Forever No. 1: The Shangri-Las’ ‘Leader of the Pack’

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Forever No. 1 is a Billboard series that pays special tribute to the recently deceased artists who achieved the highest honor our charts have to offer — a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single — by taking an extended look back at the chart-topping songs that made them part of this exclusive club. Here, we honor the late Shangri-Las frontwoman Mary Weiss by looking at their lone No. 1 as a group: the spellbinding tragi-pop classic “Leader of the Park.”

By the time “Leader of the Pack” hit No. 1 in late 1964, the first golden age of girl-group pop was already nearing its end. Groups like The Shirelles, The Angels and The Orlons had seen the hits dry up, while super-producer Phil Spector — who had set much of the sonic and structural template for the era with outfits like The Crystals and The Ronettes — was enjoying his final hits with the latter trio before turning his attention to The Righteous Brothers and Ike & Tina Turner. The Supremes would dominate throughout the ’60s, and their Motown labelmates Martha & The Vandellas and The Marvelettes were able to successfully evolve their sound to the changing era, but they were increasingly the exceptions to the rule. The Beatles were in the midst of modernizing the music world, scoring six Hot 100-toppers in ’64 alone, and the Brill Building pop production model that powered most of the girl group era suddenly didn’t seem quite so fresh.

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What was fresh, though, was The Shangri-Las. Making their name with a street-tougher image and more emotionally complex songs than the glammed-out girl groups of the early decade, the quartet fit in just fine with the British-invaded pop world of the mid-’60s — touring with rock hitmakers The Animals and Vanilla Fudge and even performing with proto-punks The Sonics as their backing band. Betty Weiss sang lead on the group’s earliest songs, but she was soon eclipsed as frontwoman by younger sister Mary, whose more expressive and adaptable voice was better suited for the increasingly dramatic songs and rich productions given to the group by George “Shadow” Morton — who brought the Shangri-Las to Red Bird Records as teenagers and ultimately wrote and produced the majority of their hits. (Weiss died earlier this month at age 75.)

“Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand)” was first up for the group in the summer of ’64. Its mix of pounding piano chords, tempo switches, histrionically belted and tensely sung-spoken vocals, despairing lyrics and evocative sound effects proved a perfect introduction to the teenage mini-operas that would ultimately became their signature. It also made for one of the most striking pop singles of its era, as “Remember” peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100, establishing the group as stars. But it would turn out to just be the warm-up for the group’s biggest hit, and the one they remain most known for 60 years later: The tearjerking story song “Leader of the Pack,” a doomed wrong-side-of-the-tracks romance that ends with its titular rogue speeding off to his tragic death.

Tragedy was nothing new in the pop music of the time: So-called “death discs” had made for one of the most bankable top 40 themes of the turn of the ’60s, with smashes like Ray Peterson’s “Tell Laura I Love Her” and J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers’ “Last Kiss” hinging on such fatalities. The overwhelming majority of these hits were male-sung, however, and a girl group had yet to find major success with one. But with several such groups singing songs in praise of the misunderstood Bad Boy — The Crystals’ Hot 100-topping 1962 gem “He’s a Rebel” being the most obvious and popular example — it made perfect commercial sense to mix such a star-crossed lover ballad with a teen tragedy song, delivered from the girl-group perspective.

But “Leader of the Pack” really revved up the melodrama — somewhat literally, in the case of its recurring motorcycle-engine sound effects — from its opening seconds, with one of the most show-stopping intros in pop history. A single, thundering piano chord is repeatedly struck, as backing vocals hum elegiacally in the background, and intra-Las spoken dialogue introduce the song’s central narrative, first through side gossip (“Is she really going out with him?”) and then through direct questioning (“Betty, is that Jimmy’s ring you’re wearing?”). It establishes everything about the song’s tone and content before the first verse, and also makes it clear that despite its obvious influences, “Leader” doesn’t follow in the path of any pop song before it.

And yes, despite “Betty” being the name of the “Leader” narrator, it was in fact Mary singing lead on the single, and delivering one of the unforgettable vocal performances of ’60s pop. Just 15 years old at the time of recording, there was a rawness and unguardedness to her wailing vocal (“He stood there and asked me wuhhhhh-eyyyyeeee“) that even brilliant young pop peers like Ronnie Spector and Diana Ross were a little too polished for. That was by design, according to legendary songwriter Jeff Barry (who composed the song along with Morton and usual songwriting partner Ellie Greenwich), telling Fred Bronson for The Billboard Book of Number One Hits that he sat close to her while recording “Leader” to give her stability and allow her to “feel free to let it out emotionally.” He notes that her emotional connection to the song is audible on the final product: “She was crying, you can hear it on the record.”

It’s almost unfair to evaluate Weiss’ performance on “Leader” strictly in musical terms, since it was every bit as much a theatrical performance. The single was structured less like a pop song than a radio play — with the backing Las prodding the narrative along with further questioning (“What’cha mean when you say that he came from the wrong side of town?“) and bombastic sound effects providing the necessary punctuation to the story when needed. But it all pivoted on Weiss as its leading lady, torn between her parents and her Jimmy, selling the combined devastation of both young heartbreak and young loss. “I was asking her to be an actress, not just a singer,” Morton later said.

billboard hot 100 1964
billboard hot 100 1964

Of course, Weiss was helped in her star vehicle by having pro’s pros as screenwriters and director. Barry and Greenwich were among the most accomplished songwriters of their era (“Be My Baby,” “Doo Wah Diddy Diddy,” “Chapel of Love”), and they establish the teen-soap story and feelings of “Leader” with maximum lyrical efficiency: “They told me that he was bad/ But I knew that he was sad.” Meanwhile, the song’s melodic instincts are sharp enough that the song never feels too stagey for the top 40: Note how after Weiss spends the verse waxing nostalgic with long, over-drawn phrases and her Las classmates answer her with clipped, staccato responses, they all come together at the end of the refrain to punch in the title phrase with maximum sing-song clarity and impact.

And Morton’s production is what brings the whole song together. It clearly follows from Spector’s Wall of Sound pocket symphonies, but with the added stakes of “Leader,” the song’s sonics are heightened to near-operatic levels: drum thumps approximate loudly echoing heartbeats on the chorus, reverb-soaked, minor-key piano gives the feeling of an impending thunderstorm on the bridge, and the group is elevated to an angelic choir on the heavenly outro, singing the fallen Leader home. And of course, there’s that incessant motorcycle engine: one of the all-time on-record sound effects, as crucial to the song’s pop appeal as any of the more obviously melodic hooks, and also serving as a much-needed act break following each emotionally exhausting verse and refrain. Throw in an unsettlingly vivid crash scene on the bridge — complete with skidding sounds, chilling “LOOK OUT! LOOK OUT!” cries from the backing La’s, and (of course) a climactic key change — and “Leader” was very likely the most action-packed pop single ever released to that point.

Appropriately, “Leader of the Pack” was received like a late-season blockbuster. It debuted at No. 86 on the Hot 100 dated Oct. 10, 1964, and was No. 1 just seven weeks later, ending the four-week reign of the ascendant Supremes and their second Hot 100-topper “Baby Love.” It spent just one week on top, before being replaced by a very different sort of story song, Lorne Greene’s “Ringo.” The Shangri-Las would never return to the chart’s top spot again, but dizzying follow-up “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” reached No. 18, and 1965’s “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” returned them to the top 10, peaking at No. 6. Even several Shangri-Las singles that failed to reach the top 40, like 1965’s heart-rending “Out in the Streets” (No. 53) and 1966’s absolutely harrowing “Past, Present and Future” (No. 59) made huge impressions not just on fans of the time but future generations of pop listeners, playing a large part in the cult fandom the group inspires to this day.

Indeed, though the Shangri-Las would only be major hitmakers for a couple years, their influence would be widespread for many decades to come. Several key figures from the first generation of punk rockers in the ’70s would cite the Las as formative influences, with The Damned even borrowing the “Is she really going out with him?” intro from “Leader” — which would also title famed angry young rocker Joe Jackson’s breakthrough hit just a couple years later — on their debut single “New Rose.” Later noise-pop merchants like Sonic Youth and The Jesus and Mary Chain similarly found inspiration in the group’s edgy melodrama, and retro-minded 21st century pop stars like Amy Winehouse and Lana Del Rey venerated their fashion, attitude and still-shattering songs. And while the girl group would be less impactful on the top 40 of the late ’60s than it was in the decade’s first half, there would be additional golden ages to come, with the Shangri-Las enduring as one of the gold standards of the form. Despite being perhaps the defining “death disc” of them all, “Leader of the Pack” has proven thoroughly eternal.

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