Out In The Streets: The Story of The Shangri-Las
by John J. Grecco
"Past, Present and Future" not only saw the parting of The Shangri-Las and Shadow Morton from Red Bird, but also saw the label that started with a bang in 1964 crash and burn very quickly in the aftermath. With no hits to bring in revenue to pay mounting company debts, the company's doors closed by the end of 1966. Many things, including master tapes, were sold to various scavengers, scattering most, but not all of them to at least three different companies, possibly more. Other master tapes either reverted back to some lessors or may simply have been discarded. File cabinets, literally filled with promotional pictures, records, demos, contracts and the like were sold off, intact, for pennies on the dollar. Other items were sold, repossessed or just simply abandoned.
When an opportunity with a major label comes along, it's very hard to say no but every performer, producer, writer and arranger knows full well the downside of becoming just another number. One member of the group was able to resist the temptation, and that was Margie. She had it with being overworked, underpaid and under-appreciated. Unfortunately, Margie was for all intent and purposes the leader of the group as she, out of all the girls, was the most outspoken, a team player and motivator. In essence, she was largely responsible for holding the group together all this time. With Margie leaving, the groups' future hung in the balance.
With Margie's departure, however, Mary Ann returned to the group and the girls were signed as a trio by then president of Mercury Records, Irving B. Green, at the end of 1966. Common sense, if not logic, should have told the powers that be at Mercury to get some solid tracks down for an album and to promote the hell out of the girls. But common sense evades many, and it did with Mercury. Instead of new product, they released a greatest hits LP. The upside is that a few true stereo masters were used, the downside being the stereo mix for "Leader Of The Pack" was edited, and other songs in the package were subjected to Mercury's budget-conscious electronic reprocessing. Fans should also note that a compilation on Buddah Records, released a couple of years or so later, included two Shangri-Las tracks; "Give Him A Great Big Kiss" and "Remember (Walkin' In The Sand)", both not only alternate takes but also true stereo.
Another single, "Take The Time," was finished and readied for release in 1967. A patriotic song, it unfortunately seemed to condone U.S. action in Viet Nam, at a time when many wisely disapproved of any involvement. With a theme like this, the reason it didn't chart should be obvious. The flip side, "Footsteps On The Roof," had a bright tempo, but was a little too hurried.
Once again, the girls hit the road and this time opened for acts like The Beach Boys. During this tour they made their very last television appearance as a group on the Upbeat Show, ironically performing their previous Red Bird track, "Past, Present & Future". The tour ended successfully, but once back home things seemed a bit awry. There were no calls to come into the studio, no hype from Mercury on the girls, and it now seemed that Shadow was occupied producing two new acts, Janis Ian and The Vanilla Fudge.
Margie was still basically out of the group, now working towards finishing her education. Mary, between the groups' performances, tours and all, attended Quintanas School For Young Professionals. Still a trio comprised of Mary, Mary Ann and Betty, the girls remained in demand for appearances. They played the college circuit around the U.S. quite often, and Mary would say years later that they never went to their own proms, but performed many times at others.
The Shadow Disappears
Separate ways for the girls was not too far down the road: Before 1968 was over, they decided to take a break from the business. Each girl was now trying to catch up on some of the things she missed over the past few whirlwind years. Although the typical teenager has a life of partying and dating, the girls hadn't yet experienced this aspect of life. Sure there were dates over the years, but nothing serious as it was just all casual and friendly. Betty for a short period of time was seeing Gene Cornish from the Rascals, but again, it wasn't serious.
The girls' lives seemed to go in all different directions. Mary took a short hiatus to California, Margie still pursued her education and started dating, Betty took a job at the Rheingold Breweries, later leaving to work at a cosmetics company in Manhattan, and Mary Ann took it easy staying close to home with family and friends.
Tragedy in 1970
Mary, Margie and Betty stayed in touch with each other and started performing together again during the 1970s, although not the constant performing that they did a few years earlier. When the opportunity for a good show came up, they took it. One notable show took place at the New York Academy of Music where they shared top billing with girl group rivals, The Ronettes. Mary got married to local entertainment promoter, Tony "C", and Betty got married to musician Jeremy Storch, but neither lasted long. When speaking to Mary's first husband years after their divorce, he could only sing her praises, saying she truly was and is a great girl, but that they were just too young when they got married. Both Mary and Betty would marry again and in 1972, Margie married the love of her life, Bill Dorste.
Hits Rise Anew
Margie, it appears, was not only the leader and den mother when she was on the road with the group, but she was also very family-oriented. She was the best daughter her parents could ask for, as she was very considerate and helpful with them and also very much in love with her husband and married life. Sadly, Margie's marriage would not last and met an end after only eight years in 1980. Her husband had left her for someone else, a crushing blow as she had put her all into her marriage. With the support of her family she seemed to get through this, but never really got over it.
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Margie, center, with her brother Fred and his wife. This was backstage at the 1989 concert. Margie had written on the back: "Two Fans of Mine."
Mary and Betty are both still happily married and Betty, the only member to have a child, is the proud mother of a daughter named Tracey. In 1979, Mary made a guest vocalist appearance on Aerosmith's version of "Remember (Walkin' In The Sand)", but with Steven Tyler's ability to drown out a sub-machine gun, her vocals were buried deep in the mix. With periodic performances from the girls over the years, there would soon be a surprise performance that even the girls were unaware of. The public even took note of how The Shangri-Las didn't look or sound like themselves.
June of 1988, Hackettstown Police Officer Joe Canfield and his wife Fran organized a benefit concert, scheduling the event for September. He and Fran had organized similar concerts and for this event were looking for groups that were not often seen. One group offered to them was the Shangri-Las, which they thought a wise choice, as the group had not worn out their welcome with overexposure on the concert circuit. Fran spoke to the talent agency and it was conveyed to her how wonderful it was that the group was being put back together.
Aside from the comments, literature sent to Joe and Fran contained a biography of the original Shangri-Las, along with phrases such as; "back on the circuit", "with a few personnel changes", "as good as if not better than ever". With these comments, there should be no question on the originality of the group. The big night comes, two hours before show time the group arrives and to the surprise of Joe and Fran, there was not one original member. With literally no options as a packed house was expected, and the groups appearance was promoted, it was decided to let them perform. During the performance and for days afterwards, Joe and Fran received complaints well into the double digits.
The Faux 'Shangri-Las'
It was learned that the other group was being booked through agents Dick Fox, Larry Marshak and Arnie Kay, with Fox also trademarking the name "The Shangri-Las". The entertainment community had started rallying around the girls, as most likely, they didn't want this to also happen to them. Two of the biggest supporters were Chuck Rubin and a very vocal Richard Nader, a prominent promoter of New York area concerts. Garrett Glaser interviewed the girls about their plight on Entertainment Tonight. Cousin Brucie, a vocal supporter of the girls' cause, interviewed them on Good Day New York. Others in the industry also pledged their support, but when push came to shove did a disappearing act that would have Houdini jealous.
The Name Game
The injunction was denied on May 24, 1989, and the girls went on to perform at the Palisades Park Reunion venue. I was lucky enough to be able to hear the warm-ups before the show, and the girls nailed those notes as if they'd recorded the songs only yesterday. Show time came and even with many good acts on the bill, it seemed everyone there was waiting for the girls' set.
Finally the time came and the crowd let out a roar to welcome The Shangri-Las. Just as they did in warm-ups, they banged out one number after another without a hitch in both vocals and stage routine. Clad in black, each girl looked just as she did when they started out twenty-five years earlier. Although their actual set was a bit shorter than in the warm-ups, the finale brought the crowd to their feet as all three of the girls rode out on motorcycles.
The Shangri-Las triumphant wins, both in court and in performance, was to be the last time that Mary, Margie and Betty would ever perform together. A non-original group still performs under the name Shangri-Las at minor and major venues including Vegas, where they welcomed in the Millennium at The Riviera Hotel. Surely well-paying patrons were disappointed they didn't get to see or hear any of the original members.
Over the years different photos of the non-original Shangri-Las have surfaced. One such photo pictures a blonde and two brunettes and yet another pictures three brunettes. For whatever reason or under whatever arrangement the non-original group performs is best left between all parties involved. This definitely is not to imply either way that the original members condone, endorse or are pleased with this practice.
On September 11, 2001 Mary had a traumatic experience when she was headed to a meeting near the World Trade Center at the very time the terrorist attacks took place. Along with many others in the area, she did not realize what was happening, then when reality struck did their best to get out of the area. Trying to scramble to safety, Mary also managed to help others while saving herself. She luckily escaped harm and is doing well.
When considering the time period in which the girls came to fame, it is remarkable to see that even out of the limelight their music, talent and legacy live on. People from all ages, both here and abroad, know the songs they made famous, and remember them fondly. I don't think that the girls themselves ever fully realized the extent of their talent or of the influence they had and still have. Sure, they have multiple gold records to prove that they had hits, but they also helped pave the way for many acts to follow and gave music a different direction with the way they interpreted a song. They have been paid homage to in different ways such as Blondie cutting the track "Out In The Streets", Twisted Sister cutting "Leader Of The Pack", and Aerosmith along with Louise Goffin cutting versions of "Remember (Walking In The Sand)". It has also been said that Joe Jackson's biggest hit, "Is She Really Going Out With Him", was inspired by and taken from the opening line of "Leader Of The Pack". The great Ellie Greenwich penned her life story into a hit broadway show in the 1980s and titled it after the song she helped write for the girls, "Leader Of The Pack".
In 1996 Columbia Records released a 12" single by the Shangri-Las with two new club mixes of "Give Him A Great Big Kiss". 1996 also saw People Magazine describe The Shangri-Las as "The Leaders Of The Pack Of Girl Groups". A couple of years ago performers such as Paul McCartney were asked to vote on the 100 best recordings, and the girls made the list with "I Can Never Go Home Anymore".
Shangs in the New Millennium
Over the years articles written on music and groups of the 1960s easily number in the thousands, but it is puzzling how The Shangri-Las place in that era have been overlooked so many times for so many years. Most articles written about this time period always gravitate to the usual buzzwords, spitting out names such as; Hendrix, Beatles, Doors, Joplin, Dylan, Supremes and the like.
Taking nothing away from these artists' accomplishments, and going outside the extremely narrow tunnel vision of many music historians, we must recognize that among those top artists who helped shape music were the Shangri-Las.
With 99 percent of the girls' tracks cut between 1964 to 1967, all done in multi-track, it is also very puzzling why collections on the girls in the now re-mastering, re-packaging conscious industry, no one has taken the time to re-master ALL of these previously released tracks in STEREO--34 tracks including the non-live studio tracks from their first LP, excluding the Spokane and Smash tracks. If ever that were done, it would truly be an essential collection.
At least an album's worth of unreleased studio tracks recorded during the second half of the 1960s and also the latter half of the 1970s exist. If these tracks were to be released, it's not totally out of the question that the girls may just hit the charts once again with one of these unearthed treasures.
Although we can no longer anticipate a true Shangri-Las reunion, one can hope that with the venues recently becoming popular in Manhattan, clubs like the Bottom Line, which showcases legendary artists like Jackie DeShannon, Darlene Love, LaLa Brooks and others, they may also one night have the very inimitable and much underrated vocal talent of Mary Weiss filling the club.
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A very special thank you for their kind assistance with this article goes to: