Comprising two pairs of Jewish sisters from Queens New York, The Shangri-Las were one of the leading girl bands of the 60s and paved the way for the likes of Blondie and Amy Winehouse. On Friday, their lead singer Mary Weiss - famed for a powerful voice, died at 75.
Mary and her older sister Elizabeth “Betty” Weiss met identical twins Marguerite “Marge” and Mary Ann Ganser at Andrew Jackson High School in Cambria Heights, an anonymous part of Queens near JFK airport, where they played school talent shows and at local dances. It was there that they were recognised, in 1963, by the American producer and songwriter George “Shadow” Morton, and subsequently signed by Artie Ripp to a record deal. Soon they were enjoying huge success with a string of melodramatic hits about teenage love and heartache, and embarking on sold-out tours including opening for the Rolling Stones on a 1964 US tour.
Such was their soulful sound that people assumed they were black, only to be surprised that they were in fact four white girls aged 15 to 17 who had formed straight out of school in 1963. When they appeared on the same bill as James Brown at a concert venue in Texas in the mid-1960s, the headlining RnB star is said to have been taken aback when he met the support act he’d picked to play his all-black soul revue.
“Remember (Walking in the Sand)” was their first hit, reaching No 5 in the US chart, and was followed by the chart-topping “Leader of the Pack”. At the heart of these numbers, and particularly “I Can Never Go Home Anymore”, was a melancholy that encapsulated teenage angst for the mid-60s and beyond.
Amy Winehouse said of the band: “I love the drama, I love the atmosphere, I love the sound effects. And they wrote the most depressing song ever: ‘I Can Never Go Home Anymore.’”
With the rumbling of motorbikes embedded into three-minute mini-dramas such as “Leader of the Pack”, their themes of bad boys, tragic death and running away from home and their custom leather jackets, their atypical tough-girl image and attitude also played a role in inspiring the punk movement that followed. They influenced acts as diverse as rock band the New York Dolls, all-female rock group The Go-Go’s and metal band Twisted Sister.
Over the weekend, social media was awash with tributes from the music industry. A post from the account of The Ronettes co-founder Ronnie Spector, who died in January 2022, said: “We are deeply saddened to hear the news of Mary Weiss’ passing. She and Ronnie were kindred spirits; two fearless bad girls of the 60s. Join us as we spin the Shangri-Las in her honour.”
Frontman of The Charlatans Tim Burgess said he was listening to the girl band before playing a show, and praised Weiss as “a role model for rebels”. Garbage singer Shirley Manson said: “Sad to hear of your passing Mary Weiss. You gave me much pleasure while I was growing up. In point of fact you still do and always will. I identified very much with you when I was a teen. I loved the spooky side of you.”
They burned bright for a short time. By 1968, when Mary was just 20, the group had split up. There had been some shifts in the line-up but Mary had remained ever-present.
“We were 16-year-old kids on the road in a very tough, grown-up industry,” Weiss told The New York Post in 2014. “We had no entourage, just one massive 19-year-old bodyguard, sometimes. I bought a pistol in Georgia… because fans were trying to break into our hotel rooms. [She later turned it in to police in Florida.] So we were as tough as we needed to be. We had little to no protection on the road, and I usually carried the band’s cash. It was a scary time.”
In 2007, Weiss released the critically acclaimed solo album Dangerous Game on Norton Records. Norton’s Miriam Linna said: “Mary was an icon, a hero, a heroine, to both young men and women of my generation and of all generations.”