Mary Weiss is trying to get back in the rocker pack
Mary Weiss is back, singing songs of love and need, betrayal and heartache. But, oh, how her voice has changed.
And her life.
The former lead singer of the spike-heel booted, urban-tough, 1960s girl group, the Shangri-Las -- she who shouted “Look out! Look out!” on their famous anthem, “Leader of the Pack” -- now lives in the Long Island community of Babylon, N.Y.
But Weiss is no typical suburbanite, even if she’s arrived for an interview in an ordinary silver sedan at a family-oriented restaurant she likes to frequent.
For one thing, she has a new solo album, “Dangerous Game,” released last month. For another, she’s just returned from the high-profile music festival South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. She had a spread in New York magazine, was interviewed on public radio and appeared on Conan O’Brien. She has her own MySpace page (www.myspace.com/maryweiss) and website (www.maryweiss.com).
And her speaking voice has gone deep. Her singing voice is deeper still, and strong, which she says she likes. She doesn’t sound like a 15-year-old anymore.
She may be singing with a mature edge, but she still feels a bond with her rocker-teen self. She and her husband, Ed, have been renting an apartment for the last six years, she says, after Forest Hills got “too congested” for them. They settled near the beach, because they love to surf and boogie-board. And never having had children, Weiss says, has left her a little more teen-like than those who have assumed the role of parent. She turned 58 in December, but still asks herself, “When am I growing up?”
But, hey, Weiss still wears boots, as she often did when she and her group -- which also included her sister, Betty, and the identical twin sisters Mary Ann and Margie Ganser, both deceased -- started as street-corner crooners in Queens. She shows off one sleek black number by lifting a leg of her jeans a bit. And she’s got a cool black leather jacket and shades. Of course, they’re prescription glasses now, as are the ones she wears sometimes when she’s onstage, performing songs from her new album.
Her old sound hasn’t exactly disappeared, says Keith Allen, 48, a DJ with an oldies show at a Long Island radio station. Christina Aguilera, Hilary Duff, Ashley Tinsdale and a lot of “American Idol” contestants echo the Shangri-Las’ sound.
“They had a great sound, and she was a great lead singer,” he says. “She had a lot of passion in her voice. She sounded like a girl who would do anything to get her man.”
Weiss says she gets adoration even now from men who listened to her records when they were young -- and admiration for her pioneering rocker spirit from women.
How did she end up back in the music game?
“When people hit their 50s, they reevaluate,” she says. She had spent more than 30 years working for an architect and then for a New York City furniture dealership, where she ran the installation division, coordinating complex multimillion-dollar corporate projects. She often worked 80 to 90 hours a week, she says. At the end of 2004, she quit: “I needed to regroup.” She had been supporting herself since 14, and even before that, she’d lived with a widowed mother who didn’t provide well, she says, sounding bitter but unwilling to go into details.
Though she sang about boy-girl relationships with her group, she didn’t have any experience with them. Which isn’t to say she didn’t understand the emotions: “Anything involving pain, I could totally relate to.” Before her group started recording, she says, she often visited gospel tents in St. Albans, absorbing a sound that would influence the Shangri-Las and make them stand out at the end of the girl-group era.
Over the years, people had asked her to return to music, though mostly on the oldies circuit, she says. But the way her career ended -- in lengthy litigation she found extremely distasteful -- made her wary. She kept on enjoying all kinds of new music, she says, even as she let her voice rest.
Enter Billy Miller and his wife, Miriam Linna, who own Norton Records, an independent label based in Brooklyn.
Late in 2005, Miller had invitations to a Manhattan party celebrating the release of a boxed set of ‘60s songs. “I really didn’t want to go,” Miller recalls. Then a friend called from the party to say Weiss was there. “She had always been one of my favorite singers. I’d heard that she wasn’t interested in doing anything more, and I respected that. I just wanted to meet her, that’s all.”
Miller, Linna and Weiss hit it off, and a few weeks after the party, Miller contacted Weiss about doing a new album.
“She was interested in straight-up rock ‘n’ roll stuff,” he says. He put her together with Greg Cartwright, who heads the North Carolina band Reigning Sound. She selected many of Cartwright’s original songs, as well as one by Miller (“You’re Never Gonna See Me Cry”), avoiding melodramatic death songs like the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack” and “Give Us Your Blessings.” The album includes a new version of a Shangri-Las hit, “Heaven Only Knows,” and ends with the sound of seagulls and waves, recalling their first hit, “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” in 1964.
Weiss says she’s happy with the album. “It’s a way to bridge who I am with who I was then.” She’s already working on her next album and has more concert dates lined up.
“At this point, anything can happen,” she says. “This is how I’ll finish out my working life.”