Mary Weiss, the lead singer and focal point of the Shangri-Las — one of the truly legendary girl groups of the early 1960s with hits like “Leader of the Pack,” “Great Big Kiss,” “Remember (Walking in the Sand)” and “Heaven Only Knows” — has died. Her death was confirmed to Rolling Stone by Miriam Linna of Norton Records, who released Weiss’ only solo album in 2007. No cause of death was cited; Weiss was 75.
Along with the Ronettes, the Shangri-Las epitomize the girl group era more than any other. Weiss was at the center of their sound and look, with a tart, youthful voice that burst out of transistor and car radios and long blonde hair that made her the object of countless crushes during the era.
With a battery of killer pop songs written by George “Shadow” Morton, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry and produced by Morton, their heyday was brief — just 1964 and ’65 — but their impact was indelible. They pioneered the teen-death epic with “Leader of the Pack” — which spawned countless imitations and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — and their songs harbored a nuanced but torrid sexuality: During the call-and-answer segment of “Great Big Kiss,” Weiss’ bandmates are asking questions about her squeeze: “Is he tall?,” they inquire; “I have to look up,” she replies. While the entire girl group sound was crushed by the British Invasion and the ’60s rock movement, the Shangri-Las cast a long shadow: Within just a few years, the New York Dolls — arguably the most influential group on punk rock — were covering “Great Big Kiss” and singing the Shangri-Las’ praises.
The group’s tough-but-vulnerable New York City girls image was genuine. Growing up in Queens, Weiss and her sister Betty Weiss attended the same high school as their future bandmates, twins Margie Ganser and Mary-Ann Ganser. They began performing at local nightclubs in 1963 where they caught the attention of producer Artie Ripp. He arranged the group’s first record deal with Kama Sutra, leading to their first recording in December 1963, “Simon Says.” Later, Phil Spector associate “Shadow” Morton tapped the girls to perform and record his song “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” which proved to be fruitful for the group when Red Bird label hired Morton.
After signing the Shangri-Las to a recording contract, Red Bird released “Remember (Walking in the Sand)” to high acclaim in the summer of 1964. That same year, the Shangri-Las’ dropped “Leader of the Pack,” which topped the charts and became a defining anthem for the band. Not too soon after, Betty left the band, and the Shangri-Las continued as a trio, touring throughout 1965 and 1966.
Some years after Red Bird closed its doors in 1966, the Shangri-Las disbanded. Weiss launched her solo career decades later in 2007 with her first and last solo album “Dangerous Game,” a Norton Records release.