Mary Weiss, lead singer for ‘Leader of the Pack’ girl group the Shangri-Las, dies at 75

Three women in a girl-group from the early 1960s
The Shangri-Las, from left: Marge Ganser, Mary Weiss and Mary Ann Ganser.
(Hulton Deutsch / Corbis via Getty Images)

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

The cause of death was not disclosed.

The Shangri-Las were the last of the great girl groups, emerging in 1964 just as the sound was eclipsed by the rise of British Invasion bands. Unlike peers such as the Shirelles and the Crystals, the Shangri-Las weren’t Black: They were poor white teens from New York City, occasionally singing with pronounced Queens accents and always performing with a stylish swagger. Flanked by her childhood friends Marge and Mary Ann Ganser — and, occasionally, her older sister, Betty — Weiss sang with a toughness and tenderness that lent gravity to the cinematic productions of George “Shadow” Morton on their signature hits “Leader of the Pack,” “Remember (Walking in the Sand)” and “Give Him a Great Big Kiss.”

Though their time in the spotlight lasted a little under two years, the Shangri-Las created an enduring rock ‘n’ roll archetype: Girls who were every bit as strong and sexy as their doomed boyfriends, boys who were “good bad” but “not evil,” as Weiss said on “Give Him a Great Big Kiss.” This attitude and the group’s heightened music — equal parts operatic pop and exuberant R&B — proved influential, particularly on the punks of New York City in the 1970s. Blondie covered their “Out in the Streets”; the New York Dolls swiped the spoken intro from “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” for their “Looking for a Kiss,” then hired Morton as the producer for their second album, setting the stage for Aerosmith covering “Remember (Walking in the Sand)” during the height of punk. The Shangri-Las’ music echoed throughout the years, in a mainstream that acknowledged “Leader of the Pack” as a classic — in 2019, the song was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame — as well as in the rock underground that welcomed Weiss’ return to music in 2007.

The E Street Band’s Steven Van Zandt commemorated Weiss on X, formerly known as Twitter, writing that the Shangri-Las were “one of the essential Girl Groups of the ‘60s that empowered young girls to dream bigger at a time when society limited women to be secretaries. Their brilliant records with Shadow Morton defined aural cinema.”

A woman in long brown hair and wearing a black outfit smiles.
Mary Weiss in 2010.
(Steven A Henry / WireImage)

Mary Weiss was born and raised in the Queens borough of New York City. “I had a fairly rotten childhood,” she once said. Her father died shortly after her birth on Dec. 28, 1948, leaving behind Mary and her older siblings, Betty and George. “My mother didn’t do much of anything,” Weiss recalled, leading the family to live in poverty.

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Weiss and her sister found relief in music. The pair started to sing with their friends’ twin sisters Mary Ann and Marge Ganser, soon graduating from dances to nightclubs. They earned the attention of Artie Ripp, an independent record mogul who signed them to his Kama Sutra Productions. Shortly after cutting “Simon Says,” the group connected with George “Shadow” Morton, a fledgling songwriter and producer on a quest to break into the Brill Building scene. He hired the group to sing a demo of “Remember (Walking in the Sand)” — the session also featured Billy Joel on his recording debut — and then brought the single to Jerry Leiber, who had just launched Red Bird Records with his songwriting partner Mike Stoller. Leiber decided to sign Morton to a publishing deal and release “Remember (Walking in the Sand).”

“Remember (Walking the Sand)” shot into the Billboard Top 10 upon its late summer release in 1964, so Morton and the Shangri-Las rushed “Leader of the Pack” into the stores. An overheated tragedy teeming with Morton’s sound effects and propelled by Weiss’ pleading — the producer later said, “I was asking 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 a notion shared among the staff at their label. Ellie Greenwich, a key member of the writing staff at Red Bird who composed “Leader of the Pack” with Morton, recalled, “At the beginning, we did not get along — they were kind of crude, and having to deal with them on a daily basis used to get me very uptight — with their gestures and language and chewing the gum and the stockings ripped up their leg. We would say, ‘Not nice, you must be ladies,’ and they would say, ‘We don’t want to be ladies.’ ”

Stoller concurred that “The Shangri-Las were the perfect white ‘bad girls’ of the day,” but Weiss disagreed: “I’ve heard we were tough, and I just find that so hilarious. If you really look at the old tapes, I don’t think that word would even come up.” Nevertheless, the group’s hit singles crackled with a thinly coded sexuality and were rife with misfortune 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” reached the Top 10 in 1965. It was their last big hit. Red Bird soon imploded and the group became mired in legal troubles, which Weiss later explained away by quipping, “My mother kind of signed my life away when I was 14.” After releasing a pair of singles for Mercury, the Shangri-Las split in 1968.

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

Three women stand in front of a cement wall.
A later incarnation 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 the chief purchasing agent. At a release party for Rhino’s lavish girl-group box set “One Kiss Leads to Another” in 2005, she met Billy Miller, then the head of the garage-rock preservationists 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 the support of Memphis garage band the Reigning Sound. The resulting “Dangerous Game” appeared in 2007, supported by a brief tour. “Dangerous Game” was her first and last solo album: After its release, Weiss again retreated from the spotlight.

She is survived by her husband, Ed Ryan.