1947 – Born on this day, Margie and Mary Ann Ganser, vocalists for The Shangri-Las, who had a 1964 US No.1 & UK No.11 single with ‘Leader Of The Pack’. Margie died of breast cancer on July 28th 1996.
There have been many artists, composers and singers who have left their stamp indelibly etched in music history, but few so memorable as four young girls who broke into the music world with such a thunderous roar that the echoes can still be heard; the one, the only, Shangri-Las.
Their story is one filled with dreams, hopes and aspirations and is truthfully the stuff that legends and movies are made of. As with any legend there have been many myths and stories, the majority of which are inaccurate, written about them. It is my intention to give an insight into the girls’ lives, where they came from, their music, and hopefully put some of the fallacies to rest.
Throughout the years, there have been peaks and valleys in the music field. The 1950s and 1960s saw a massive transfusion of energy to the industry with the evolution of Rock & Roll. While many of our parents, rightfully so, claimed the Big Bands and Swing music as their own, the baby boomers, in search of an identity, laid claim to the tunes of this new Rock & Roll phenomenon. The driving beats and thunderous roars of Bill Haley, Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, The Teenagers and Chuck Berry heralded the new generation and many of us followed.
Leader of the Pack The Shangri-Las as they were best known: tough girls with broken hearts
The 1950s and 1960s also saw a large migration out of the hustle and bustle of the cities to what many at the time considered, the suburbs. Yes, Queens, New York is where this story focuses and yes, in this time period, it was considered a suburb.
The Setting was Queens
Queens was a place where you didn’t see a McDonalds, but rather, Wetson’s Hamburgers. Candy stores dotted every second or third corner of the boulevards and avenues, along with delis, ice cream parlors and pizza parlors. Queens was a place where you could actually shop right outside your front door as trucks would drive through the neighborhood selling fruit, vegetables and the like, or even sharpening knives. There was a chance the Cotts or Hoffman Soda delivery man would run into the delivery men for Drakes or Dugans Cakes.
The competition for the neighborhood kid’s money was fierce with ice cream vendors. It was not uncommon to see the Bungalow Bar truck at one end of the block while the Good Humor truck worked its way up from the other end. Anyone growing up in this time period is guilty of the tune we used to chant to the poor Bungalow Bar vendor, “Bungalow Bar, Tastes Like Tar, The More You Eat It, The Sicker You Are”. Not to be outdone by the frozen ice cream vendors, we also had competition with soft-serve vendors like Mr. Softee and Tasty Freeze. If it wasn’t enough that we had the ice cream vendors pulling up outside our doors, we also had actual amusement type rides coming through the streets on the backs of trucks. Our usual choices were The Swing (similar to the ride now known as the Buccaneer) and also The Whip. For your dime, you not only got a ride, but also got to hear your favorite tunes blasting out of a loud speaker with DJs like Charlie Greer (“Swing Charlie Swing”), Murray The K, Cousin Brucie and B. Mitchell Reed. Many times you would get a frozen ice pop for free when the ride was over, and once in a while you got to see your friend turn green because the Bungalow Bar he ate beforehand got shook up on The Whip.
Get Out the 45s
If you weren’t at one of the bazaars the schools usually had at least once a summer, then you were plotting the next record party in the back yard (around your Doughboy pool) or in the basement (usually on top of a ping-pong or pool table). You would charge the kids a dime to get in, break out the soda, and stack your 45’s on the old RCA Victrola and just dance, or stare at the girl you wanted to dance with, hoping she would get the message. There was a method to your madness of charging the kids to get in, it would give you the money to buy more records, and to have more parties.
It was a great time to grow up, but don’t be fooled, Queens was far from Disneyland. Whether you were a guy or a girl growing up at that time, you had to be streetwise, and at times stand tough on your ground if not, you would be walked all over. It was not uncommon to have small groups of kids, some gangs and some just neighborhood kids, dividing up the blocks into territories. There was the usual mischief, but nothing as drastic by today’s standards, but still enough that you would want to stand up and call anyone’s bluff. With all this said, I think you should have a good grasp on the area where the Shangri-Las and many of us grew up.
The girls who comprised the Shangri-Las came from an average American family who settled into the area, and as with all parents, only wanted and tried to give their children the best they could. The Ganser family had five children, two boys and three girls, while the Weiss family had three children, one boy and two girls. Mr. Weiss, a physician, unfortunately passed away while his children were still considerably young, but Mrs. Weiss managed to carry on the family. She was also very personable and a favorite of the eldest, George’s, friends.
Margie and Mary Ann Ganser, early Shangri-Las
The Ganser twins at their first gig–Sacred Heart school. Mary Ann is on the left, Margie on the right. This is 4th or 5th grade.
All four girls showed an interest in music while growing up, but Margie and Mary Ann actually had a musical background. Mrs. Ganser had been a fan of music much of her life and to this day still enjoys it. For a while, she was a vocalist in nightclubs around the area, and was also very talented at the piano. She has the capability of hearing a tune, then going to the piano and playing it by ear. Clearly the girls inherited a good portion of their talent from their mother.
When Margie and Mary Ann showed interest in learning the piano, Mr. & Mrs. Ganser, with five mouths to feed, found a way to stretch their income already strained from the tuition at Sacred Heart parochial school and signed both girls up for lessons. For seven years they faithfully practiced and learned the ins and outs of theory, composition and the like, becoming excellent players in the end. Mary Ann, not being satisfied with just playing the piano, took the theory and basics she learned from her lessons and applied them to mastering the guitar, which she accomplished and played quite well. Through the years of lessons, practice and training, the girls also managed to keep their grades up at Sacred Heart, cementing the fact that these girls were definitely striving for perfection.
Shangri-Las girls Margie and Mary Ann Ganser Mary Ann (L) & Margie Ganser upon their graduation from Sacred Heart Grade School in 1962.
Although the girls lived just a couple of blocks from each other, Mary & Betty on 220th Street and Margie & Mary Ann on 219th Street, they knew of each other, but nothing had really clicked yet and this was about to change very soon. As luck would have it, all four girls (at different time periods, since they varied in age about a year from each other), started attending Andrew Jackson High School.
During the 1963/1964 school year, the Weiss and Ganser sisters started becoming very good friends and in the process found they all shared the same love of music. Whether in school, at the Ganser or Weiss household or hanging out with Mary and Betty’s older brother, Georgie Weiss, and his friends, they would practice the popular songs of the day, working on their harmonies, routines and presence, the girls taking any constructive criticism in stride to better their act.
Enthusiastic and upbeat about their singing, but also realistic in their expectations of making it big, they forged on to the point where their harmonies blended perfectly. Not satisfied with just singing in the neighborhood, they started to play local record hops and dances, with Georgie Weiss nearby, keeping a watchful eye on them. During the days of the local dances and hops, the girls were brought to the attention of a producer around the nearby area named Artie Ripp. After hearing and seeing them perform, he recognized their potential and signed them to an exclusive contract with Kama Sutra Productions. At this point, Kama Sutra Productions was still trying to get a foothold in the industry and would sign acts, record them and then sometimes shop the master tapes around to different labels.
This signing would be a blessing for the fact that it reassured the girls of their talent, yet also prove detrimental as that contract would resurface later on, almost putting an end to their career before it got a chance to take off. Most likely the very first recording the girls did was at one of their local club performances with a tune called “Simon Says”, a cross between “Bo Diddley” and “Willie And The Hand Jive”. Even though this may have been their first waxing of a track, it would not be released until almost a year or so later.
After this first effort, arrangements were made for the girls to go in and do two studio tracks, “Wishing Well” and “Hate To Say I Told You So”, with “Wishing Well” becoming the “A” side. It was at this time to that Mary’s unique and inimitable voice would take the forefront as lead singer with Margie, Mary Ann and Betty taking over harmonies. It is rare that vocals blend so perfectly together, but these girls had that gift to really be able to bring out the feeling and mood of a song.
Flip side of “Wishing Well,” released early 1964, the Shangri-Las’ first release.
Once the “Wishing Well” session was finished and mastered, Artie Ripp started shopping them around. Call it fate or whatever you would like, but the tracks were leased to Spokane Records, a subsidiary of Florence Greenberg’s Scepter/Wand record company. Spokane Records, much like The Shangri-Las, were just starting out in the industry with only had a handful of releases, one of which by Baby Jane & The Rock-A-Byes (aka Henrietta & The Hairdooze, on Liberty), called “Hickory Dickory Dock”. Those who believe in fate may want to note that “Hickory Dickory Dock” was written by none other than Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, with production credits going to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller on this tune and it’s follow up–possibly a bit of foreshadowing of the talent and forces headed to merge with each other. “Wishing Well” was released in early 1964 and made some noise regionally, but nothing to speak of nationally. The girls, not discouraged that the record didn’t hit big, but having this notch and maybe some clout that it carried in the local club scene, forged ahead with their area performances, and also their scholastic duties, not knowing what fate again had in store for them.
The Brilliant Brill
In early 1964 the U.S. music scene exploded with the arrival of The Beatles and their counterparts, virtually obliterating many of the U.S. vocalists and groups that were riding high before their invasion. Just about everyone was taking a hit on the charts with the exception of three areas: Detroit with the Motown Sound; California with the surfing sound; and New York with the songs of the Brill Building.
The Brill Building at this point in time was unstoppable, turning out hit after hit for many independent labels, including the hot new label of 1964, Red Bird Records (Red Bird Entertainment Inc. is a separate entity from Red Bird Records, which was in operation from 1964 to 1966. Throughout this article, “Red Bird” refers to Red Bird Records). Team Red Bird at this time was comprised of owners Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, and George Goldner, and engineers and arrangers Brooks Arthur, Tommy Dowd, and Artie Butler. Batting a thousand were the writing and production/husband and wife team of Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry. All of the people there at this time had reams of experience in the industry. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote and produced hits for Elvis Presley, The Coasters, The Drifters and many, many more artists. Brooks Arthur and Tommy Dowd were involved with many of the Leiber and Stoller productions and many others for the Atlantic/Atco powerhouse. George Goldner was innovative in the evolution of rock, discovering stars such as Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers, The Cleftones, Little Anthony & The Imperials, The Dubs, as well as owning (and unfortunately losing) labels like End, Gone, Gee, Rama, and Goldisc, just to name a few.
With this going on in Manhattan, there were also things stirring out in Long Island. Long Island to many was considered the real suburbs of New York, with its housing developments, strip malls and shopping centers, plus some small local farm stands. It was also home at one time to Ellie Greenwich, who was a kind of New York version of the bright-eyed, optimistic Gidget, only taller and from Levittown. She would play the piano, sing and jam at local get-togethers with friends from high school, the neighborhood, and such. It was at one of these gatherings that she met a transplant from Brooklyn, via Hicksville, Long Island, George Morton. There was nothing spectacular about the meeting, and some time would go by before they would meet up again.
In the early part of 1964, George Morton was talking with a friend of his. During the conversation the topic turned to Ellie Greenwich and her new- found fame. George’s friend went on to inform him that the girl who used to be at the Long Island parties was now a professional songwriter. He named some of the tunes Ellie had co-written: “Be My Baby”, “Da Doo Ron Ron” “Chapel Of Love” etc., which must have gotten George’s curiosity sparked once he went to check it all out. Sure enough, after some digging through the record bins and seeing Ellie’s name, he decided to give her a ring.
Ellie and her husband Jeff, now part of the staff at Red Bird, set up a meeting with George at their offices. At the meeting, something between Jeff and George just didn’t click. They exchanged some verbal banter between each other and it got to the point where Jeff asked him just what he did for a living. George, not coming across as the type of person to back down, and (according to him, when I spoke to him last summer) was not only in a singing group called The Marquees, but also at one time a brief member of a street gang called the Red Devils. This said, George quipped back at Jeff that he wrote songs for a living. Naturally Jeff had to ask what kind of songs, whereas George replied nonchalantly, “hit songs”. Jeff called his bluff and asked him to write one and bring it back to the offices within a week. George’s reply to that was, “Do you want a slow one or a fast one?” Jeff asked him to do a slow one. Except for his body gestures and the tone of his voice as he was telling this, it’s just about word for word the way George relayed it to me and others, although, I have to admit, just reading this does not do justice to George’s storytelling ability.
George, it appeared, was now determined to get some things in the works, if only just to show up Jeff. He managed to get a friend of his to hook him up with a studio in Bethpage, Long Island where he had fooled around with some recordings before. He was then on the hunt for a group, and a bug was put in his ear about a group of girls from Queens who were performing on the local club circuit. He went down to see the Shangri-Las perform, and he too saw some potential. It might have been one meeting, but a possibility exists that there were actually two meetings when George convinced the girls to come to the studio on the Island to record.
Remember (Writin’ In The Car)
As George has told it, the day was set, the studio was booked and the girls were on their way. He too was on his way, tooling down the road in his Buick until he realized he didn’t have a song. On the way to Bethpage, he pulled over to the side of the road, started writing and came up with “Remember (Walkin’ In The Sand)”. As George was relaying this story, he was asked what was his inspiration, how did he go about writing it, where did he get the idea? George’s response was classic. “Inspiration? What inspiration? I’m sitting in my old Buick on Oyster Bay Road thinking I need a song and I just wrote it”.
Once at the studio George sprung the song on the girls and the musicians (one of which, was a young Billy Joel), telling them what and when to play and sing. Originally there was a narrative leading into the song, with a call and response that went something like: “Remember, remember I love you, I love you too, I have to go now, write me, write me.” With the song finished, George brought it to the Red Bird offices, not really knowing what to expect. To his surprise, they loved the song (although the playing time was a bit too long), and signed him on the staff. The first request was that he go into the studio and re-cut the song, but since they also liked the sound of the group that did it, they wanted to sign the girls to a contract with the label.