of their popularity, they stayed down to earth and never seemed to get full of themselves. There were other singing groups in the neighborhood, such as The Heightsmen, trying to break in the business, and once in a while the girls would stop in and give them pointers. Margie and Mary Ann were definitely the favorites of the group with the kids and teens. The girls were fantastic and always had time to say hello, most times handing out gum or candy to the neighborhood kids. It was also not unusual for someone to just pop over to the Ganser or Weiss household and receive a warm welcome. For instance, an aspiring local artist named Raymond Casiano and his younger brother Juan were big fans of the girls. Raymond did many sketches of the girls and Juan would take them to the girls' houses for them to autograph.

Shangri-Las smoke break
A cigarette break during an appearance in upstate Rome, New York, late 1966. L to R: Mary Ann, Mary, Betty.

It was also not unusual to run into the girls while riding the bus or even shooting pool around the area. Margie, I've been told, was the best pool player out of the group. Some people may think, "Hmm, girls playing pool, doesn't sound too lady-like", but take into consideration the fact that growing up in Queens did not leave too many options for recreational activities. If you were lucky enough to have a schoolyard near you, many times the gates (yes, chain-link fence gates), would be locked. Parks were not plentiful, open spaces or empty lots or fields were unheard of, and as far as trying to play ball in front of your house, that had to be done negotiating the parked cars and constant city traffic. Pool, on the other hand, was popular, as many families either had basements equipped with a table or you knew a friend who had one.

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