Mary Weiss obituary: Lead singer of The Shangri-Las whose voice brought a vulnerable timbre to their sound

The band’s hit single, Leader of the Pack, was the acme of tragic teenage angst, but she combined toughness and pathos

Born: December 28th, 1948

Died: January 19th, 2024

Mary Weiss, who has died aged 75, was the lead singer of The Shangri-Las, who created a string of unique and influential hits in the mid-1960s including Remember (Walking in the Sand), I Can Never Go Home Anymore and, above all, their US chart-topper Leader of the Pack, the acme of tragic teenage angst. Mary’s voice brought a streetwise yet vulnerable timbre to their sound, which was exploited to full effect by their inspired songwriter and producer George “Shadow” Morton.

Remember (Walking in the Sand), from 1964, was their first collaboration with Morton. When Aerosmith released their version of the song in 1980, Weiss contributed uncredited backing vocals.

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Remember reached number five in the US (where the chart was now being colonised by The Beatles and other British invaders), and 14 in the UK. The group followed it up with their biggest hit and only US number one, Leader of the Pack. The sound of a revving motorbike engine and squealing tyres added to its aura of romantic intensity. It also reached 11 in the UK, despite being banned by several radio stations. The song would be frequently covered by other artists, and featured in Martin Scorsese’s film Goodfellas.

Give Him a Great Big Kiss gave them another Top 20 hit in 1964, and the Shangri-Las were becoming a major attraction. They shared a bill with The Beatles and toured with The Rolling Stones, visited the UK (where they joined in a food fight at Dusty Springfield’s apartment), and were hired by James Brown for a major show in Texas, at which Brown was staggered to discover that the group were not black, as he had assumed. It was also there that Weiss was involved in an altercation with a police officer, who pulled a gun on her when she entered the washroom reserved for “coloured women”.

Life on the road was not easy, often playing cattle-call shows on gruelling package tours such as Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars. That was especially true for female acts, though as street-smart New Yorkers, the Shangri-Las were perhaps better prepared than some of their contemporaries. After an intruder tried to break into her hotel room, Weiss bought herself a pistol for protection, but handed it over after a warning from the FBI.

Weiss was born in Queens, New York, the youngest of three children. Her father, a telephone company worker, died when she was six weeks old, leaving her cash-strapped mother, Elizabeth, to raise Mary, her sister, Elizabeth (known as Betty), and brother, George. She described her childhood as “fairly rotten”. She attended Catholic school and then Andrew Jackson high school.

At Jackson high, Mary, then 15, and Betty, two years older, joined with the 16-year-old twins Mary Ann and Marge (Marguerite) Ganser to form a singing group (an all-Jewish one) and they began performing at nightclubs and talent shows. They took their name from a Long Island restaurant called Shangri-La. It was not until they had been picked up by the Red Bird label that they hit the charts with Remember (Walking in the Sand).

The Shangri-Las split in 1968, not least because of legal disputes arising from unfavourable contracts they had signed at the start of their career. “When we started, it was all about music,” Weiss commented. “By the time it ended, it was all about litigation.” She also said that “my mother kind of signed my life away when I was 14”.

Due to legal issues she found that “it was hard to get into the music business and it was even harder to get out. I couldn’t go near another record company for 10 years.”

Weiss created a new career for herself by working for an architectural company, and became involved with interior design and building projects. She was in downtown Manhattan in 2001 when hijacked aircraft destroyed the World Trade Center. In 2007, she recorded her solitary solo album, Dangerous Games, on Norton Records.

She was married three times, the first two marriages ending in divorce, and is survived by her third husband, Ed Ryan, and her sister, Betty.

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