Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



A female vocal quartet with eleven chart hits in 1964-6, a milestone in pop both for musical content and visual presentation. They were two sets of sisters: Betty Weiss (aka 'Liz') was said to have sung lead on one of their earliest records, but the youngest girl, Mary Weiss, sang lead on all the hits; the other members were twins Marge and Mary Ann Ganser. Mary Weiss came back with a solo album in 2007.

In their 1960s heyday gigs often included only three girls, the identity of the missing member changing from time to time, allegedly due to bad habits. Their image combined cheerleaders with bikers' molls, or a not-so-virgin queen with streetwise ladies-in-waiting; the vocal style was one of emotional desperation, accented by tight leather pants and leather boots, in contrast to the evening gowns favoured by other 'girl groups' such as the Chiffons and the Supremes.

They started singing together at Andrew Jackson High School in the Cambria Heights section of Queens, New York. Renegade producer George 'Shadow' Morton conceived 'Remember (Walkin' In The Sand)' for them when they were still in school, and took a demo to Artie Ripp of Kama Sutra Productions, who played it for Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, who helped Morton with the production, which was leased to Leiber and Stoller's Red Bird Records, complete with dubbed seagulls crying: it was a no. 5 hit in 1964 in the USA and a top 20 in the UK. 'This was storytelling, this was creating characters,' said Griel Marcus in 2007. 'Their records left wounds in their listeners.'

The first hit was followed by a USA no. 1, 'Leader Of The Pack', written by Morton, Barry and Greenwich, with dubbed-in revving motorcycles and a horrific crash at the end, which charted four times in the UK: top 20 '65, top three '72, top ten twice in '76 (and was sent up as 'Leader Of The Laundramat' by the Detergents in the USA '64). The Shangri-Las had no more hits in the UK; in the USA 'Give Him A Great Big Kiss' went top 20 with a smooching noise, while the top 30 'Give Us Your Blessing' was more sedate. 'I Can Never Go Home Anymore' '65 was their last top ten, 'Long Live Our Love' the last top 40. 'Past, Present And Future' was a top 60 '66, described as 'spoken word' by Billboard, as 'one of the most mysterious and moving tracks in all of pop' by critic Richard Williams, and as one of his favourite ten discs by Pete Townshend.

The Red Bird label was folded; the girls drifted to Mercury but had no more hits. Rumours persisted that they made 'What's Wrong With Ringo?' as the Bon Bons, 'Wishing Well' on an obscure Spokane label as the Shangri-Las, and the Morton-produced 'Only Seventeen' as the Beatlettes on Jubilee. But the fun had lasted only five years and dissolved in legal disputes. Mary Ann Ganser died of encephalitis in 1971. The remaining trio did a show at CBGB's in 1977 and thought about an album for the Sire label, but couldn't agree on the material. They sang at an oldies show in New Jersey in 1989; and Margie Ganser died of breast cancer in 1996, still only 48 years old.

Mary Weiss had been legally prevented from recording solo for ten years, and anyway had bitter memories of the short-lived fame and the subsequent legal mess. She worked outside music until 2004; then she attended a release party for a girl-group box on Rhino Records in October 2005, where she met Billy Miller and his wife, Miriam Linna, who had a label called Norton Records, in Brooklyn. Weiss had turned down offers before, but liked Billy and Miriam, and decided to make a solo album. Dangerous Game (2007) had one Shangri-Las cover ('Heaven Only Knows') and the rest original songs, most of them written by Miller's friend, guitarist Greg Cartwright, whose soul-influenced Memphis garage band, the Reigning Sound, provided the backing. Miller and Cartwright co-produced. (Additional info from an article by Anna Blumenthal.)

Weiss performed at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas in March 2007, and Margaret Moser wrote in the Austin Chronicle that all her 'sass, heartache, and anguish, which made the Shangs so in-the-moment then, are present here, albeit in a lower register. The [...] lo-fi garage sound [of the band] snaps like a fresh mouthful of bubble gum in axeman Greg Cartwright, who may have been born in the wrong decade: his songwriting ability to paint a broken heart in three minutes or less in timeless shades is extraordinary ('Stop and Think It Over,' 'I Don't Care,' 'Cry About the Radio'). In the words of Sunset Boulevard's mad Norma Desmond, this isn't a comeback. It's a return!'