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Clip: The Return of Mary Weiss

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  • Carl Z.
    The Beachland Ballroom was just about packed for Saturday s show. 40 Years Between Records: A
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 5, 2007
      The Beachland Ballroom was just about packed for Saturday's show.


      40 Years Between Records: A Shangri-La Returns

      Published: March 4, 2007

      BABYLON, N.Y.

      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
      pop-music trailblazer.

      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
      roaring motorcycles.

      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
      Mike Stoller.

      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
      manager now.)

      "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."
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