Clip: The Return of Mary Weiss
- The Beachland Ballroom was just about packed for Saturday's show.
40 Years Between Records: A Shangri-La Returns
By ANNA BLUMENTHAL
Published: March 4, 2007
SHE still sucks lollipops and wears high-heel boots. Only now her pale
blond hair, still worn in the same side part, is a few inches shorter,
and wire-rimmed glasses often cover the sparkling brown eyes that look
as if they're guarding secrets. And for a long time they were.
The secrets of a 40-year exile from the music she loved most.
It's hard to imagine that the woman serving turkey wraps and San
Pellegrino in her kitchen — in a Long Island neighborhood that her
husband jokes looks like a retirement community — was a 1960's
Mary Weiss, 58, was barely a teenager when she formed the Shangri-Las
and quickly rose to fame with the hit "Leader of the Pack," a
boyfriend-from-the-wrong-side-of-town anthem of youthful rebellion and
doomed love, featuring her high-pitched yet sultry voice set against
Now the naïve teenager who inspired groups from the Runaways to
Blondie to the Donnas has returned to the studio for the first time in
40 years. "I did know that someday I would do this," she said. "But it
had to be with the right people."
Her album "Dangerous Game," due out Tuesday on Norton Records, is
equal parts 1967 and 2007: a catchy, modern garage-rock record with a
discernible Shangri-Las feel — and even one Shangri-Las cover, the
carefree "Heaven Only Knows." The tear-your-hair-out emotional
desperation that drew scores of teenagers to the Shangri-Las' music is
still there, but Ms. Weiss's deeper, more seasoned voice lends an air
of maturity lacking in her piercing vocals as a 15-year-old.
When she started singing with her older sister, Liz, and the twin
sisters Mary Ann and Margie Ganser at local dances in Cambria Heights,
Queens, Ms. Weiss, the youngest of the girls, was wholly unprepared
for her hobby to turn into a career so quickly. In short order the
group's manager, Tony Michael, secured a recording contract with Red
Bird, a New York label started by the pop songwriters Jerry Leiber and
By 1964 the group's first single for the label, the heart-wrenching
"Remember (Walking in the Sand)" — complete with seagull cries —
written by the producer Shadow Morton, reached No. 5 on the Billboard
Hot 100. It was followed by the campier but equally startling "Leader
of the Pack," written by Mr. Morton with Jeff Barry and Ellie
Greenwich, which hit No. 1 the same year.
Sitting in the living room of her modest suburban two-family house,
which bears few hints of her musical past, Ms. Weiss was ambivalent
about her sudden success as a teenager.
"I just loved the music," she said, bringing her knees to her chest
and planting her socked feet on the cushions of the couch. "But having
a first record come out and having it hit the charts immediately is
overwhelming, 'cause you're not prepared. That's a very hard part of
life, to suddenly have success and find out who your friends are. Fame
doesn't do anything for me, never did. Actually, I never really liked
The Shangri-Las stood out from their contemporaries. The melodrama and
desperation in their voices — not to mention their tight leather pants
and leather boots, a drastic departure from the formal gowns favored
by groups like the Supremes and the Chiffons — defied the girl-group
category in which they're often thrown "for lack of imagination," as
the music writer Greil Marcus put it.
"This was storytelling, this was creating characters," Mr. Marcus said
from his home in Berkeley, Calif. "There was a cinematic sense to the
songs where you could visualize them as you listened to them. Their
records left wounds in their listeners."
The Shangri-Las felt wounded too. They burned out by 1969, exhausted
by nonstop recording, rehearsing, touring and television appearances.
Ms. Weiss, a reserved woman who saves most of her words for the
studio, is particularly reticent when the demise of the group comes
up. In an interview on her label's Web site (nortonrecords.com) she is
quoted as saying: "Everybody around us was suing each other. Basically
to me, the litigation just got so insane, and it wasn't about music
When asked to elaborate, she would say only: "The legal matters were
thicker than the music. I know it's vague, and best to remain that
way." For the next 10 years, she said, she was not legally allowed to
record, and the stress of the lawsuits prompted her to abandon music
and seek a new path.
There were halting efforts to revive the group — a show at CBGB in
August 1977 as a trio (Mary Ann Ganser died in 1971) and an aborted
attempt the same year at making a new Shangri-Las album for Sire
Records ("I welcomed the opportunity, but we just couldn't agree on
material," Ms. Weiss said).
The Shangri-las' last public performance was in 1989 at an oldies show
in New Jersey. Margie Ganser died in 1996, and Ms. Weiss's sister, who
never went back to music, lives with her husband near Ms. Weiss on
Long Island. She declined to be interviewed.
After the Shangri-Las broke up, Ms. Weiss moved to San Francisco for a
year and a half, then returned to New York. She worked in the clerical
department of an architectural firm and then, until 2004, handled
installations for a commercial furniture dealership.
"I've been regrouping," she said between cigarettes. "I think you hit
different points in your life. I'm not a brain surgeon. Why am I
working 80 hours a week? You start re-evaluating what's important, and
I wasn't happy with it anymore."
The wheels for "Dangerous Game" were set in motion by Billy Miller and
his wife, Miriam Linna, who run the small Brooklyn record label Norton
Records. They met Ms. Weiss at the release party for Rhino Records'
girl-group boxed set in October 2005. Shortly afterward, Mr. Miller
got in touch with Ms. Weiss about making a record.
She was ready. "I'd been working on this, psychologically, for the
last two years, deciding what I wanted to do," she said. "I've had
other people approach me, and I wouldn't even give you a list of all
the things I've turned down. But when I met Billy and Miriam, there
was just something there, instantly. I have a good gut about people."
Mr. Miller enlisted a few songwriters to contribute material to the
record, including his friend Greg Cartwright, who ended up writing
most of the songs. Mr. Cartwright's soul-influenced Memphis garage
band, the Reigning Sound, was the backing group, and he also produced
the record with Mr. Miller.
For Ms. Weiss, who will perform on March 15 at the South by Southwest
festival in Austin, Tex., making a new record was all about finding
the right situation. She didn't want to repeat her experience in the
Shangri-Las, a pressure cooker in which decisions belonged to
managers, producers and record executives. (Her husband, Ed, is her
"When you're young, and you're looking to climb up and have a
long-lasting career, it's a completely different thing," she said.
"Trying to hit the Top 40, and the record company right behind you
saying, 'Well, where's the next one?' This record is a different
approach. I'm in a completely different place."
So much time had passed since Ms. Weiss last expressed herself in the
studio that, naturally, there was some question about how to take on
songs about love and heartbreak, topics she had last sung about as a
teenager. (She has no children.) Mr. Miller recalled that during the
re-recording of "Heaven Only Knows," Ms. Weiss asked whether the
lyrics should be updated to say, "I've never been sure about a man
before"; the word in the original version was "boy."
"She's going, 'I'm a grown-up!' " Mr. Miller said. "I said, 'Mary, you
got a lollipop in your mouth.' She had a lollipop in her mouth,
telling me that she's a grown-up."