Mary Weiss, the lead singer of the 1960s female pop group The Shangri-Las, has died at the age of 75. Weiss was the voice behind the band’s iconic hits like “Leader of the Pack” and “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” which epitomized the girl group sound of the 1960s.
Early Life and Formation of The Shangri-Las
Weiss was born in 1948 in Queens, New York. As a teenager in the early 1960s, she, along with her sister Elizabeth “Betty” Weiss and cousins Mary Ann Ganser and Marge Ganser, formed a musical group that came to be known as The Shangri-Las.
The quartet got their break in 1964 when they landed a contract with Red Bird Records, home to many iconic girl groups of the era. The Shangri-Las’ brooding melodies, matched with Weiss’ emotive vocals, set them apart from the more sugary girl groups of the time. Their songs dealt with themes of tragic romance and adolescent heartache, striking a chord with youth culture.
Rise to Fame with “Leader of the Pack”
In 1964, The Shangri-Las had their first hit single with “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” which peaked at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. However, it was their next single, “Leader of the Pack,” that catapulted them to stardom.
The song, released later in 1964, featured Weiss narrating a melodramatic tale of a girl whose boyfriend dies in a violent motorcycle crash. Its infectious sing-along chorus, Weiss’ multilayered vocals, and innovative use of engine and crash sound effects made “Leader of the Pack” a smash hit. It reached #1 on the charts and has endured for decades as a pop culture touchstone.
|Peak U.S. Chart Position
|“Remember (Walking in the Sand)”
|“Leader of the Pack”
|“I Can Never Go Home Anymore”
The Shangri-Las performed “Leader of the Pack” on national TV shows like “American Bandstand,” propelling them to stardom. For a period, they rivaled fellow girl groups like The Ronettes and The Supremes in popularity. Weiss’ striking appearance and stage presence added to their rapport with fans.
Later Hits and Eventual Breakup
Over the next couple of years, The Shangri-Las landed more top 10 hits, including “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” (#18 in 1965) and “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” (#6 in 1965). Their success waned by the late 1960s due to unstable band dynamics and record label issues, culminating in the group disbanding in 1968.
Weiss continued recording for a few years after the split, including solo singles and demos that went unreleased. But the former frontwoman faded into obscurity as the music scene evolved. In the following decades, she kept a low profile outside the industry.
Enduring Influence and Legacy
In recent years, The Shangri-Las and Weiss have undergone a critical re-appraisal for their trailblazing sound and aesthetic that presaged punk rock and contemporary artists like Amy Winehouse.
“Leader of the Pack” remains a Halloween and nostalgic radio staple. It was added to the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2019, commemorating its cultural and historical significance.
Upon news emerging of Weiss’ death, figures from the music world have been paying tribute on social media, acknowledging her iconic voice and The Shangri-Las’ influence:
“So sad to hear of Mary Weiss passing. I absolutely loved the Shangri-Las as a little kid and they have remained one of my biggest musical influences” – Shirley Manson of Garbage
“The heavenly voice of the mighty Shangri-Las. A huge loss for girl group fans and music in general. RIP Mary Weiss” – Musician Tim Burgess
Weiss is survived by a daughter. Funeral arrangements will be managed privately by family.
While Weiss faded from the spotlight many years ago, her indelible musical legacy lives on through The Shangri-Las’ catalog and enduring fanbase. The band’s trailblazing bad girl aesthetic opened doors for future generations of female artists. As the voice behind enduring hits like “Leader of the Pack,” Weiss takes her rightful place as an icon in the girl group genre and pop music history.
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