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Mary Weiss, style-setting lead singer of the Shangri-Las, dies at 75

Singer Mary Weiss is photographed in Babylon, N.Y., on June 18, 2007. Weiss, the lead singer of the 1960s pop group the Shangri-Las, whose hits included “The Leader of the Pack,” has died at age 75. Miriam Linna, founder of Weiss' label, Norton Records, said Sunday, Jan. 21, 2024, that Weiss died Friday, Jan. 19, in Palm Springs, Calif.Jim Cooper/Associated Press

Mary Weiss, whose yearning vocals and street-smart vibe as lead singer of the Shangri-Las brought an edgier style to the girl-group era of the 1960s with hits including “Leader of Pack,” and who then mostly left music for decades until returning with a solo album in her 50s, died Friday at 75.

The death was confirmed by Miriam Linna, head of Norton Records, Ms. Weiss’s label. No other details were immediately made public.

The Shangri-Las, which included Ms. Weiss’s sister Betty and twins Marge and Mary Ann Ganser, channeled their working-class roots in Queens with a sound and look that challenged the reigning glamour of groups such as the Chiffons and Supremes. Ms. Weiss was once asked about the evening gowns worn by some other singers onstage. “Old people’s clothes,” she scoffed.

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Ms. Weiss favored tailored men’s pants and boots, and the group made their mark with songs about teen love, heartbreak, tragedy, and the sly suggestion of sex. Ms. Weiss’s crystalline voice was ideal for the AM radio play that could make or break groups in the 1960s.

“My folks were always putting him down/They said he came from the wrong side of town,” Ms. Weiss sang on “Leader of the Pack,” which features a spoken intro about a bad-boy crush and includes the sounds of a crashing motorcycle as she mourns the end of an ill-fated romance. The song hit No. 1 on Billboard Hot 100 charts in 1964.

The Shangri-las, at CBGB's in New York: From left, Marge Ganser, Ms. Weiss, and Liz Weiss.Roberta Bayley/Redferns

On 1965’s “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” Ms. Weiss looks back on lost love as the other Shangri-Las back her up with plaintive ooh-ahhs. “It’s been two years or so/Since I saw my baby go,” Ms. Weiss sang. (In 2013, it was covered by Aerosmith.)

Their producer, George “Shadow” Morton, said he asked Ms. Weiss for dual roles in the group: “Be an actress, not just a singer.”

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The run by the Shangri-Las was brief, fewer than five years, but helped open a genre for women performers that inspired contemporaries such as the Ronettes and later, during the punk wave in the 1970s, singers such as Debbie Harry with Blondie.

Ms. Weiss began to explore her musical range in elementary school, listening to Everly Brothers records and testing out her doo-wop chops on the sidewalk. “There were guys that sang on the street corner in my neighborhood,” she said in a 2007 interview with Norton Records. “I would listen to them and I’d sing with them sometimes.”

She teamed up with her older sister Elizabeth, known as Betty, and the Ganser twins in their Cambria Heights neighborhood in Queens. They started in local nightclubs, even though Ms. Weiss was barely 15, and caught the attention of producer Artie Ripp. That led to their first record deal, the fast-paced single “Simon Says” in late 1963.

Morton signed them to record “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” which he had co-written. An aspiring Long Island musician, Billy Joel, played piano on the demo. The single made it onto the rotation at New York’s influential Top 40 station WABC. That was career gold.

As the 1960s British music invasion was starting in the US charts, the Shangri-Las headed to Britain in 1964 to appear on the music programs “Top of the Pops” and “Ready Steady Go!” One night, the group ended up at the London apartment of pop star Dusty Springfield. Things started to get a little crazy, Ms. Weiss recalled.

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“[Springfield] liked to start food fights,” Ms. Weiss remembered. “And she started one and I’m hiding under this lovely French desk with her manager and fish and food are flying by. They were actually throwing pies later in the night.” When bandmate Mary Ann Ganser put on her boots, they were filled with fish.

The Shangri-Las broke up in 1968, and Ms. Weiss largely put the music business behind her. She later looked back with bitterness over the lack of power women had in the music industry. “I truly believe a lot of men were considered artists, whether or not people wrote for them,” she said in an interview at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, “where women were considered products.”

The surviving members of the group reunited briefly in 1977 — Mary Ann Ganser died in 1970 — and then occasionally for reunion shows. Ms. Weiss built a new career in the accounting department of a New York architectural firm. She later worked as an interior designer.

In 2007, Ms. Weiss returned to music with her only solo album, “Dangerous Game,” which included the track “Cry About the Radio,” a lament on the state of modern pop music.

When she looked back on the Shangri-Las, she still never fully understood the group’s maverick reputation. She always thought the Ronettes were more the real deal.

“I’ve heard we were tough, and I just find that so hilarious,” Ms. Weiss said in “But Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” a 2023 oral history of the girl-group era. “If you look at the old tapes, I don’t think that word would even come up. Maybe it was the boots.”

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Mary Weiss was born Dec. 28, 1948, in Queens. Her father died when she was six weeks old, and her mother was left to raise three children.

All the future Shangri-Las attended the same high school, which arranged a trip to the only concert Ms. Weiss attended before their own record deal: the Everly Brothers at the Freedomland U.S.A. theme part in the Bronx in 1963 when she was 14.

“By the time I was 15,” she said, “I was always in the studio.”

Their song “Heaven Only Knows” (1965) features some of their smoothest harmonies, and “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” from the same year gets progressively more suggestive in the limits of what could make the airwaves at the time.

“Yeah? well I hear he’s bad,” the three other Shangri-Las ask Ms. Weiss.

“Hmm, he’s good-bad, but he’s not evil,” she says.

“Tell me more, tell me more,” they reply.

At their height, the Shangri-Las were so big in their hometown that the group was honored in 1965 at the New York World’s Fair. “I thought it was cool,” Ms. Weiss recalled. “They had a Monorail with our name on it and we performed.”

Survivors include her husband Edward Ryan and sister Elizabeth. Ms. Weiss and her husband moved to Palm Springs, Calif., about a decade ago. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available. (Bandmate Marge Ganser died in 1996.)

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Ms. Weiss once described the Shangri-Las songs as representing something she believed was increasingly lost in music: honesty about the emotional tumult of being a teen.

“People are forgetting about the teenage angst. … Things are very different now,” she said. “Kids grow up younger and younger.”