A scrappy street fighter with a knack for teenage melodrama, George “Shadow” Morton lived with a “self-invented mythology,” in the words of Jerry Leiber. But his work with The Shangri-Las, Janis Ian, The New York Dolls and many more solidified Morton’s place as a real-life “leader of the pack.” Ace’s new anthology Sophisticated Boom Boom: The Shadow Morton Story (CDTOP 1369) brings the songwriter and producer out of the shadow and into the (spot)light.
In a 1968 Time Magazine blurb:, Morton once claimed, “I am the greatest producer in the business. I am also an egomaniac.” But whether it was ego or a pure creative spark driving him, Morton was responsible for some of the most vivid records to emerge out of the 1960s. Expertly compiled and annotated by Mick Patrick, Sophisticated Boom Boom plucks 24 tracks from Morton’s career as a producer, a songwriter or both. Presented chronologically and accompanied by nearly 40 pages of Patrick’s liner notes, this is the definitive account of the man’s musical history.
Think of Shadow Morton and the group that usually comes to mind is the Shangri-Las, so it’s no surprise that four tracks from the Mary Weiss-led quartet feature here. What is surprising, however, is that “Leader of the Pack” isn’t one of them. The 1964 No. 1 hit – perhaps the epitome of the “death disc” – forever established the Shangri-Las as the toughest gals in town with a series of remarkable records for Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s Red Bird label. With spoken introductions, sound effects, dramatic vocals and a rather foreboding atmosphere, The Shangri-Las’ records as produced and written by Morton were true mini-movies.
So although Patrick opted to leave out that crucial part of The Shadow Morton Story, the sweeping, melodramatic style of Morton and the girls is represented with the equally-powerful “Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand)” (heard here in a previously unissued alternate version), ebullient “Give Him a Great Big Kiss,” lesser-known Mercury side “I’ll Never Learn,” and the Red Bird record that perhaps was the team’s zenith: “Past, Present and Future.” This unusual psychodrama recited by Mary Weiss over a Beethoven-inspired backdrop of theatrical strings unsurprisingly stalled at No. 59 on the U.S. Pop chart, but today stands apart for its completely singular quality. In the liner notes, Billy Joel offers memories of playing on the session for “Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand).”
There’s more on Shadow after the jump, including the complete track listing with discography and order link!
Bookended by two of Shadow’s own recordings, Sophisticated Boom Boom takes in numerous styles explored by the sonic auteur during a two-decade period. The seeds that would flower with The Shangri-Las can be heard on The Lonely Ones’ breathy teenage romance “I Want My Girl,” which is complete with a melodramatic spoken interlude (“I said goodbye/Now I must cry…”). The Beattle-ettes’ “Only Seventeen” cashed in some of Lennon and McCartney’s earliest hits (“She Loves You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand”) with lyrical and musical allusions to the Fab Four throughout the rough-hewn girl group song.
There are plenty of sweet Brill Building sounds from the artists orbiting the Red Bird sphere. The title track of the collection comes from The Goodies’ single released on Red Bird’s Blue Cat imprint. (The Shangri-Las also recorded “Sophisticated Boom Boom.”) Both sides of Ellie Greenwich’s 1965 Red Bird single “Baby” b/w “You Don’t Know” have been included. Morton, Greenwich and Jeff Barry wrote both sides, with Barry and Morton producing, and the flip is even better than the A-side. “You Don’t Know” is quintessential New York pop, with Drifters-esque strings and a perfectly expressive vocal from its singer-songwriter.
Morton tapped many of the Red Bird musicians, including the talented arranger Artie Butler, for a wholly different type of song in 1966 when he produced Janis Ian’s “Society’s Child (Baby, I’ve Been Thinking).” Applauded by no less an eminence than Leonard Bernstein on the same television program on which he introduced Brian Wilson’s “Surf’s Up,” Ian’s song caused an immediate stir with its unflinching depiction of an interracial romance. Reared in New Jersey, the seventeen-year old Ian pulled no punches with “Society’s Child,” although Morton certainly sweetened the record in deliciously ironic fashion by applying his patented girl-group sound to a serious, contemporary song. Butler’s harpsichord and organ flourishes made for the perfect backdrop to Ian’s heartfelt tale. Morton also applied the Shangri-Las formula to the Nu-Luvs; both sides of a 1966 Mercury single are included here. He even rewrote the Shangri-Las’ “Dressed in Black” as “So Soft, So Warm” for his new charges. (Morton’s own “Dressed in Black” demo concludes the Ace disc.)
As the sixties progressed, Morton diversified into different rock styles, and The Shadow Morton Story does an exceptional job presenting them. The Blues Project’s 1967 single “Lost in the Shuffle” is a slab of red-hot R&B, while The Shaggy Boys’ 1966 single “Stop the Clock” recalls the blue-eyed soul of The Young Rascals. Heavier bands also caught the producer’s eye. Moving over to Atlantic Records, “Shadow” helmed the proto-punk/psych of “And When It’s Over,” a Bert Sommer song recorded by The Vagrants. He also produced and directed (as per his credit!) the early albums of Vanilla Fudge, with the psychedelic heavy rock makeover of The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” and Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” both appearing. Morton particularly ratcheted up the macabre factor of “Season of the Witch,” crafting an offbeat monologue for the song in the best Shangri-Las style, and even incorporating lyrics from “I’ll Never Learn” into the Fudge’s rendition. Also at Atlantic, Morton helmed “In-a-Gadda-da-Vida” for Iron Butterfly, but Morton was deprived of a credit for the Top 30 hit single. He’s quoted in Patrick’s liner notes, confirming that “I got no official credit and learned never to make another deal on a handshake.” Jim Hilton was credited as producer of the song that launched Iron Butterfly’s career. Naturally, “In-a-Gadda” appears in its severely edited single version.
Just a handful of tracks – three, in fact – appear from the 1970s, as Morton’s career as a hitmaker slowed down. “Midnight Lady” shows off the pre-glam Mott the Hoople; two more songs come from the catalogue of The New York Dolls. Morton followed Todd Rundgren as producer for the Dolls, bringing a pop sensibility to the punks. But he also managed to keep their recordings both raw and slick, as on “Puss ‘n’ Boots.” The goofy irreverence of Jay Hawks cover “Stranded in the Jungle,” with its female background singers and exaggerated vocals, is another highlight.
A Zelig-like figure, Morton is also said to have unofficially participated in sessions for Jimi Hendrix and Laura Nyro, but those sessions aren’t represented here. But there’s plenty to make up for it on Sophisticated Boom Boom: The Shadow Morton Story, one of the best and most consistently entertaining of Ace’s definitive Songwriters and Producers series. Nick Robbins has remastered each track, and the disc and very thick booklet are housed in a digipak impressively designed by Neil McCormack. Thanks to the fine work of Patrick, Robbins and McCormick, the late “Shadow” Morton – he died on Valentine’s Day, 2013 – no longer need remain an enigma. His music from the past will doubtless endure for the present and future.
- Hot Rod – The Markeys feat. Georgie Morton (RCA 47-7256, 1958)
- I Want My Girl – The Lonely Ones (Sir 270/Baton 270, 1959)
- Only Seventeen – The Beattle-ettes (Jubilee 5472, 1964)
- Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand) – The Shangri-Las (prev. unissued alternate of Red Bird 10-008, 1964)
- Give Him a Great Big Kiss – The Shangri-Las (Red Bird 10-018, 1964)
- Sophisticated Boom Boom – The Goodies (Blue Cat 117, 1965)
- Baby – Ellie Greenwich (Red Bird 10-034, 1965)
- You Don’t Know – Ellie Greenwich (Red Bird 10-034, 1965)
- Past, Present and Future – The Shangri-Las (Red Bird 10-068, 1966)
- Society’s Child (Baby I’ve Been Thinking) – Janis Ian (Verve Folkways 5027, 1966)
- So Soft, So Warm – The Nu-Luvs (Mercury 72569, 1966)
- Take My Advice – The Nu-Luvs (Mercury 72569, 1966)
- Lost in the Shuffle – The Blues Project (Verve Forecast 5063, 1967)
- Stop the Clock – The Shaggy Boys (Red Bird 10-074, 1966)
- I’ll Never Learn – The Shangri-Las (Mercury 72645, 1966)
- Too Old to Go ‘way Little Girl – Janis Ian (Verve Folkways LP FTS-3017, 1967)
- You Keep Me Hangin’ On – Vanilla Fudge (Atco LP SD 33-224, 1967)
- And When It’s Over – The Vagrants (Atco 6552, 1968)
- Season of the Witch, Pt. 2 – Vanilla Fudge (Atco 6632, 1968)
- In-a-Gadda-da-Vida – Iron Butterfly (Atco 6606, 1968)
- Midnight Lady – Mott the Hoople (Island WIP 6105 (U.K.), 1971)
- Puss ‘n’ Boots – New York Dolls (Mercury 73615, 1974)
- Stranded in the Jungle – New York Dolls (Mercury 73478, 1974)
- Dressed in Black – Shadow Morton (1966 demo, originally issued 1980)