George “Shadow” Morton, a New York-based producer and songwriter best known for his work with 1960s girl group the Shangri-Las, has died at 72, according to reports. A family friend told the New York Times that the cause was cancer.
Morton was born in Virginia and raised in Brooklyn and then Hicksville, Long Island where he began his career singing in a doo-wop group called the Marquees. According to the Long Island Music Hall of Fame website, Morton got his start in songwriting and production through his childhood friend and Brill Building songwriter Ellie Greenwich.
“He pulled together a young girl group from Astoria, some local musicians (including a young Billy Joel) and a basement studio in Bethpage, Morton created ‘Remember (Walking in the Sand)’ and presented it to Greenwich’s employers [legendary producer-songwriting team] Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, who loved the track and sent Morton into the studio to record the song, and the Shangri-Las were born.”
“Remember” was the first attempt at songwriting for Morton, who did not play an instrument or read music. It reached No. 5 on the Hot 100. He would become chief producer of Lieber and Stoller’s Red Bird label and went on to work on other mid-60s hits for the Shangri-Las including “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” and their best known song “Leader of the Pack.”
Morton co-wrote “Leader of the Pack” with Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. The song, a melodramatic tale about a girl telling her friends about her motorcycle-riding boyfriend, topped the Hot 100 in late 1964.
The echo-drenched track was also featured in the 1980s jukebox musical of the same name, which co-starred and told the story of Greenwich, the prolific songwriter behind hits including “Be My Baby,” Da Doo Ron Ron,” “River Deep, Mountain High,” among others.
The Shangri-Las were made up of two sets of sisters from Queens, New York: lead singer Mary Weiss and Betty Weiss, and identical twins Marge and Mary Ann Ganser.
In a 2008 interview with Stomp and Stammer, Mary Weiss gave several reasons why she thought Morton was drawn to them. “We were very into harmony. We sang harmony all the time and really worked on it,” she said, adding, “There’s an honesty and street sound that’s unmistakable. I guess if we had started ten years later I would have been in the punk scene.”
On Morton’s songwriting style, Weiss continued: “They’re very intricate, especially vocally. They’re the hardest things for my current band to do. They’re syncopated and metered. You have to be right on the money. It’s complicated — more so than most music.”
He later produced a diverse slate of artists, including: Janice Ian’ (“Society Child”), heavier rock bands Vanilla Fudge and Iron Butterfly, (including the latter’s epic hit “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”) and early New York punk-glam rock band The New York Dolls (1974’a “Too Much Too Soon”).
On Friday, Janis Ian wrote the following tribute on her Facebook page: “Shadow Morton, who produced ‘Society’s Child,’ ‘Leader of the Pack’ and other seminal records, is gone. A sad start to the day.”