George ‘Shadow’ Morton
Listen/Download – Shangri-Las – Give Him a Great Big Kiss Listen/Download – Shangri-Las – The Train From Kansas City
I did not have a second post planned for this week, but this morning word came over the wire that George ‘Shadow’ Morton had passed away at the age of 72.
Though Morton’s name might not be a familiar one, you have surely heard the sounds he helped to create in the 60s and 70s.
Morton was the creative mind behind the Shangri-Las, and went on to produce Janis Ian’s 1967 hit ‘Society’s Child’ as well as the first few albums by Vanilla Fudge.
There is – for good reason – a tremendous amount of attention paid to the world of Phil Spector, his Wall of Sound and the records the emanated from it by groups like the Ronettes, the Blossoms and the Righteous Brothers.
Though Shadow Morton’s curriculam vitae is not as lengthy or well known as Spector’s, he certainly deserves to be spoken of in the same breath.
Both Spector and Morton (as well as audio auteurs like Joe Meek) were attempting to shatter the limits of what a recording studio could be used for, filling all the available space – and then some – in the grooves of a 45.
In some ways, at least to my ears, Shadow Morton met and beat Spector at his own game.
Morton may have had the remarkable instrument of Mary Weiss’s voice as the axis around which the rest of the record revolved but he also had a talent for creating a booming sound without armies of studio musicians.
Most of the rhythm tracks on the Shangri-Las 45s are relatively uncomplicated, employing the natural power of the piano (he could do a lot with a few piano keys), guitar, bass and drums.
His use of sound effects – revving motorcycles, screeching tires, trains, seagulls – could have sounded gimmicky, but now, almost 50 years later they make a tremendous amount of sense, especially when juxtaposed with reverbed hand claps, finger snaps, spoken asides by the Shangri-Las and the booming drums that punctuated every record.
There’s a phrase you often see associated with radio drama – “theater of the mind” – that makes a lot of sense when applied to Morton’s productions for the Shangri-Las. While these records were by and large first heard through transistor radios and cheap record players, they still have enough depth that you can slap on the headphones, close your eyes and really let their evocative power wash over you.
When you take the time to absorb it all the sound effects are in the end no less musical that the guitars, organs or drums and the impact of the records is remarkable, pushing right up against the limits of distortion but always pulling back just enough so that the space between the sounds is revealed.
It’s important to note the emotional impact of the records as well. There’s an interview with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller where they talk about the Morton-produced Shangri-Las records as somewhat corny, yet ultimately touching and real. That “realness” is one of the main reasons that these records were as successful as they were back in the day and why they still resonate today.
These are records that any teenager could hear and relate to, less Brian Wilson’s “teenage symphonie(s) to God” and more a teenager’s symphony to another teenager (or at least the remnants of our teenage selves).
The two tunes I’m posting today are great examples of the high quality in the Shangri-Las discography.
The first, ‘Give Him a Great Big Kiss’ was one of their biggest hits (Top 20 in early 1965). It’s interesting how much of the song’s forward propulsion is tied into the horns, bass and the lead vocal (the percussion is limited to handclaps, tambourine, bongos and a snare drum). The way things shift in the chorus, to the foot stomping, hand clapping and voices (including the big ‘MWAH!”) is really something else.
The second tune, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich’s ‘The Train From Kansas City’, the b-side of the #99 ‘Right Now and Not Later’ (check it out over at Funky16Corners) is my favorite of Morton’s sound-effect heavy productions.
Once again, the instrumental backing is strong but spare (just rhythm guitar, piano – imitating the chugging train – and drums) with the Shangri-Las harmonies weaving in and out of the train sounds.
If you listen to the production/arrangement of ‘Society’s Child’, it’s not hard to imagine Mary Weiss taking Janis Ian’s place in the lead vocal, so similar is the overall style.
By the time Morton was working with Vanilla Fudge, there were still traces of the old melodrama there, but they were usually swimming in a stew of excess (though Morton gets props for apparently masterminding their ‘The Beat Goes On’ LP).
Though Shadow Morton went on to produce the New York Dolls in the early 70s (they would record an initially unreleased cover of ‘(Give Him) A Great Big Kiss’) he wouldn’t do a hell of a lot after that.
I hope you dig the tunes, and that if you haven’t already, you take some time to really dig into the sound of the Shangri-Las.
See you on Monday.