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Mary Weiss has died: The singer in the girl group Shangri-Las was 75 years old

Mary Weiss, the singer who channeled the coming-of-age melodrama as lead singer of the quintessential girl group the Shangri-Las, has died at the age of 75. Her death was announced on Facebook on Friday by Miriam Linna, whose Norton Records label released Weiss’ only solo album in 2007.

The cause of death has not been released.

The Shangri-Las were the last of the big girl groups, emerging in 1964 just as the sound was being overshadowed by the rise of the British Invasion bands. Unlike peers like the Shirelles and the Crystals, the Shangri-Las weren’t black: They were poor white teenagers from New York, sometimes singing in heavy royal accents and always performing with stylish swagger. Alongside her childhood friends Marge and Mary Ann Ganser – and occasionally her older sister Betty – Weiss sang with a grit and tenderness that lent a seriousness to George «Shadow» Morton’s film productions on their signature hit «Leader of the Pack». «, «Remember (Walking in the Sand)» and «Give Him a Big Kiss».

Although their time in the spotlight lasted just under two years, the Shangri-Las created an enduring rock ‘n’ roll archetype: girls who were as strong and sexy as their doomed friends, boys who were «good bad» but «not evil,» as Weiss said in «Give Him a Big Kiss». This attitude and the group’s beefed-up music—equal parts operatic pop and exuberant R&B—proved influential, especially on New York punks in the 1970s. Blondie covered their «Out in the Streets»; The New York Dolls covered the spoken intro from «Give Him a Great Big Kiss» for their «Looking for a Kiss», then hired Morton as a producer for their second album, paving the way for Aerosmith’s «Remember (Walking in the Sand) ” during the peak of punk. For years, the Shangri-Las’ music resonated with the mainstream, which recognized «Leader of the Pack» as a classic—in 2019, the song was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame—as well as the rock underground, which welcomed Weiss’s return to music in in 2007.

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Steven Van Zandt of the E Street Band remembered Weiss X, formerly known as Twitter, wrote that the Shangri-Las were «one of the seminal girl groups of the ’60s that allowed young girls to dream bigger at a time when society limited women to secretaries. Their brilliant recordings with Shadow Morton defined aural cinema.”

A woman with long brown hair and black clothes is smiling.

Mary Weiss in 2010.

(Steven A Henry/WireImage)

Mary Weiss was born and raised in Queens, New York. «I had a pretty rotten childhood,» she once said. Her father died shortly after her birth on 28 December 1948, leaving behind Mary and her older siblings Betty and George. «My mother didn’t do much,» recalled Weiss, who led the family to a life of poverty.

Weiss and her sister found relief in music. The pair began singing with their friends’ twin sisters Mary Ann and Marge Ganser and soon transitioned from dancing to nightclubbing. They caught the attention of Artie Ripp, an independent record mogul, who signed them to his Kama Sutra Productions. Shortly after cutting «Simon Says,» the band teamed up with George «Shadow» Morton, an up-and-coming songwriter and producer on his way to breaking into the Brill Building scene. He hired the group to sing a demo of «Remember (Walking in the Sand)»—a session that also featured Billy Joel on his debut—and then brought the single to Jerry Leiber, who had just started Red Bird Records with his songwriter. Mike Stoller. Leiber decided to sign Morton to a publishing deal and release «Remember (Walking in the Sand).

«Remember (Walking the Sand)» hit the Billboard Top 10 upon its release in the late summer of 1964, so Morton and the Shangri-Las rushed «Leader of the Pack» into stores. A seared tragedy brimming with Morton’s sound effects and fueled by Weiss’ plea — the producer later said, «I asked her to be an actress, not a singer» — «Leader of the Pack» cemented the Shangri-Las’ reputation as girls. from the wrong side of the tracks. It was an idea shared among their publishing staff. Ellie Greenwich, a key member of Red Bird’s writing team, who co-wrote ‘Leader of the Pack’ with Morton, recalled: ‘We didn’t get along at first – they were so rude and had to be dealt with. I was very excited every day – their gestures and tongue, chewing gum and stockings tearing their leg. We’d say, ‘That’s not nice, you have to be ladies,’ and they’d say, ‘We don’t want to be ladies.’ «

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Stoller agreed that «the Shangri-Las were the perfect white ‘bad girls’ of the era,» but Weiss disagreed: «I hear we’re tough, and I find it so funny. If you really look at the old tapes, I don’t think the word even came out.” However, the group’s hit singles were bursting with thinly coded sexuality and full of doom and death, lending the group an air of danger.

After «Give Him a Great Big Kiss» completed their opening triptych of hits, the Shangri-Las didn’t have another big single until «I Can Never Go Home Anymore» hit the Top 10 in 1965. It was their last big hit. Red Bird soon imploded and the group was mired in legal trouble, which Weiss later explained by joking, «My mother kind of signed my life away when I was 14.» After releasing a couple of singles for Mercury, the Shangri-Las broke up in 1968.

Weiss tried to find a new home in the hippie epicenter of San Francisco, but soon moved back to New York. She left music for nearly a decade, then attempted a comeback with her sister Betty and Marge Ganser—Mary Ann Ganser died of a drug overdose in 1970—just as punk was picking up steam in 1976. Seymour Stein signed Sire and paired them with producer Andy Paley, only for all parties involved to decide to scrap the record; remains unpublished.

Three women stand in front of a concrete wall.

Later incarnations of the Shangri-Las, from left, Marge Ganser, Mary Weiss and Betty Weiss.

(Roberta Bayley/Redferns)

Weiss spent the next 20 years away from music, working at an architectural firm where she rose from the accounting department to lead purchasing agent. In 2005, at the release party for Rhino’s lavish all-girl set, One Kiss Leads to Another, she met Billy Miller, then head of garage rock conservationists at Norton Records.

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When Norton expressed interest in Weiss as a contemporary artist, not a nostalgia act, she agreed to record a new album with support from Memphis garage band The Reigning Sound. The resulting «Dangerous Game» appeared in 2007, supported by a short tour. «Dangerous Game» was her first and last solo album: after its release, Weiss once again withdrew from the limelight.

She is survived by her husband, Ed Ryan.

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