It's New York, 1964. The music scene is rapidly changing. Rock 'n' roll is on the wane, the 'British invasion' - headed by the Beatles - has arrived and the great girl-groups of the Phil Spector and Motown stables rule the airwaves.
At that time, a producer, George 'Shadow' Morton, was trying to make a name for himself in the music industry. This resulted in him making a bet with songwriting partnership (and husband and wife) Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich that he could make a hit record. However, he did not have a song or a group as yet.
Somewhere Across Town...
In the borough of Queens, two sets of sisters - Mary and Betty Weiss, and twins Margie and MaryAnn Ganser - were attending Andrew Jackson High School. They had started singing together and had released a few local singles for Artie Ripp of Kama Sutra Productions. When Morton had written his song, 'Remember (Walking in the Sand)', he was put in touch with the girls, who became the Shangri-Las. A seven-minute demo was recorded and edited into a three-minute record. Barry and Greenwich showed this record to record-label bosses Leiber and Stoller, who signed Morton to Red Bird Records. The record was re-recorded and released, reaching the top ten in America.
Only the Start...
As many artists will tell you, having one hit could be considered the easy bit; having another is the trick.
What followed up was one of the most successful songs of the decade: a story of love, parental disapproval and of loss, things that would become themes running through the songs of the band. Morton - with help from Barry and Greenwich - wrote 'Leader Of The Pack', which soared to the top of the charts.
The Shangri-Las' style - consisting of Mary's voice backed by haunting harmonies, tales of lost love and the wrong kind of boys - combined with the look of the band appealed to both sexes, and with limited competition in the charts, they ruled as the queens of the girl-group sound.
Not all was rosy. Constant touring and TV appearances had taken their toll. By 1967, the Red Bird label was in trouble and allegedly run by the mob. The songwriters left, followed by the group, who signed for Mercury but failed to score more hits. MaryAnn died of encephalitis in 1971 and Margie of breast cancer in 1996. Groups using the name 'Shangri-Las' still tour, but generally without the surviving Weiss twins.
Most of their classics can be found on the Best of the Shangri-Las album.
'Remember (Walking In The Sand)' (1964) - The song that started it all, about a girl remembering the times she had with her boyfriend before he went away and met somebody else. Covered by, among others, Aerosmith.
'Leader of the Pack' (1964) - Their most successful song: girl meets boy at candy store, parents disapprove, she tells him, he dies in bike crash. Containing so much emotion, this was banned from many radio stations. Cover versions include one by metal band Twisted Sister.
'Give Him a Great Big Kiss' (1964) - Good girl, bad boy. Released at the same time as another Shangri-La single and reached the top 20 in the USA. Covered by the Heart Breakers.
'Right Now And Not Later' (1965) - The Shangri-Las do Motown, and do it well.
'I Can Never Go Home Anymore' (1965) - How a girl running off to be with her boy caused her mother to die of a broken heart. This will make you cry.
'Long Live Our Love' (1966) - Boyfriend leaves for war. One of the last of the classics.
'Past, Present, Future' (1966) - Pete Townshend's2 favourite song. We know the girl was hurt before, she's been asked out, she does not want the boy going too far in case it happens again. Meanwhile, Beethoven's 'Moonlight Sonata' plays in the background.