During the early-60s girl-group explosion, the Shangri-Las score their first and only #1 hit on this day in 1964 with the famously melodramatic epic “Leader Of The Pack.”
From its sweet beginnings in a candy store—”He turned around and smiled at me/You get the picture?“—the romance described in “Leader Of The Pack” between the song’s protagonist and her leather jacket-wearing, motorcycle-riding boyfriend, Jimmy, quickly progresses in the face of strong disapproval from her parents—”They told me he was bad/But I knew he was sad.” It was a song, in other words, perfectly calibrated to appeal to the romantic fantasies of America’s teenage girls—fantasies that blended wholesome innocence with hints of danger, rebellion and darkly handsome boyfriends.
But if “Leader Of The Pack” gave the impression that the Shangri-Las themselves were girls of the worldly-wise, gum-snapping, white lipstick-wearing variety, the truth was rather different. In fact, the Shangri-Las were a quartet of clean-cut high school classmates from Queens—two sets of sisters, in fact. And according to “Leader Of The Pack” co-writer and co-producer Ellie Greenwich, the Weiss and Ganser sisters were so inexperienced and so nervous about the subject matter of what eventually become their career-defining hit, that the recording session was fraught with difficulty, requiring “spoon-feeding, mothering, big-sistering and reprimanding” just to get the Shangri-Las through it.
For Ellie Greenwich and her then-husband/songwriting partner, Jeff Barry, “Leader Of The Pack” was their second #1 hit, following on the Dixie Cups’ “Chapel Of Love,” a song that spun a very different kind of teenage fantasy. Like their former colleagues Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Barry and Greenwich were responsible for many of the classic works associated with the peak of the girl-group era, including the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and the Crystals’ “And Then He Kissed Me” and “Da Doo Ron Ron” (all from 1963). They also wrote later #1 hits for Manfred Mann—”Doo Wah Diddy Diddy” (1964)—and Tommy James and the Shondells—”Hanky Panky” (1966)