While most of the popular female vocal groups of the 1960s, including the Shirelles and the Ronettes, sang and danced to bubbly ditties about teenage love, the Shangri-Las’ hits contained a darker sentiment. They released a number of happy tunes, but the group’s most popular songs were about teenage runaways, teenage death, and tragic love. They scored three top ten hits in the 1960s; one of those hits—“Leader of the Pack,” a dramatic love song about a dying biker—went to number one and became the Shangri-Las’ signature tune.
Group member Mary Weiss was born around 1947 and raised in the tough Cambria Heights neighborhood of Queens, New York. Her father died when she was an infant, and her mother raised her single-handedly. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Weiss remembered her youth as a struggle for survival and a “hell of a way to grow up.” She also recalled singing almost since the time she could talk. When she was 13, Weiss began harmonizing with some neighborhood friends, twin sisters Marge and Mary Ann Ganser. Weiss’s older sister, Liz, lent her voice as well and became the group’s fourth member.
The harmonizing girls from Queens caught the attention of producer George “Shadow” Morton. With his help, they recorded two singles under the name the Bon-Bons for Kama Sutra Productions. Kama Sutra never released a single, so the girls then recorded a demo of a song Morton had written, called “Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand).” He took the demo to Red Bird Records, which backed Morton and the girls to record the song with the production team of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, who had produced a number of girl-group hits for Phil Spector and Lesley Gore. After its release on Red Bird, “Remember” went straight to the top ten in 1964, this while the girls were still in their teens. The single featured a haunting piano track and the girls were backed by the sounds of clapping hands, crashing waves, and crying seagulls. The group’s success attracted the attention of Kama Sutra, who claimed it had legal rights to the newly named Shangri-Las. The claim by Kama Sutra was the first in a long string of legal entanglements that would eventually lead to the demise of the group itself.
The group followed up the success of “Remember” in 1965 with “Leader of the Pack,” in which they sang the tragic story of a love cut short by a fatal motorcycle crash, complete with revving motorcycle and crash sounds. The track struck a nerve with American teens, who clamored for copies of the song about doomed rebel love. “Leader of the Pack” shot to number one and became the Shangri-Las’ signature tune. They recorded two albums for Red Bird, Leader of the Pack and ’65.
Before their legal woes became a problem, the Shangri-Las had a strong run as one of the great girl groups
Members include Marge Ganser (born c. 1947; died August 1996); Mary Ann Ganser (born c 1947; died 1971); Liz Weiss (born c 1948); Mary Weiss (born c 1947).
Met George “Shadow” Morton, formed group, 1964; recorded two singles as the Bon-Bons, unreleased, for Kama Sutra Productions; recorded “Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand),” a top ten hit for Red Bird Records, 1964; released “Leader of the Pack,” a number one hit, 1965; released final top ten hit, “I Can Never Go Home Again,” 1966; disbanded, 1969.
of the era. They played with the Beatles in New York City, were featured on London’s Ready! Steady! Go!, and soul legend James Brown liked their sound enough to hire the Shangri-Las as his opening act. “He thought we were black,” Weiss later said in Rolling Stone. “I swear to God—I walked out onstage for rehearsal and I thought the man was gonna have a coronary!”
The group’s subsequent singles, including “Give Him a Great Big Kiss,” were more bubbly and optimistic but failed to score another hit. “I Can Never Go Home Again” was the exception. The story of a teenage runaway became the group’s third and final hit, making it into the top ten in 1966. Some of the more obscure and melancholy Shangri-Las singles, though not hits, are worthy of attention, according to the All Music Guide online. “Out in the Streets,” “Give Us Your Blessings,” “Dressed in Black,” “Paradise,” and “He Cried,” which was a cover of Jay and the Americans’ “She Cried,” are favorites among dedicated Shangri-Las fans. The single “Past, Present, and Future” featured the girls not singing but chanting over a piano track. It was far too dark and strange to achieve popular acclaim—the spoken monologue could be interpreted as the remembrances of a rape victim. The group’s catalog of singles is featured on many compilations that have been released over the years. “Leader of the Pack” is featured on countless oldies collections.
The band’s lineup was ever-changing, and they are often pictured as a trio. Marge Ganser left the group in 1966, and the emotional strain of the group’s constant touring schedule caused its high turnover rate thereafter. Mary Weiss remained the only constant member of the Shangri-Las. They released a number of dispirited singles after “I Can Never Go Home Again,” but the songs failed to compete with those of the new British rockers that were sweeping the nation at the close of the 1960s.
By 1969, constant touring, legal battles, lineup changes, low royalty-rate agreements, and the British Invasion had taken their toll on the Shangri-Las. The group disbanded and disappeared from view completely. Mary Weiss dropped out of music entirely, moving to San Francisco. She then moved back to New York, where she worked regular jobs, married in 1974, and worked with her husband for a Manhattan furniture-design firm. She turned down many offers of musical projects over the years, which she told Rolling Stone she regretted. She did lend some uncredited assistance to the rock group Aerosmith when they recorded a cover of “Remember” in 1988. The original members of the Shangri-Las rarely regroup for reunions or talk to the press. Mary Ann Ganser died from encephalitis—and not a drug overdose, as was rumored—in 1971.
In 1988 the Shangri-Las lost their final legal battle and their name. They filed a trademark infringement case when a new group began calling themselves by the same name. Although they had not performed or recorded actively for years, the original members of the group felt they still had a claim to the name. “Just because they don’t actively perform,” the original Shangri-Las’ attorney, Richard Linn, told Rolling Stone in 1988, “doesn’t mean anybody can just take over their name.” The original Shangri-Las lost their claim; a trio containing none of the original members performs at small venues throughout the Midwest and even boasts the biography of the original group on its website.
Leader of the Pack, Red Bird, 1965.
’65, Red Bird, 1965.
Golden Hits, Mercury, 1966.
The Best of the Shangri-Las, Bac-Trac, 1985.
Myrmidons of Melodrama, RPM, 1995.
Larkin, Colin, Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze UK Ltd., 1998.
Rolling Stone, September 12, 1985, p. 50; December 1, 1988, p. 16.
“Biography: The Shangri-Las,” Mars Talent Agency, http://www.marstalent.com/bio_shangri_las.htm (December 10, 2001).
“The Shangri-Las,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=1THEANGRI-LAS (December 10, 2001).
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