George “Shadow” Morton, the enigmatic Long Island producer and songwriter behind “Leader of the Pack” and a string of other hits in the '60s and '70s, died Thursday in Laguna Beach, Calif. He was 71.
A family friend told the New York Times that Morton died of cancer.
Morton was best known for his work with The Shangri-Las, including producing and co-writing the No. 1 hit “Leader of the Pack” for the Red Bird label of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. However, Morton, who famously could not play an instrument or read music, worked with all kinds of acts in his career, from the prog rock of Vanilla Fudge to the tender folk of Janis Ian to the glam rock of the New York Dolls.
Morton, who was born in Virginia and raised in Brooklyn and Hicksville, earned his nickname “Shadow” for his ability to move undetected in and out of studios. His shadowy nature has kept open for decades the question of whether or not he produced Iron Butterfly's classic “In-a-Gadda-da-Vida” at Hempstead's Ultrasonic Studios in 1968.
Morton also had no problem moving in and out of the music industry. After he split with Vanilla Fudge, he spent most of his time in Dix Hills, raising his three daughters and racing cars. Later, he designed golf clubs.
Mary Weiss, lead singer of The Shangri-Las, said Morton was a good friend, as well as a great collaborator.
“He never got the recognition he deserved,” Weiss said. “We made magic together. I cannot explain it to anyone.”
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On Long Island, Morton's importance didn't need to be explained.
“He was an inspiration,” said Jim Faith, co-founder of the Long Island Music Hall of Fame, which honored Morton, wearing dark sunglasses and a black fedora, in its first class of inductees in 2006, alongside Billy Joel and Joan Jett. “He had a big impact on the music business and, coming from Long Island, we felt it was important to induct him.”
Morton's successes, especially the pop of “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” and the guitar-heavy sound of Vanilla Fudge' “You Keep Me Hanging On,” continue to influence music today. Producer Mark Ronson Tweeted his condolences yesterday, adding that “[Morton's] songs were an inspiration for so much of 'Back To Black,'” the Grammy-winning album from the late Amy Winehouse that Ronson helmed.
Janis Ian said Morton, who produced her eponymous debut album in 1967, named her hit “Society's Child,” which is also the title of the autobiography that she won the best spoken word album Grammy for last week.
“Shadow trusted my instincts the moment he heard me sing,” said Ian. “He sent me into my first session with New York's 'A-list' musicians when I was barely 15. His only instructions as he walked away were 'Go tell 'em what you want 'em to play, kid.' He backed me to the hilt when no one else would... He treated me like an artist, not a little girl.”
“To say I will miss him fiercely is a terrible understatement,” Ian added.