I’ve never forgotten the first time I heard a record created by George “Shadow” Morton, one of the great visionaries of ’60s pop music, who died of cancer in Laguna Beach, California on Thursday, aged 71. It was the Shangri-Las’ “Remember (Walking in the Sand)”, released in 1964, and even to ears prepared by Phil Spector’s records with the Crystals and the Ronettes it seemed to set a new standard in pop records that aspired to be teenage mini-operas.
“Remember” came out on the then-new Red Bird label, owned by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller in partnership with the music business hustler George Goldner and the songwriters Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. Here’s how Leiber remembered Morton in a passage from Hound Dog: The Leiber and Stoller Autobiography (Omnibus Press, 2009): ”I called him Shadow… a guy who appeared in the room without you ever realising that he ever walked in. And he was never there when you looked for him. Shadow was elusive. He was good looking and packed a self-invented mythology that intrigued me. For a guy from New York, he spoke with a strange Southern drawl. He had a sweet temperament and was physically as strong as a bull. As a producer, Shadow threw in everything but the kitchen sink. He created a cacophony, but one that made musical sense — and story sense, as well.”
Maybe the most striking story of all was the one told by the Shangri-Las’ Mary Weiss in 1966 in “Past, Present and Future”, their 11th single (and lovingly recreated a few years ago on Agnetha Faltskog’s album My Colouring Book, which I would need only the slightest encouragement to write about at greater length one day). It’s a piece of pop art as striking as anything Roy Lichtenstein ever produced.
Morton didn’t really train on, as they say in horse-racing circles, and effectively bowed out with the New York Dolls’s second album, Too Much Too Soon, in 1974. In between the Shangs and the Dolls, however, he produced the first Vanilla Fudge album, which has always seemed to me to be another pop-art classic: it’s the one in which they take a series of rock and soul classics — “Ticket to Ride”, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”, “Bang Bang”, “She’s Not There”, “Eleanor Rigby” etc — and slow them right down in order to extract maximum melodrama.
They were a Long Island band with roots in soul and R&B, like the Young Rascals, with whom Morton also did some advisory work, and in Mark Stein they had a devastatingly powerful singer/organist. I saw them at Nottingham University in 1968, the year the album was released, and they were simply perfect. They did the album, of course, but they added a couple more songs which, perversely, they speeded up: I forget the identity of one (it might have been “Gimme Some Lovin’”) but the other was definitely the Yardbirds’ “For Your Love”. It was a great, great gig — but without Morton’s help, they’d probably never have made it out of the Long Island bars.
There’s an excellent New York Times obituary by Margalit Fox here — it reveals that Morton was born in Richmond, Virginia, which explains the Southern drawl, and includes the information that he ended up designing golf clubs. Here is a link to a fine interview (in two parts) conducted by my old friend Lenny Kaye, published in the Melody Maker and now available via the essential http://www.rocksbackpages.com (you’ll need to register). It’s from 1974, when Morton was in the studio with the Dolls (and Lenny had yet to find fame with Patti Smith). “I knew the music business couldn’t exist without me,” he said.
And last, in all their majesty, here are the Morton-era Fudge, plus go-go dancers (who, sadly, weren’t part of the show in Nottingham). They’re promoting “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”, which had been released as a 45, on a US TV show: