L is for Leader of the Pack

Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich and George Morton wrote the #1 hit ‘Leader of the Pack’ for The Shangri-Las, which they recorded in 1964 on their album of the same name.  This song is about accepting differences and it contains a story about a conversation which takes place between Betty and her two unnamed friends.  Betty just got engaged, but she is not as happy as she should be because her parents are complaining about her choice of male friends.  Her father insisted that she should dump Jimmy and the obedient daughter, she dumped him.  Jimmy is shocked when he hears that she won’t see him anymore and he rides off on the rainy night.  We hear a cry, “Look out” along with some fast-drumming sounds and you realize that there was a crash and now it is all over for the leader of the pack.  Tears and sadness follow.

The bad boy in this song is not just a guy who rides a bike, he’s the head of a motorcycle pack, however this biker bad boy is probably a far cry away from being an actual Hells Angel.  This is just my opinion, but one that I derived from watching Mary Weiss sing this song, as she doesn’t look like the kind of girl that would want to become a Hells Angels mama, because of this innocent teenage quality that she exudes.  I picture her as the type of girl that is fascinated by danger, and she probably owns a leather jacket, because it looks good on her.  However, her standards demand that she date a clean-cut, sociable guy, maybe one with a Honda and not a Harley.  This leads us to an important question that must be answered if we want to understand this song, and this is, “Is a pack a club, or is it a gang?”  This guy is the leader of the pack, but is he just some wimp that is in a motorcycle club and he enjoys going out on rides with his good friends, or is he a really bad boy, like some type of outlaw?  The answer to this question is revealed when Betty says that she met Jimmy in a candy store, so this guy turns out to be the leader of a motorcycle club, as it doesn’t seem realistic for a Hells Angel to go into a candy store to pick up chicks.  The other thing is that Betty’s two friends both seem to know Jimmy, so he is most likely a local.

Her dad didn’t want her to date the biker and Betty is probably blaming herself for Jimmy meeting his doom after crashing his bike on the wet road.  As the song fades out Betty declares that she will never forget Jimmy and then she says, “The leader of the pack – now he’s gone”, letting us know for sure that Jimmy died in the crash.  The spoken dialogue that takes place in this song is what makes it so interesting.  This song has it all, doomed love, class divisions, teenage rebellion, the generation gap, parental opposition and tragic death condensed into a three-minute single.  I don’t think that Betty was intentionally trying to cross a line by getting involved with Jimmy, a boy from the wrong side of town, she probably just didn’t see things the same way that her parents did.  All it took was one smile from the leader of the pack, and Betty was hooked on him.  Betty takes Jimmy to her home to meet her parents, but that didn’t work out so well, because they felt he was not suitable for their daughter.

Music producer George Francis “Shadow” Morton was noted for writing and producing two big hits for the Shangri-Las, ‘Remember (Walking in the Sand)’ and this one, which he wrote with Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry.  ‘Remember (Walking in the Sand)’ was another tragic breakup song and Morton was looking for a follow-up to that hit.  He had a motorcycle and was part of a motorcycle gang in his youth, so he, Greenwich and Barry decided to use that as the theme.  Together, they came up with the rather dramatic story, being sure to name the characters in the lyric (Betty and Jimmy) which allows the listener to form an attachment with these characters.  Death has often been featured as a theme in music, but Jimmy dying seems so unnecessary, making it all that more dramatic for the listener when they learn about the circumstances of his violent end.

The Shangri-Las were made up of two pairs of sisters (Elizabeth & Mary Weiss and Mary Ann & Marge Ganser).  These Andrew Jackson High School girls were based in the Cambria Heights section of Queens and they had already found Top 5 success with their previous song.  In April 1964, their parents had to sign the record contract with Red Bird Records for their daughters, as these girls were all still minors.  Mary was 15, Betty was 17, and the Ganser twins were 16.  They started out singing in school talent shows, and initially, the girls performed without a name.  But when they signed their first deal, they began calling themselves the Shangri-Las, after a Queens, New York restaurant.  These clean-cut cuties singing about their crushes, quickly rose to become one of the most important acts of the “girl group” era.  A top NYC radio disc jockey named Bruce “Cousin Brucie” Morrow, went to see the Shangri-Las at a talent show after hearing about them from listeners.  He was impressed with their tough and strong image, and he felt that they displayed angst and showed rebellion.

By the end of 1964 The Shangri-Las were an established act.  They performed with the Beatles, a Fall 1964 tour with the Rolling Stones, R&B artists such as The Drifters and James Brown (who, according to Mary Weiss, was surprised to discover the girls were white).  Cashbox magazine listed them as best new R&B group and they became a fixture on the Murray The K shows at the Brooklyn Fox from 1964-66.  They also promoted Revlon cosmetics by singing, “Natural Wonder, how pretty can you get.”  In March 1965, they toured the UK with Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, Herman’s Hermits, Del Shannon, and others.

Mary Weiss may have been a little bit more concerned about school than the 3 other girls in the group, or maybe because she was the youngest member in the group, she stayed in high school taking classes at a for young professionals in Manhattan, while the others were required to make personal appearances which required them to leave high school.   Shortly before the Shangri-Las went to the UK for their tour in, Betty Weiss dropped out temporarily, leaving the group as a trio. The remaining trio (just Mary Weiss and the twins) circulated at the group’s peak in popularity and beyond, which made many people think that this group was a trio.  Betty rejoined the group in mid-1965, and the group appeared as a quartet once again until the start of 1966 when they permanently became a trio with (MaryAnn and Margie leaving at different times and replacing each other, until the demise of the group).  The group alternated between touring as their own band and gigging with some of the local area bands.  Other groups that they played with were the Sonics, a garage rock band from Tacoma, Washington, as well as the Iguanas, a garage rock band from Ann Arbor, Michigan featuring a young Iggy Pop.

Queens, New York, was a rough neighborhood and although these girls appeared to be reserved, modest, and shy while they were up on stage, they all probably knew some things about how they could protect themselves from growing up in this environment.  Rumors about supposed escapades have since become legend, and Mary Weiss attracted the attention of the FBI for transporting a firearm across state lines.  In her defense, she said that someone tried to break into her hotel room one night and she bought a pistol for protection.  Whatever truth these stories may have, they were believed by fans in the 1960s, and they helped cement the group’s bad-girl reputation.  According to Weiss, that persona helped her to fend off advances from musicians while she was on tour.

Billy Joel claimed that he may have probably played the piano on this song when he was very young, but girls weren’t at the session while he was playing.  At the time, he wasn’t in the musician’s union because he was about 14 or 15 and he said that he never got paid, and he thinks that this was his very first recording session.  He seemed to be clearer about being on the piano player on their song ‘Remember (Walkin’ In The Sand)’ which became a hit first, but was actually recorded a little bit later.  Billy thought that Shadow Morton, was a strange guy, because he wore a cape in the studio and he felt intimidated hoping that no one would find out that he wasn’t in the union.

According to Jeff Barry, they used a real motorcycle to create the sound for the revving engine.  Shadow Morton sometimes talked about how they wheeled the motorcycle into the studio to record it, but Barry explained that they attached a microphone to a long cable and recorded it on the street outside the New York City studio.  The bike was a Harley Davidson owned by Barry’s engineer, Joe Venneri. Fortunately, Venneri’s Harley was not used to create the crashing sound, as that was a sound effect.

Is she really going out with him?
Well, there she is. Let’s ask her.
Betty, is that Jimmy’s ring you’re wearing?
Gee, it must be great riding with him
Is he picking you up after school today?
By the way, where’d you meet him?

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)

My folks were always putting him down (down, down)
They said he came from the wrong side of town
(whatcha mean when ya say that he came from the wrong 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)

One day my dad said, “Find someone new”
I had to tell my Jimmy we’re through
(whatcha mean when ya say that ya better go find somebody new?)
He stood there and asked me why
But all I could do was cry
I’m sorry I hurt you (the leader of the pack)

He sort of smiled and kissed me goodbye
The tears were beginning to show
As he drove away on that rainy night
I begged him to go slow
But whether he heard, I’ll never know

Look out! Look out! Look out! Look out!
I felt so helpless, what could I do?
Remembering all the things we’d been through
In school they all stop and stare
I can’t hide the tears, but I don’t care
I’ll never forget him (the leader of the pack)

The leader of the pack – now he’s gone
The leader of the pack – now he’s gone
The leader of the pack – now he’s gone
The leader of the pack – now he’s gone

10 thoughts on “L is for Leader of the Pack

  1. Good for Mary getting that reputation… that may have saved her some trouble. Seemed like a lot of songs back then dealt with death.
    I never knew about Mary leaving…thanks Jim. I’ve always liked them.

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.