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February 19, 2013

American Rock Tragedy, Episode 3: Shadow Morton, co-writer of "Leader of the Pack" is dead at 71

This has been a terrible month for geriatric types like myself: first Paul Tanner (inventor of the electro-theremin he played on "Good Vibrations") died, then Dave Clark Five bassist Rick Huxley crumped, and now comes the sad news that the naïve genius Shadow Morton — "he played no instrument, could not read music and wrote his songs in his head" — has breathed his last.

Below, excerpts from Margalit Fox's wonderful February 15 New York Times obituary.

Shadow Morton, a songwriter and producer who for a brief, luminous period in the 1960s poured the discontents of adolescence into original hit songs, including "Leader of the Pack" and "Remember (Walking in the Sand)," died on Thursday in Laguna Beach, Calif. He was 71.

By all accounts possessed of a brazen, naïve genius, Mr. Morton was almost single-handedly responsible for the wild success of the Shangri-Las, the Queens girl group he introduced and propelled to international stardom.

The group had its first hit in 1964 with "Remember," recorded more or less on a dare in a session frantically pulled together by Mr. Morton, who had never written a song before.

The result, with lyrics and music conceived by Mr. Morton in what he later said was about 22 minutes, was released on the Red Bird label and reached No. 5 on the Billboard singles chart.

A song of lost love, "Remember" was imbued with the lush, infectious strangeness that would prove a hallmark of Mr. Morton's other hits. It employed a narrative, quasi-operatic plot, spoken dialogue, chanting, unconventional sound effects (in this case sea gulls) and lyrics that encapsulated all the ardor and angst of the teenage years.

The song was followed later that year by "Leader of the Pack," written with Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry. It told the story of Betty, who falls for Jimmy, a young tough on a bike:

I met him at the candy store.

He turned around and smiled at me.

You get the picture? [Spoken]: Yes, we see.

That's when I fell for... the leader of the pack.

As the melodrama unfolds to the sound of a revving motorcycle, Jimmy, banished by Betty on her parents' orders, peels off on his bike, only to crash. "Look out!" the Shangri-Las' lead singer, Mary Weiss, cries over and over, but it is too late. Jimmy is dead.

The song, which reached No. 1, has been covered by artists as diverse as Bette Midler, Twisted Sister and Alvin and the Chipmunks; it remains omnipresent in movies and on television.

The nickname Shadow was bestowed on him by a Brill Building colleague to describe his habitually evanescent presence.

As a producer, Mr. Morton was best known for Janis Ian’s hit single  "Society’s Child," recorded in 1965 when she was 14; several albums by the psychedelic rock group Vanilla Fudge; and "Too Much Too Soon" (1974), by the protopunk New York Dolls.

George Francis Morton was born in Brooklyn on Sept. 3, 1941. When he was about 14, his family moved to Hicksville, on Long Island, which his parents thought would provide a wholesome atmosphere.

"They had the theory, 'My boy’s gonna get in trouble, so we're gonna move him out of Brooklyn,'" Mr. Morton told the music magazine Time Barrier Express in 1979.

Scarcely into their suburban idyll, the Mortons discovered that the parents of every budding juvenile delinquent in the city had had the same idea. To young Mr. Morton's boundless delight, he said, he found the largest gang "walking the streets of Bethpage and Hicksville that you ever want to meet."

In high school, Mr. Morton formed a doo-wop group. But, leaving school before graduating, he found himself at loose ends.

In 1964 he paid a call on Ms. Greenwich, an acquaintance from Long Island musical circles. She had hit the big time — working for the producer-songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller in the Brill Building, Manhattan's vaunted hive of composers and lyricists.

Also in the office that day, working quietly at the piano, was Mr. Barry, Ms. Greenwich’s husband and collaborator.

"My Brooklyn alcoholic paranoia kicked in," Mr. Morton recalled in an interview with Vanity Fair in 2001. "I saw a guy sitting with his back to me, ignoring me — and being very impolite."

As Mr. Morton rose to leave, Mr. Barry turned to him. "Just what is it you do for a living?" he asked.

"I'm a songwriter — like you," Mr. Morton replied, with full Brooklyn braggadocio.

"What kind of songs?"

"Hit songs."

"Why don’t you bring me one?" Mr. Barry said, with audible skepticism.

Mr. Morton phoned a friend who had a basement recording studio. He phoned another friend, who had a four-piece band. He phoned a third, who knew some high school girls from Queens who sang locally as the Shangri-Las.

With these elements in place, Mr. Morton, on his way to the recording session, realized he lacked one thing: a song. Pulling his car over on a stretch of Long Island road, he wrote "Remember."

February 19, 2013 at 12:01 AM | Permalink


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