Mary Weiss, Shangri-Las Lead Singer and an Icon of the Girl-Group Era, Dies at 75

Mary Weiss, the lead singer and focal point of the Shangri-Las — one of the truly legendary girl groups of the early 1960s, with hits like “Leader of the Pack,” “Great Big Kiss,” “Remember (Walking in the Sand)” and “Heaven Only Knows” — has died. Her death was confirmed to Variety by Miriam Linna of Norton Records, who released Weiss’ only solo album in 2007. No cause of death was cited; Weiss was 75.

“Mary was an icon, a hero, a heroine, to both young men and women of my generation and of all generations,” Linna said.

Along with the Ronettes, the Shangri-Las epitomize the girl group era more than any others. Weiss was at the center of their sound and look, with a tart, youthful, yearning voice that burst out of transistor and car radios, and long blonde hair that made her the object of countless crushes during the era.

With a battery of killer pop songs written by George “Shadow” Morton, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry and produced by Morton, their heyday was brief — just 1964 and ’65 — but their impact was indelible. They pioneered the teen-death epic with “Leader of the Pack” — which spawned countless imitations and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — and their songs, often about star-crossed relationships with bad boys, harbored a nuanced but torrid-for-the-time sexuality: During the call-and-answer segment of “Great Big Kiss,” Weiss’ bandmates are asking questions about her squeeze: “Is he tall?,” they inquire; “I have to look up,” she replies.

While the entire girl group sound was crushed by the British Invasion and the ’60s rock movement, the Shangri-Las cast a long shadow: Within just a few years, the New York Dolls — arguably the greatest single influence on punk rock — were covering “Great Big Kiss” and singing the Shangri-Las’ praises. A couple of years after that, Blondie, whose lead singer Deborah Harry based much of her look and sound on girl groups, released their first album (which featured Greenwich on backing vocals).

Born and raised in the Queens borough of New York City, Weiss and her sister Betty attended the same high school as their future bandmates, twins Margie and Mary-Ann Ganser. The four began performing at local nightclubs in 1963 where they caught the attention of producer Artie Ripp. He arranged the group’s first record deal with Kama Sutra, leading to their first recording in December 1963, “Simon Says.”

But lightning struck when Phil Spector associate “Shadow” Morton tapped the girls to perform and record his song “Remember (Walking in the Sand).” The song reached No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the summer of 1964 and established the group (and was later covered by Aerosmith). Later that year, the Shangri Las soared to No. 1 with “Leader of the Pack,” a miniature teen opera with a dramatic spoken introduction and rumbling motorcycle-rev sound effects.

“I was asking [Weiss] to be an actress, not just a singer,” Morton said.

Superstardom quickly ensued: The group performed with the Beatles, toured with the Rolling Stones and appeared on multiple television shows of the era, like “Hullabaloo” and “Shindig!” They followed up with “Give Him a Great Big Kiss,” and soared into 1965 with “Out in the Streets.”

The group’s tough-but-vulnerable New York City teen image was genuine. “Overall, the girl groups had very sweet images, except for the Ronettes and the Shangri-Las, who had a tougher, harder attitude,” Greenwich told the website Spectropop in an undated interview. “By today’s standards, they were as innocent as the day is long. Back then, they seemed to have a street toughness, but with a lot of vulnerability. Mary Weiss [had] the sweetest long straight hair, an angelic face, and then this nasal voice comes out, and this attitude — the best of both worlds.

“In the beginning, we did not get along,” she continued. “They were kind of crude, with their gestures and language and chewing gum and the stockings ripped up their leg. We would say, ‘Not nice, you must be ladies,’ and they would say, ‘We don’t want to be ladies.'”

For her part, Weiss said, “I’ve heard we were tough, and I just find that so hilarious.” as quoted in the girl-group history “But Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” “If you look at the old tapes, I don’t think that word would even come up. Maybe it was the boots.”

But the Shangri Las were just teenagers — Weiss was only 15 when “Remember” was released — and were beset by lineup instability; all members except Weiss left at one time or another. After releasing several more singles, they split in 1968 in a flurry of lawsuits. Weiss was 19, and the legal battles effectively kept her out of the music business for a decade.

“My mother kind of signed my life away when i was 14,” she said. “There’s a storeroom of litigation up to the ceiling. That’s one of the reasons I walked away. I couldn’t go near another record label for 10 years.” She ultimately married and worked in an architecture firm.

The group reunited in 1976 under the aegis of Sire Records — helmed by Seymour Stein, a veteran of their era who’d worked for Red Bird during the group’s peak — but they were unhappy with the songs they recorded, which remain unreleased. They regrouped occasionally for tours over the years, and Norton Records released Weiss’ only solo album, “Dangerous Game,” in 2007, which she toured to support.

However, she remained a reclusive figure and often spoke of the challenges faced by a teenaged girl in the brutally sexist world of the 1960s music industry. Many of those challenges are detailed (by others) in the 2023 oral history “But Will You Love Me Tomorrow?,” a masterfully assembled and definitive account of the era, in the voices of the women who lived it — including Weiss’.

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