(Shadow Morton, before the Ba-CAH-di took its toll.)
“Little nose and big hair. Very strong hair. I think he’s very talented, and very bizarre.” That’s how Jeff Barry, the great Brill Building songwriter behind such hits as “Be My Baby” and “Da Doo Ron Ron,” described Shadow Morton to me. Morton, like Barry a songwriter but otherwise utterly unlike Barry or any other songwriter, died of cancer on Valentine’s Day at the age of 71. The New York Times obit of him quotes extensively from the oral history of the Brill Building that I wrote in 2001 for Vanity Fair.
Morton was a degenerate punk with just enough front and talent to make an indelible stamp upon pop music. He was from Long Island and was the driving creative force behind the tough-chick Queens girl group the Shangri-Las, writing or co-writing such amazing songs as “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” “The Leader of the Pack,” and “Give Him a Great Big Kiss.” You can get a fuller sense of what he was like in the V.F. piece, but, briefly: In 1964, Morton hustled his way into the office of Barry and Barry’s then wife and songwriting partner, Ellie Greenwich. Then he hustled himself into believing he could write a song, “Remember.” Then, when that song became a hit, he hustled Barry and Greenwich’s bosses, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, into making them believe he had a follow-up at the ready... about, you know, some guy with a motorcycle who falls in love with a girl. Leiber wasn’t impressed. Morton, extemporizing, told Leiber, “It gets better.” Leiber asked “How does it get better?” Morton, now really sweating it out, said, “He... dies.” The song that Morton subsequently wrote to fulfill this wholly B.S.’d scenario was “The Leader of the Pack.” Polished by Barry and Greenwich, it became the Shangri-Las’ signature tune, Morton’s biggest annuity, and a cultural touchstone. (Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” took its title from the song’s spoken opening line.)
Thirty-odd years after Morton’s heyday, I met him for an interview at Joe Allen, a New York theater-district hangout where he was a regular. (I think he lived on the block, possibly above the restaurant.) He had the hunched shoulders and tinted shades of a horse-playing hoodlum—an aged version of Boogie, Mickey Rourke’s character in Diner. But he still had the little nose and big hair—was still handsome in a dessicated way. The removal of his shades revealed one eyelid to have a droop. From a fight? A neurological condition? I don’t know. He was a sobered-up alcoholic, and, like many in such circumstances, he was ashamed of his past behavior under the influence yet eager to talk about it. He kept talking about “the Ba-CAH-di” that did him in: “It wasn’t me mouthin’ off to Leiber, it was the Ba-CAH-di”; “I got too caught up in the Ba-CAH-di to care when the next hit was gonna come.” Shadow (his real name was George; Barry assigned him the nickname to describe his penchant for unreliability and abrupt disappearances) seemed especially remorseful about his behavior towards Mary Weiss, the striking lead singer of the Shangri-Las; he said the Ba-CAH-di had made him do some things to her so terrible that he didn’t want to go into them.
Still, Morton retained the mischievous air of a hustler. He brought an attractive young woman along for company, their connection ambiguous besides her evident obligation to giggle at his wisecracks and absorb his occasional nudges. I asked him if the the dreamboat tough guy that Weiss sings about in “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” (“Big wavy hair, a little too long”) was, in fact, him.
“Yeah,” he said, smiling like Jack Nicholson, “you picked up on that, good for you!” One of the wonderful things about Morton’s songs is their structural irregularity—since he was musically untrained (and, for that matter, behaviorally untrained), his Shangri-Las hits include all sorts of strange atmospheric shifts and spoken-word passages that “proper” songwriters would have never essayed. “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” has a dialogue exchange in which the other girls say, “Yeah, well I hear he’s bad!,” to which Weiss thoughtfully replies, “Mmm, he’s good-bad, but he’s not evil.”
“Good-bad,” Morton said. “That was me. That’s how I saw myself.”