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 screeching 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.
Shortly after this hit, the older three left high school to start touring, the youngest of the four, Mary Weiss, stayed behind to finish school. The combination of three out of the four members performing together at one time continued throughout the band's career, though the missing member was not always the same. This created a bit of a mystique around the band, which has never quite been solved because the surviving members rarely talk to the press.
The quality of Morton's work with the Shangri-Las on Red Bird was remarkable considering that he had virtually no prior experience in the music business. The group's material, so over-the-top emotionally that it sometimes bordered on camp, was lightened by the first-class production, which embroidered the tracks with punchy brass, weeping strings, and plenty of imaginative sound effects. Nowhere was this more apparent than on "Leader of the Pack," with its periodic motorcycle roars and crescendo of crashing glass. The death-rock classic became the Shangri-Las' signature tune, reaching number one.
To record "Leader Of The Pack" 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 mould of teenage disaster songs that were popular in the early 60s 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 also 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. They continued to turn out hits on the Red Bird label. "Give Him A Great Big Kiss" (#18) had the sound of a big smooching noise. "Out In The Streets", (#53) "Give Us Your Blessing" (#29) and "Right Now, Not Later" (#99) were followed by "I Can Never Go Home Anymore", (#6) their final top ten entry, and "Long Live Our Love", (#33) their last tune to reach the top forty, which was released in 1966. An attempt to cover Jay and the Americans hit, "She Cried" with their own "He Cried" stalled at #65. Another curious song that the Shangri-Las recorded before leaving the charts for good was "Past, Present and Future", (#59) which the Who's Pete Townshend has listed as one of his all-time favourite recordings.
Red Bird went out of business in 1966 and the Shangri-Las did some work for Mercury but could never duplicate their earlier success. 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.
Unlike some girl groups, the Shangri-Las were dynamic onstage performers, choreographing their dance steps to their lyrics, and wearing skin-tight leather pants and boots that were quite daring for the time. Their real lives, however, were not without elements of drama themselves. Their constant personnel changes baffle historians; sometimes they are pictured as a trio, and sometimes one of the members in the photos is clearly not one of the Weiss or Ganser sisters. Even today, the Shangri-Las' history remains somewhat murky and mysterious; the remaining members have rarely reunited for oldies shows or talked to the press. The Shangri-Las that appeared in public performances in the late 1990s did not contain any of the original members.
George Morton went on to produce Janis Ian, Vanilla Fudge, Mott The Hoople, the New York Dolls, and others. There were rumours 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 passed away in 1996.
In March, 2007, Norton Records released a critically acclaimed solo album by Mary Weiss called "Dangerous Game". She has been performing in the United States, Spain and France and was said to be working on a new album for 2010. As of early 2012, that album had still not appeared.
The Shangri-Las vocal style and physical appearance, along with the energy and flair of their producer, George Morton, combined to make them one of the great girl groups of the 1960s.