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Music Reviews

Bumpy, Bikers And The Story Behind 'Leader Of The Pack'

Originally published on Thu September 26, 2013 3:48 pm

When record producer and songwriter George "Shadow" Morton died on Valentine's Day this year, he left behind a legacy as murky as his nickname, which he got from disappearing on long benders. At the time of his death, Ace Records in London was busy compiling a collection of his productions called Sophisticated Boom Boom: The Shadow Morton Story, which is out now.

Morton was born in Virginia in 1941, but raised in Brooklyn. By the time he was 13, he'd gotten in enough trouble that his parents moved to Hicksville, on Long Island. It turned out that most of the teenagers there had arrived under similar circumstances, and in no time he was running with a gang — adopted by their leader, a biker named Bumpy.

In 1957, he and four friends started a band called the Markeys, who played for high-school audiences; the group included a girl named Ellie Gaye, who played the accordion and offered the band encouragement. Eventually, they made a record, "Hot Rod," which RCA released.

After graduating from high school, Morton hitchhiked across the country doing odd jobs, and one day, stranded in a snowstorm in Pennsylvania, he called a friend in New York. His friend came and picked him up, and on the drive back told him that Ellie Gaye was now known as Ellie Greenwich, and had written a bunch of hits. Morton finagled an invitation to her office, and they chatted, but he found he was irritating the other guy in the room — who turned out to be Ellie's husband, Jeff Barry. Barry asked him what he did, and Morton said he wrote songs, hit songs. Barry asked him to bring him one, and Morton said he would. Which would he prefer, fast or slow? Slow, Barry said. Morton said he'd be back on Tuesday.

Morton found some musicians, then went looking for singers. Tony Giannattasio, from the Markeys, was now known as Tony Michaels, and had written songs for four girl singers who called themselves The Shangri-Las. Morton went to see them and booked studio time for that Sunday. He was so excited that when he showed up at the studio, he realized he'd forgotten to write a song, so he sat in his car until he'd come up with something. He walked into the studio, ignoring the howls of protest from the girls and his friend, went over to the 14-year-old piano player Billy Joel, and began to dictate a piano line.

The next day, he went back to see Barry and Greenwich and handed them the tape. Barry disappeared with it and then came back to ask if he could play it for someone else. Morton said okay.

The someone else Barry had played it for was Jerry Leiber, who recognized that Morton's teenage soap opera represented a step forward in teen pop — and, upon learning that Morton had written and produced it, offered him a job on the spot. He thanked them by remembering Bumpy and writing "Leader of the Pack" for The Shangri-Las.

As a writer and producer for Leiber and Stoller's Red Bird Records, Morton kept the job for two years. But times were changing. Protest folk seemed like it was worth looking into, and next thing he knew, he'd found a 15-year-old girl, Janis Fink, playing in Greenwich Village. He had her change her last name and took her into the studio.

Janis Ian's "Society's Child" did very well, considering its subject matter, and led to an appearance for her on a Leonard Bernstein TV special. The word was out: Shadow Morton was hot. Atlantic Records handed him Iron Butterfly, a West Coast band whose first album had flopped. Years of heavy drinking had worn him out, but he took the gig on and produced "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida."

With the dawn of the 1970s, Morton began working more erratically, producing the New York Dolls' second album in 1974 and then dropping from sight. Eventually, he went into the Betty Ford Clinic, dried out, and emerged into a quiet and reclusive life, writing music in his home in Laguna Beach, Calif., until his death.

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Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

When record producer and songwriter George "Shadow" Morton died earlier this year on Valentine's Day, he left a legacy as murky as his nickname, which he got from disappearing on long benders. He was the producer and writer of The Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack," and he produced recordings by Vanilla Fudge, Iron Butterfly and the New York Dolls.

At the time of his death, Ace Records in London was busy compiling a collection of his productions. And today, rock historian Ed Ward uses it to disentangle the man and his work from the legend.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo. (Singing) I can't stay. It's late and I'm sleepy. Girl be nice and let me go home. I'm must work so hard in the morning. Yeah, it's 4 o'clock so girl, let me go.

(Singing) And she said, no. Stop the clock. Put your arms around me. Don't go. Be a man. Boy, give all your love to me. Come on, let go of my heart in the morning. Girl...

ED WARD, BYLINE: George Morton was born in Virginia in 1941, but raised in Brooklyn. By the time he was 13, he had gotten in enough trouble that his parents moved to Hicksville on Long Island. It turned out that most of the teenagers there had arrived under similar circumstances, and in no time he was running with a gang, adopted by their leader, a biker named Bumpy.

In 1957, he and four friends started a band called the Markeys, who played for high-school audiences; the group included a girl named Ellie Gaye, who played the accordion and offered the band encouragement. Eventually, they made a record, "Hot Rod," which RCA released.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOT ROD")

THE MARKEYS: (Singing) Oh, tonight I have a date and know I won't be late for it's with my turtle dove and she's my only love. Oh, baby. Go on and get your baby. Go on and get your baby. Oh little baby why'd you go and make me cry? Hold on, my honey, we're going for a ride. Go on and get your baby. Go on and get your baby. Oh, and I grabbed her by the hand and...

WARD: After graduating from high school, Morton hitchhiked across the country doing odd jobs, and one day, stranded in a snowstorm in Pennsylvania, he called a friend in New York who came and picked him up, and on the drive back told him that Ellie Gaye was now known as Ellie Greenwich, and had written a bunch of hits. Morton wrangled an invitation to her office, and they chatted, but he found he was irritating the other guy in the room who turned out to be Ellie's husband, Jeff Barry. Barry asked him what he did, and Morton said he wrote songs, hit songs. Barry asked him to bring him one, and Morton said he would. Which would he prefer, fast or slow? Slow, Barry said. Morton said he'd be back on Tuesday.

Morton found some musicians, then went looking for singers. Tony Giannattasio, from the Markeys, was now known as Tony Michaels, and he had written songs for four girl singers who called themselves The Shangri-Las. Morton went to see them and booked studio time for that Sunday. He was so excited that when he showed up at the studio, he realized he'd forgotten to write a song, so he sat in his car until he'd come up with something. He walked into the studio, ignoring the howls of protest from the girls and his friend, went over to the 14-year-old piano player, Billy Joel, and began to dictate a piano line.

The next day, he went back to see Barry and Greenwich and handed them the tape. Barry disappeared with it and then came back to ask if he could play it for someone else. Morton said OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REMEMBER WALKIN IN THE SAND")

THE SHANGRI-LAS: Remember, I love you. I know you love me too. I wish you didn't have to go now. Write to me. (Singing) Seems like the other day my baby went away. She went away, across the sea. It's been two years or so since I saw my baby go, and then this letter came for me. It said that we were through. You found somebody new. Oh, let me think. Let me think. What can I do? Oh, no. Oh, no. Oh, no, no, no, no, no. Walking in the sand. Walking in the sand...

WARD: The someone else Barry played it for was Jerry Leiber who recognized that Morton's teenage soap opera represented a step forward in teen pop. And upon learning that Morton had written and produced it, offered him a job on the spot. He thanked them by remembering Bumpy and writing "Leader of the Pack" for the Shangri-Las. As a writer and producer for Leiber and Stollers' Red Bird Records, he kept the job for two years but times were changing.

Protest folk seemed like it was worth looking into and the next thing he knew, he'd found a 15 year old girl, Janis Fink, playing in Greenwich Village. He had her change her last name and took her into the studio.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOCIETY'S CHILD")

JANIS IAN: (Singing) Come to my door, baby. Face is clean and shining black as the night. My mother went to answer. You know that you look so fine. Now I could understand your tears and your shame. She called you boy instead of your name. When she wouldn't let you inside, when she turned and said but honey, he's not our kind. She says I couldn't see you anymore, baby. Can't see you anymore.

WARD: Janis Ian's "Society's Child" did very well, considering its subject matter, and led to an appearance for her on a Leonard Bernstein TV special. The word was out: Shadow Morton was hot. Atlantic Records handed him Iron Butterfly, a West Coast band whose first album had flopped. Years of heavy drinking had worn him out but he took the gig on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN-A-GADDA-DA-VIDA")

IRON BUTTERFLY: (Singing) In-a-gadda-da-vida, honey. Don't you know that I'm loving you? In-a-gadda-da-vida, baby. Don't you know that I'll always be true? Oh, won't you come with me and take my hand? Oh, won't you come with me and walk this land? Please take my hand.

WARD: With the dawn of the 1970s, Morton began working more erratically, producing the New York Dolls' second album in 1974 and then dropping from sight. Eventually, he went into the Betty Ford Clinic and dried out and emerged into a quiet and reclusive life writing music in his home in Laguna Beach, California, until his death.

DAVIES: Rock historian Ed Ward reviewed "Sophisticated Boom Boom: The Shadow Morton Story" on Ace Records.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEADER OF THE PACK")

SHANGRI-LAS: Is she really going out with him? Well, there she is. Let's ask her. Betty, is that Jimmy's ring you're wearing? Mm-hmm. Gee, it must be great riding with him. Is he picking you up after school today? Unh-unh. By the way, where'd you meet him? (Singing) I met him at the candy store. He turned around and smiled at me. You get the picture? Yes, we see. That's when I fell for the leader of the pack.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORCYCLE REVVING)

SHANGRI-LAS: (Singing) My folks were always putting him down. Down, down. They said he came from the wrong side of the town. What do you mean when you say he came from the side of town? They told me he was bad but I knew he was sad. That's why I fell for the leader of the pack.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORCYCLE REVVING)

DAVIES: Coming up, John Powers reviews Showtime's "Masters of Sex" about the 1960's era sexologists Masters and Johnson. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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