RIP Mary Weiss: The Music Biz Wasn’t Always Shangri-La For the Shangri-Las

David Hinckley
8 min readJan 20, 2024

Properly packaged, death has always been a saleable subject in popular music.

Ancient British and Scottish ballads are permeated with tales of doomed suitors and fair maidens. Early American folk, blues and country singers returned to death regularly, from “Stack ‘O Lee” and “John Henry” to Roy Acuff’s dire “Wreck On the Highway” and my personal favorite, Jim Jackson’s “I’m Gonna Start Me a Graveyard of My Own.”

It was no surprise, then, that the first decade of rock ’n’ roll dramatized a number of lethal tragedies, from “Ebony Eyes” (plane crash) to “Tell Laura I Love Her” (car crash), “Dead Man’s Curve” (another car crash), “Patches” (lovelorn suicide) and “Teen Angel” (bad decision). Even Pat Boone, a happy warrior, chimed in with “Moody River” (guilt-induced suicide).

Strong as these entries were, however, the most striking and enduring death song from the era arguably remains “Leader of the Pack,” the Shangri-Las’s wrenching ode to the bad boy Jimmy who roared to his death on his motorcycle after his girl told him her father forbade her to see him any more.

Mary Weiss, Marge Ganser, Betty (“Liz”) Weiss, Mary Ann Ganser.

There was nothing subtle about “Leader of the Pack,” and lead singer Mary Weiss not only embraced the melodrama, she hurled herself into it. She reveled in it.

She begs him, “Go slow.” Did he hear her? If he did, he wasn’t complying. “Look out! Look out! Look out!” she screams in the seconds before the crash. We don’t know if he heard that, either.

“Leader of the Pack” rocketed to №1 on the national charts in late November 1964, for the same reason the best cheap horror movies (“Night of the Living Dead”) hang around forever: because they know there’s no such thing as overdoing it.

Jeff Barry, who wrote “Leader of the Pack” with his then-wife Ellie Greenwich and George (Shadow) Morton, recalled years later how he went into the recording room after several unsatisfactory takes and gave Weiss a lecture, basically, on how she’d just lost her boyfriend in front of her eyes and that she was now a total unhinged wreck, so she needed to act and sound like it. Which she then did.

Mary Weiss died Friday, age 75, leaving only her sister Betty (whom she called “Liz”) from the quartet that sang “Leader Of the Pack,” along with “Remember (Walking in the Sand”), “I Can Never Go Home Any More,” “Out in the Streets,” “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” and a half dozen other songs that mostly lamented how hard and complicated teenage love can be, balanced with ruminations on whether it’s still worth it.

The other two Shangri-Las, the Ganser twins, died earlier — Mary Ann in 1970 from drug complications, and Marge of breast cancer in 1996.

The Shangri-Las’s relatively brief run on center stage, which put them on bills with the Beatles and Rolling Stones in 1964 and 1965, wound down when the group stopped getting hit material and promotion. By the late 1960s they were also tied up in mountains of litigation that led Weiss and the others eventually to leave the business. Weiss, after a brief trip to the fading flower child culture of San Francisco, married and began a long successful career in the furniture and interior decoration business.

She mostly stayed out of music, except for a couple of short reunion drop-ins, until 2007, when she cut a solo album for Norton Records. While it didn’t make much of an impact, it was well reviewed, and Weiss said in a 2007 promotional interview with Bill Miller and Miriam Linna of Norton that she had always wanted to get back to singing.

When she was young, the first music she loved included Elvis, the Everly Brothers and the quintessential pop harmony group, the Ink Spots. She was a fan of Bob Dylan and told Miller and Linna she would love to have recorded Bruce Springsteen’s “Because the Night.”

Weiss and the Shangri-Las did manage to branch out further in music than many groups would have done if they had a hit like “Leader of the Pack.” That record was so unlike anything else on the radio at the time, and so unlike almost anything else being performed by female artists, that it could have stamped them forever as a one-track novelty act.

Weiss, while she had little formal music training, fortunately had a good emotional range in her voice. She was convincing as a teenager in love on “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” (“When I say I’m in love, you best believe I’m in love, L-U-V”) and equally convincing as a teenager betrayed by love in “Out In The Streets” (“I wish I’d never met him”).

Then she could pivot back to four-handkerchief melodrama for “I Can Never Go Home Any More,” which made Dion’s “Lonely Teenager” sound like a reunion anthem.

Weiss told Miller and Linna in 2007 that when she was a teenager herself, she didn’t attach cosmic meanings to what she was singing. But “Never Go Home” was an eerily good fit for a girl whose father died when she was a few weeks old and who as a teenager was barely speaking to her mother. She moved out, she said, as soon as she turned 18.

At the same time, Weiss in 2007 challenged one of the long-standing fundamental assumptions about the Shangri-Las: that they were a bunch of hard-core street-tough chicks from Queens, the kind of girls who’d head straight for bad boy Jimmy.

Convenient as that image was for fans, many of whom doubtless made parallel assumptions about the Ronettes, what solidified it for the Shangri-Las was Ellie Greenwich, who wrote songs for them and worked with them in the studio.

“They were right off the streets,” Greenwich said in a 1983 interview. “The way they chewed gum, it sounded like firecrackers. Their language was rough. They just had a street attitude. We wanted them to be more professional, more lady-like, and we didn’t get along at first. Finally I decided it was time for a showdown, which we had in the bathroom at the Brill Building. There was screaming, cursing, crying, all of it. And after that it got better.

“But they were tough, tough girls.”

“I’ve heard we were tough,” Weiss said in an interview with Laura Flam and Emily Sieu Liebowitz for their 2023 book But Will You Love Me Tomorrow. “I just find that so hilarious. It makes me laugh. I saw [an early] clip recently. How do you get ‘tough’ out of that? People liked to put people in boxes back then, especially girls.”

Where they did get tough, she told Miller and Linna, was professionally, an evolution born of necessity. She noted that she was 16 when the Shangri-Las became a hot ticket and were sent out on the road. This meant long bus tours like the Dick Clark Caravan, where the artists might get one night in a hotel and then sleep on the bus the next night. Not incidentally, it put four teenage girls in tight quarters with maybe half a dozen male groups for weeks at a time.

That, she said, is when tough happened.

Mary Weiss, 1964.

“When you’re a kid and you’re on the road and nobody’s got your back, you better be tough,” she said. “You better act as tough as you can because they’ll devour you. We scared lots of people away, made lots of bands behave and back down. What else are you going to do?”

And then there were the fans.

“A lot of times it was very frightening,” she said. “One time in an aquarium there was no security and I just about had my clothes ripped off. And the fans with pens almost poking your eye out. When there’s a lot of them and one of you, it gets scary.”

Weiss told Miller and Linna she loved singing and performing. She also loved a lot of the incidental benefits, like going to James Brown’s house in St. Alban’s just to talk, or attending a party at Andy Warhol’s Factory. She had fond memories of being invited to a dinner at Dusty Springfield’s house and Dusty launching a food fight that ended with, among other things, Mary Ann finding fish in her boots. She evened that score, Weiss added, by waiting until they were on a bill with Dusty at the Brooklyn Fox and putting fish into Dusty’s boots there.

Less amusing was the time a policeman in Texas pulled a gun on her because she used the “Colored” women’s room.

There was also the money part, or the lack of money part. While she didn’t talk about that, Shangri-Las drummer Joey Alexander told Alan Betrock, author of Girl Groups: The Story of a Sound, that all the acts got only a small flat fee after each show, perhaps $50. Royalties seemed to be only an abstract concept.

Eventually the Shangri-Las even got into that surreal situation where the original singers could not use the group’s name. The music biz has many ways of making music less enchanting.

“Basically,” Weiss told Miller and Linna, “the litigation just got so insane and it wasn’t about music any more.”

Looking back from 2007, Weiss had one other reflection.

Like other female artists, including Arlene Smith of the Chantels, she wished the world would lose the term “girl groups.” Smith has long argued that it makes women sound like some cute, fluffy little sideshow, not real artists. Weiss said it disregards the fact that every group had its own personality, sound and skill. The Shangri-Las were not the Supremes.

“How do you take an entire sex,” she rhetorically asked Miller and Linna, “and dump them into one category?”

The Shangri-Las were, in fact, not like any other group before or since, and a significant part of that stemmed from Mary Weiss’s teenage ability to translate lyrical drama into a compelling voice on an AM radio.

She also survived music business success, something she only had to look as far as Mary Ann Ganser to see is not a given.

What survives with more ease is the music.

“They will always be remembered,” wrote John Clemente in the book Girl Groups: Fabulous Females That Rocked the World, “as the renegade girls of rock ’n’ roll.”



David Hinckley

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”