Shadow Morton: Enigmatic producer who co-wrote Leader of the Pack for The Shangri-Las


Shadow Morton's career was one of smoke and mirrors and it is difficult to gauge how important he was or precisely what he did. He described himself as a key figure in the record industry, saying, "I don't just consider myself a good producer. I'm one of the best," but he was no singer, no musician and possibly not much of a producer either. Undoubtedly, though, he was at least the inspiration for several unique records from the New York girl group The Shangri-Las.

George Morton was born in Brooklyn in 1941, but when there were indications that their son might turn out to be a hoodlum, his parents moved to Hicksville, Long Island. Morton said that many other parents had the same idea – and he joined a group of hooligans, the Red Devils. At school, he befriended a doo-wop group, The Marquees – but he preferred jazz, loving both Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Quartet.

In 1964 he was selling ice cream in Philadelphia when he learnt that a former school friend, Ellie Greenwich, was a hit songwriter in the Brill Building, working in partnership with her husband, Jeff Barry. He went to see them and Barry asked him what he did. "I'm lazy like you," he said. "I just write songs." "What kind of songs?" asked Barry. "Hit songs," he replied. "Let me hear one," said Barry. "Do you want it fast or slow?" was the reply.

Barry thought he was bluffing, but Morton determined to write and produce a slow hit song over the weekend. He booked the studio that The Marquees had used and asked a friend to round up some cheap musicians. He knew of a girl group from Queens who sang cover versions, The Shangri-Las, and invited them to sing the new composition.

So far so good, but Morton had never written a song in his life. He went to the beach on Long Island and thought hard. He recalled "Sketch" by the Modern Jazz Quartet and determined to write something around its opening section. Within half an hour, he had "Remember (Walking in the Sand)".

By extraordinary luck, Morton's friend had asked a 14-year-old boy, Billy Joel, to play piano. Morton told him, "Play bom-bom-bommmm" – and so the evocative start and refrain of "Remember (Walking in the Sand)" was created.

The Shangri-Las were a group of two pairs of sisters – Mary and Betty Weiss and twins Mary Ann and Marge Ganser. Sixteen-year-old Mary Weiss was perfect for the half-spoken, half-sung performance and Morton thought of himself more as a drama coach than a record producer.

Morton took his demonstration record to Greenwich and Barry. They were working for a new label, Red Bird, owned by the songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and the former owner of Roulette Records, George Goldner. They all thought the demo had potential and all of a sudden Morton had a job as a record producer for $250 a week. His first job was to remake the single for release and he added ocean waves and seagulls for effect. Billy Joel said it taught him an early lesson, as he was never paid for the session.

When Goldner took Morton to Detroit to promote some records, he gave him $300 which was to be used to entertain disc-jockeys. Morton spent his money on drink and, if the story is to be believed, 24 prostitutes over four days. Because he had disappeared, Goldner christened him "Shadow".

"Remember (Walking in the Sand)" was a million-seller, partly helped by The Shangri-Las' attire of skin-tight jumpsuits and large white boots. When Morton was pressed for a follow-up, he sat in the bath with a bottle of champagne and a box of cigars. He thought about a girl who loved a Hells Angel and scribbled lyrics on a piece of shirt cardboard. Just how much of "Leader of the Pack" he wrote is questionable: he claimed to have written it all, and that Barry and Greenwich only had their names attached as part of the contract, but Barry and Greenwich called this fantasy, saying that they wrote most of the song.

Artie Butler wrote a superb arrangement and Morton added revving motorcycles and a crash to the record. The Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack" was a US No 1 – and despite a ban from the BBC, it made the UK Top 20.

Morton made several other records with The Shangri-Las, including the lachrymose "I Can Never Go Home Anymore" and the eerie "Past, Present and Future", which was a tearful narration over Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. Morton's original demo for "Dressed in Black" was released under his own name. His work with another girl group, The Goodies, on Red Bird has been overlooked, but "The Dum Dum Ditty" is faux Spector and "Sophisticated Boom Boom" was covered by The Shangri-Las.

Unfortunately for Leiber and Stoller, Goldner was pursued by the Mob and the songwriters were forced out of Red Bird in 1966. Looking for work, Morton auditioned new acts, but was soon bored. A 15-year-old girl, Janis Ian, was incensed that Morton should be reading while she was singing and she set fire to his newspaper. Morton paid attention and saw the potential of "Society's Child", a song about an interracial romance. It was too controversial for most labels, but Verve took a chance and it was a hit in 1967. Morton produced Ian's first three albums, but Ian was effectively doing the work. "Shadow was so good to me," she said. "He surrounded me with the best musicians he could find and he allowed me to tell them what I wanted to hear."

Morton also latched on to The Pigeons, a covers band in Long Island, who learned songs by playing 45rpm singles at LP speed in order to write down the chords. He named them Vanilla Fudge and had them record a slowed-down version of The Supremes' "You Keep Me Hangin' On". It became a US Top 10 single in 1968. In the same year, he produced Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida", a 17-minute marathon which was greatly shortened for a US hit single. He produced the New York Dolls' 1974 album, Too Much Too Soon, and it's possible that he produced Mott the Hoople. Again, it depends on who's talking.

"Leader of the Pack" was a UK Top 10 hit on reissue in 1972 and again in 1976 and there are many covers and parodies, such as "Leader of the Laundromat" by the Detergents. The song was featured on the soundtrack of Goodfellas (1990) and used in advertising campaigns. Morton claimed he was cheated out of royalties, but becoming an alcoholic, he found it hard to pursue his claims. In his later years, he designed golf clubs.

Spencer Leigh

George Francis Morton (Shadow Morton), record producer: born Brooklyn, New York 3 September 1940; married (3 children); died Laguna Beach, California 14 February 2013.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark production team claims innocence of viewers' ab frenzy
Life and Style
Google marks the 81st anniversary of the Loch Ness Monster's most famous photograph
techIt's the 81st anniversary of THAT iconic photograph
Katie Hopkins makes a living out of courting controversy
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £38,000

£16000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to continued expansion, an ...

Ashdown Group: Senior .Net Developer - Kingston Upon Thames, Surrey

£65000 - £70000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A long-established, tech...

Ashdown Group: Editor-in-chief - Financial Services - City, London

£60000 - £70000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Ashdown Group: Software Development Project Manager - Kingston Upon Thames

£55000 - £60000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Experienced Software Dev...

Day In a Page

Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders