Not everyone knows her name, but most everyone knows her voice.
The defiant alto of Mary Weiss has echoed through the annals of teen music for 43 years now, ever since 1964 when her lead vocal on the Shangri-Las’ haunting “Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand)” helped shoot the song into the top five.
Weiss went on to deliver one of the most forthright opening lines in teen-pop song history: “When I say I’m in love, you best believe I’m in love, L-U-V” - a declaration that kicked off the deathless hit “Give Him a Great Big Kiss.” Then Weiss fronted such girl-group/Shangri-La classics as “Leader of the Pack,” “Out in the Streets” and “I Can Never Go Home Anymore.”
Those songs took on a life of their own, but a full four decades have passed since Weiss belted out any new cuts with her old group. It has been nearly that long since she made any music at all.
Which makes it a special thrill and surprise that Weiss is about to come out with her first release since the Shangri-Las’ gum-smacking smashes, as well as her first solo effort ever.
Tuesday, the indie imprint Norton Records will release “Dangerous Game,” featuring Weiss singing almost entirely new material, cut with a Memphis garage rock band, the Reigning Sound.
Weiss’ barreling instrument seems little changed from the beehive era. “They used to say I sounded like I had a nasal condition,” she deadpans. “I guess it’s still there.”
That hardly deterred history-minded pop mavens from trying to coax the singer back to the studio for years. While periodic offers came her way, Weiss says, “None seemed right.”
The new project got rolling two years ago when, on a whim, Weiss decided to attend an oldies convention. “I never go to these things,” she says. “But (the legacy label) Rhino Records invited me, and I just happened to go.”
There, she met producer and Norton Records president Billy Miller, who made an ardent pitch. “I said I’d think about it,” the singer recounts. “Then, I went and checked him out with every human being I know. Nobody said a bad word.”
Weiss had good reason to be gun-shy, given the thick tangle of litigation that strangled the Shangri-Las in 1968. As a result, she was barred from performing for the next 10 years.
It was a sad cap to a glorious run. The group had formed five years earlier in Queens, New York, with two pairs of siblings: Mary and her sister Betty, along with the twins Marge and Mary Anne Ganser. After cutting some obscure singles, the quartet was discovered by producer George (Shadow) Morton, a sonic whiz who created as distinct a teen pop sound as Phil Spector’s but who never got comparable recognition. The hits Morton tailored for the girls were brash, original and overstated in every way - from the wildly echoed vocals to their rococo arrangements to their drama queen lyrics. “Leader of the Pack” found a crescendo in a car crash, and so became a snuff-rock classic. As Weiss explains, “There are a lot of dark sides to being a teenager. It’s (a time) filled with confusion and angst. It’s scary and humiliating.”
Not only did the Shangri-Las stand out through their angsty scenarios, but via their tough-girl image. The latter set the template for everyone from Debbie Harry to Joan Jett to the Donnas. “A prom dress just wasn’t me,” says Weiss. “I liked slacks and vests and boots. A lot of kids related to that.”
Surprisingly, her fashion sense led some to misinterpret the girls’ sexual identity. “Because I was seen buying men’s clothing on Eighth Street they thought, `She likes pants, she must be gay,’” Weiss says. “I think that’s pretty funny.”
As a midteen, Weiss found all the attention over the music overwhelming, and exhausting. “When people were going to high school, I was doing press conferences in London,” she says.
By 1968, the whirlwind had blown over and the legal wrangling began. Weiss says her mother had signed some ruinous deals that led to her 10-year ban from recording. When that freeze ended in the late `70s, an offer came to reunite the Shangri-Las - or three-fourths of it, anyway (Mary Anne Ganser died in 1970 of undetermined causes) - for Sire Records.
Weiss says the Sire offer “just didn’t pan out.” Marge Ganser succumbed to breast cancer in 1996.
Weiss, who still lives on Long Island, spent most of the years since then managing a furniture installation company in the New York area. “I’ve always been into the technical side of things,” she says. “I’m a guy.”
But she knew she’d record again one day. While that day came quite a bit later than she may have imagined, the result has proven worth it. “Dangerous Game” honors the old girl-group and garage-rock sounds, but in a way that seems suited to an adult. “Certain things don’t change,” Weiss says. “Snow and rain, lust and love.”
Encouraged by the new CD, Weiss plans to record more. She may even play live for the first time since miniskirts were new.
“It’s an odd thing to have had another career outside music for so long, and then come back to what you did as a kid,” Weiss says. “But this is where I’m most comfortable. It just feels right.”
// Notes from the Road
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