You know the story: Girl from respectable family falls in love with motorcycle-riding bad boy from the wrong side of town. Parents disapprove, and force the girl to break up with the boy. Boy, aggrieved and despondent as only a young romantic can be, peels out on his motorcycle, and promptly crashes and is killed. Girl cries and promises never to forget him.
If William Shakespeare had been alive in 1964 and worked at the Brill Building, he might well have written the chart-topping hit single “Leader of the Pack” instead of Romeo and Juliet. But he wasn’t around, so instead, that job fell to the writing/producing team of Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich and George “Shadow” Morton.
While Greenwich (who died in 2009) and Barry ended up in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and became the subject of a 1980s Broadway musical, their collaborator remained intriguingly obscure. Morton, a Brooklyn native who died on Feb. 14 at age 71 in Laguna Beach, Calif., was a songwriting savant who never learned to play an instrument or read music. What he did have was an exotic imagination, the chutzpah to talk his way into the music business and the luck to have a friend who knew three high school girls from Queens who had formed a group called the Shangri-Las. Here they are, performing “Leader of the Pack” on the 1960s TV show I’ve Got a Secret, with actor Robert Goulet as the spurned biker.
Here are some intriguing facts about Morton and “Leader of the Pack”:
- Like the doomed boy in the song, Morton actually belonged to a Brooklyn motorcycle gang as a youth, a lifestyle that his parents tried to lead him away from by moving to Hicksville, Long Island. Instead, according to New York music historian Tony Fletcher, Morton soon began hanging out at local diners, which he recalled were full of “motorcycles and hot rods and girls dancing in the lot.”
- According to Fletcher, Morton got his nickname from his collaborator Barry, who jokingly said that he resembled the enigmatic protagonist of the old radio show “The Shadow” in his ability “to cloud men’s minds.”
- Morton came up with the idea for “Leader of the Pack” as a followup to “Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand),” the initial hit he had written for the Shangri-Las. He envisioned a variation on the simple narrative in “Remember,” which he once described as “sad song: girl falls in love, boy has to go away.” This time, he upped the ante dramatically: the girl would be forced to break off the romance, and the boy would ride off and die.
- According to rock historian Richard Crouse’s account of the song’s creation, Morton procrastinated about actually writing the song. When he was a no-show on the day of the recording session, the studio manager called him in a panic. Morton said he would be right there, then drew a bath. While soaking and smoking cigars and drinking champagne, he scrawled lyrics on a piece of cardboard with a crayon. At the studio, Barry and Greenwich reshaped Morton’s draft. Though Morton would assert in a 1991 interview that he deserved most of the credit, he acknowledged in another interview that Barry’s ability to “come up with key lines” was “incredible.”
- The Shangri-Las’ lead singer, Mary Weiss, was just 16 when she recorded “Leader of the Pack.” According to Fred Bronson’s The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, Weiss was still so unnerved by singing into a studio mike that Barry had to sit across from her, mouthing the words so that she could relax. The quavering in her voice reportedly is authentic, because she actually did break down in tears during the session. Here’s a video of Weiss performing the song at a show in New Orleans’ House of Blues in 2008.
- Barry and Greenwich reportedly had the inspiration for the song’s distinctive sound effects. According to Fletcher, Barry ran a cable down from the studio window to 47th Street, so that he could record the sound of a Harley-Davidson that belonged to one of the studio engineers.
- Over the years, “Leader of the Pack” has been covered numerous times by other artists. Here’s a late-1970s rendition by Bette Midler.