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Remembering Mary Weiss

Ada Wolin celebrates the life and sound of the iconic lead singer of the Shangri-Las, Mary Weiss. Following Mary’s death in January 2024, we look back at the legacy she leaves behind, and the ways she inspired a young female writer pitching their own 33 1/3.

In January we lost the iconic singer, Mary Weiss, at the age of 75. As the brassy, haunting voice of the Shangri-Las, Weiss became a central figure of the ‘girl-group’ sound– harmony-rich pop songs that straddled an early rock and roll and doowop sound. Like other girl-groups, the Shangri-Las utilized close harmony, call and response singing, and sang about adolescent themes like first love and heartbreak. But the Shangri-Las are probably best remembered by the ways in which they deviated from the girl-group norm.

For one thing, Mary Weiss hated the ‘girl-group’ label, which she thought diminished the individuality of distinct groups. I wrestled with this paradox in my book–after all, the Shangri-Las didn’t exist in a vacuum, and came from the same machine that produced, wrote, and marketed songs by young singers. Yet, within that machine, they created something very distinct. Some of this was visual–you’ll almost never see promo shots of the Shangri-Las in gowns or dresses like other girl-groups. The group was almost always self-styled, their ‘tough’ look of dark pants, black leather, born out of the girls’ own preference rather than some prescribed look. These visual cues contributed to the reputation of the Shangri-Las as tough girls–a label Mary Weiss found ridiculous. But the toughness of the Shangri-Las was more than skin-deep–it was in the moodiness of their music, the way that their ballads unflinchingly portrayed adolescent angst and ennui.

For most people, “Leader of the Pack” is the iconic Shangri-Las song. It nails their ‘death disc’ formula perfectly: girl falls for bad boy, parents force them apart, boy dies in motorcycle crash. It’s got all the aspects of the Shangri-Las sound, too– Mary sings lead, her powerful, strident voice front and center. The Ganser Twins sing backup, creating a call and response dynamic with Mary. There’s a spoken interlude as we reach the song’s apotheosis, the song ending in a raucous musical collage: squealing motorcycle tires, Mary and the Ganser twins overlapping voices fading out.

Even as a teenager, Mary Weiss’s voice felt distinct, imperfect, unlike anyone else. When Mary Weiss spoke during songs (which happened often), her Queens accent was on full display. She had a strong sense of identity as a singer, but could shift her voice for whatever drama that the song required. After all, she was often an actress in her songs, not just a singer. In my favorite Shangri-Las ballad, “I Can Never Go Home Anymore,” we see unexpected vocal restraint from Mary, as she tells a quiet story of a girl’s estrangement from her mother, culminating in a piercing shout of “Mama!” As the song winds to a close, the Ganser twins chant “never” while Mary intones, “I can never go home anymore…and that’s called… sad.” The smallness of Mary’s voice in that line, so different from her usual raucousness, is what restrains the song from total ridiculousness and grounds it in a real emotional center.

I never got the chance to meet Mary, although I did reach out to her back in 2016, when I was an eager 19-year-old just starting the pitch for my 33 ⅓ on Golden Hits of the Shangri-Las. I didn’t have any specific plans for her involvement, mostly I just wanted her to know about the project. Looking back, I think I drew a tremendous amount of personal inspiration from the Shangri-Las as I wrestled with imposter syndrome as a young female writer–how they owned their status as young women, took up space, demanded to be listened to. Mary replied to me promptly: she was working on her own projects, and therefore would pass, signed “Best, M.” Mary always seemed very protective of the Shangri-Las’ legacy, rejecting any attempts to pigeonhole it into something too simple or easy. After leading a mostly private life, she did not return to the music world until 2007, when she released her delightfully self-referential solo album Dangerous Game. The album picks up right where Mary left off, like an alternate timeline of the music Mary might have made if she wasn’t kept out of my music industry by legal red tape. Finally, Mary got to realize her vision of the Shangri-Las as the rock band that she felt they really were. According to this New York Times Obituary, Mary was working on a Shangri-Las musical when she died. I am not sure if that project is still in the works without Mary, but I am glad Mary was working in her final years, telling her own story on her own terms. As for her songs with the Shangri-Las, I know they’ll stick around.

Ada Wolin

is a Brooklyn-born, Massachusetts-based writer and author of The Shangri-Las’ Golden Hits of the Shangri-Las (Bloomsbury).

The Shangri-Las’ Golden Hits of the Shangri-Las is available to buy in bookshops and online (including at Bloomsbury.com).

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