FIFTY YEARS AGO TODAY, the Shangri-Las reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with “Leader of the Pack,” a histrionic song about a bad boy named Jimmy punctuated by the rumblings of a motorcycle.
The Shangri-Las consisted of three sixteen-year-olds and one eighteen-year-old from Queens, New York, with Mary Weiss, the youngest of the four, singing lead vocals. “Leader of the Pack” begins with spoken dialogue from two of the singers and Weiss,
Is she really going out with him?
Well, there she is. Let’s ask her
Betty, is that Jimmy’s ring you’re wearing?
Gee, it must be great riding with him
Is he picking you up after school today?
By the way, where’d you meet him?
Mary Weiss in the foreground
Betty’s parents disapprove of Jimmy and her dad says, “Find someone new.” She breaks up with the boy and he races off in the rain, crashes, and dies. The song ends with “The leader of the pack — now he’s gone,” repeated over and over.
The Shangri-Las had an earlier hit with “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” which reached number five in July 1964, and another top-10 single with 1965’s “I Can Never Go Home Anymore,” but it’s “Leader of the Pack” that influenced a later generation of punk and metal bands.
“The bad guys in leather jackets, that’s metal,” former Twisted Sister lead singer Dee Snider told the New York Post in May of this year. “And that driving chord structure — there was such a heaviness to that song. It’s a metal song.”
Twisted sister covered “Leader of the Pack” on their 1985 Come Out and Play album.
Mary Weiss said the song was full of pain. “I don’t think teenage years are all that rosy for a lot of people — they certainly weren’t for me,” she told the Telegraph in 2007. “They are the most confusing time of people’s lives and there is a tremendous dark side to the record, which I think teenagers related to. The studio was a great place to let the pain out.”
Later in 1964, a group called the Detergents recorded a parody called “Leader Of The Laundromat.” The lead singer on that song, Ron Dante, would later sing lead on the 1969 Archie’s hit “Sugar Sugar.”