Mary Weiss, best known for the time she spent as the lead singer of the Shangri-Las, has died at the age of 75. Her death was confirmed on Saturday in a post on her personal Facebook page by her husband, Ed, who wrote, “Mary passed away peacefully yesterday,” and thanked everyone for all of their messages and posts.
Weiss, who was born on December 28, 1948 in Cambria Heights, Queens, in New York City, started her singing career in school plays and choirs, but she grew up listening to such artists as Neil Sedaka and the Everly Brothers, with the latter in particular helping to forge her musical sensibilities.
Unlike many girl groups of the era, the Shangri-Las were not pre-manufactured by a record label. Weiss and her sister Betty joined forces with their friends Mary Ann and Margie Ganser to form the group, and the quartet made the local rounds before being discovered by music executive and producer Artie Ripp. Taking their name from a restaurant in Queens, the group found their way to success after being signed to Red Bird Records while all four members were still under the age of 18, and they promptly landed at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 with their single “Remember (Walking in the Sand).”
Interestingly, the original demo for the song – which featured a then-unknown studio musician named Billy Joel – was over six minutes long, but as songs of such length were destined to get little to no airplay, it was promptly cut down to a much more radio-friendly length of 2:16.
From there, the Shangri-Las secured the song that would provide them with their longest-lasting musical legacy: “Leader of the Pack.” The combined success of that song and “Remember (“Walking in the Sand)” bumped the group up to such a level that they found themselves participating in package tours alongside the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Drifters, and James Brown. By early 1965, they were touring the UK in a tour that included Herman’s Hermits, Del Shannon, and Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders.
Although the Shangri-Las only had one further top-10 hit – 1965’s “I Can Never Go Home Anymore,” which hit No. 6 – they had several other minor hits that helped keep their legacy aloft over the decades, including “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” (No. 18), “Give Us Your Blessings” (No. 29), and “Long Live Our Love” (No. 33). Their final appearance on the Hot 100 occurred in 1966, with the minor hit “Past, Present and Future” (No. 59).
The Shangri-Las disbanded in 1968, and Mary Ann Ganser died in 1970 at the age of 22 of a drug overdose. When “Leader of the Pack” was re-released in the UK in the ‘70s and returned to the top 10 on two separate occasions, the remaining three members reunited and actually entered the studio with producer Andy Paley to record some new material. Alas, the material was never released, although with Paley’s assistance as well as that of guitarist Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Group, the Shangri-Las did reunite and performed at CGBG. Per Paley’s website, “CBGB’s owner Hilly Kristal got the call….bumped somebody at the last minute and gave a set to the girls. Word got around and there was a great crowd that night. Debbie Harry, Lester Bangs , Lou Reed, Seymour and Linda Stein were all in attendance.”
(Reportedly, the group toyed with returning to the studio again but were frustrated with record execs trying to steer them in more of a disco directions, whereas Weiss was more interested in following in the footsteps of Patti Smith.)
In 2007, Weiss released her debut solo album, Dangerous Game, which found her still in fine voice and delivering a collection of songs which took the classic Shangri-Las sound and melded them with garage-rock sensibilities. The end result was critically acclaimed, and while it failed to send her hurtling back to the top of the charts, it nonetheless helped reestablish her reputation as one of the most memorable female vocalists to emerge during the 1960s.