The Shangri-Las were an American pop girl group of the 1960s. Between 1964 and 1966 they charted with often heartbreaking teen melodramas, and remain best known for "Leader of the Pack" and "Remember (Walkin' in the Sand)".
The group was formed at Andrew Jackson High School in Cambria Heights, a neighborhood in Queens, New York City, in 1963. It consisted of two sets of sisters: Mary Weiss (lead singer) (born 1948) and Elizabeth "Betty" Weiss (born 1946), and identical twins Marguerite "Marge" (4 February 1948–28 July 1996) and Mary Ann Ganser (4 February 1948–14 March 1970). The girls often appeared as a trio, as Betty Weiss rarely appeared on stage until late 1965, preferring to avoid touring.
They began playing school shows, talent shows, and teen hops, coming to the attention of Artie Ripp, who arranged the group's first record deal with Kama Sutra. Their first recording in December 1963 was "Simon Says", later issued on the Smash label, on which Betty Weiss sang lead. They also recorded "Wishing Well" / "Hate To Say I Told You So", which became their first release in early 1964 when leased to the small Spokane label.
Initially, the girls performed without a name. But when they signed their first deal, they began calling themselves the Shangri-Las, after a Queens restaurant.
Some discographies list The Beatle-ettes and The Bon Bons, who both issued singles in 1964, as early versions of The Shangri-Las. However, they are different groups.
Mary Weiss was the main lead singer; Betty, however, took lead on "Maybe", "Shout" and a number of B-sides and album tracks. Mary Ann Ganser took lead on "I'm Blue",which is a cover of the Ikettes biggest hit at the time, and was included on their 1965 album "Shangri-Las 65!". Mary Ann also takes the lead on "Sophisticated Boom Boom" b-side of "Long Live Our Love".
Success at Red Bird RecordsEdit
In April 1964, when the girls were still minors, their parents signed with Red Bird Records; Mary was 15, Betty was 17, and the Ganser twins 16. Having been hired by record producer George "Shadow" Morton, they had their first success with the summer hit, "Remember (Walking in the Sand)" (U.S. #5, UK #14). Billy Joel, a then-unknown working as a session musician, played on the demo of "Remember (Walkin' In The Sand)". The demo was nearly seven minutes long, too long for Top 40 radio. Morton had hired the group to perform on the demo, but Red Bird released a re-recorded version. Morton faded the new version out around 2:16.The recordings for Morton featured lavish production with heavy orchestration and sound effects, and their next and biggest hit, "Leader of the Pack" (U.S. #1, UK #11), climaxes with roaring motorcycles and breaking glass. UK re-issues peaked at #3 in 1972 and #7 in 1976. The song epitomized the "death disc"; other examples include Ray Peterson's "Tell Laura I Love Her", Jan and Dean's "Dead Man's Curve", J Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers's "Last Kiss," Mark Dinning's "Teen Angel,", Dickey Lee's "Laurie (Strange Things Happen"), and Twinkle's "Terry".In April 1964, when the girls were still minors, their parents signed with Red Bird Records; Mary was 15, Betty was 17, and the Ganser twins 16. Having been hired by record producer George "Shadow" Morton, they had their first success with the summer hit, "Remember (Walking in the Sand)" (U.S. #5, UK #14). Billy Joel, a then-unknown working as a session musician, played on the demo of "Remember (Walkin' In The Sand)". The demo was nearly seven minutes long, too long for Top 40 radio. Morton had hired the group to perform on the demo, but Red Bird released a re-recorded version. Morton faded the new version out around 2:16.
By the end of 1964 the group was an established act. They performed with the Beatles, toured with R&B artists such as The Drifters and James Brown (who, according to Mary Weiss, was surprised to discover the girls were white), andCashbox magazine listed them as best new R&B group. They also promoted Revlon cosmetics. In March 1965 they toured the UK with Dusty Springfield and The Zombies.
Because Betty did not tour until summer of 1965, and because she often did not appear in photos, many fans believed the Shangri-Las were a trio.
The Shangri-Las' 'tough girls' persona set them apart from other girl groups. Having grown up in a rough neighborhood of Queens, they were less demure than their contemporaries. Rumors about supposed escapades have since become legend, for example the story that Mary Weiss attracted the attention of the FBI for transporting a firearm across state lines. In her defense, she said someone tried to break into her hotel room one night, and for protection she bought a pistol.
Whatever truth these stories may have, they were believed by fans in the '60s, and they helped cement the group's bad-girl reputation. According to Weiss, that persona helped fend off advances from musicians on tours.
The Shangri-Las continued to chart with fairly successful U.S. hit records, specializing in adolescent themes such as alienation, loneliness, abandonment and death. Singles included "Give Him a Great Big Kiss", "Out in the Streets", "Give Us Your Blessings", the top ten hit "I Can Never Go Home Anymore", "Long Live Our Love" (a rare example of a song dedicated to the men at the time fighting overseas in Vietnam), "He Cried" and the spoken-word "Past, Present and Future", featuring music from Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata". Noteworthy B-sides included "Heaven Only Knows", "The Train from Kansas City", "Dressed in Black" and "Paradise" (written by Harry Nilsson).
Among titles in critics' favorites lists is "I Can Never Go Home Anymore", the story of a girl who leaves home for a boy; her pride keeps her from returning to her mother who "grew so lonely in the end/the angels picked her for their friend". Lines from "Give Him a Great Big Kiss" include "When I say I'm in love, you best believe I'm in love, L-U-V", and "Well I hear he's bad." "Hmm, he's good-bad, but he's not evil." "Past, Present and Future" has been said to be about rape, something Weiss disagrees with. She has said it is about "teenage angst," heartbreak and "being hurt and angsty and not wanting anyone near you."
The group appeared on several TV shows, but in 1966 two of three releases on Red Bird failed to crack the U.S. top 50, although the group remained popular in England and Japan. Mary Ann Ganser left, but returned early in 1967 when Marge—the most outspoken member, sometimes considered the leader—left. Red Bird Records had folded. The group recorded more tracks with Morton (some of which remain unreleased) and signed with Mercury Records.However, Morton had begun working with Janis Ian and Vanilla Fudge, and Mercury had little enthusiasm for the group. During their Mercury stint the Shangri-Las had no further hits, and in 1968 they disbanded, amid litigation.
All the Shangri-Las withdrew from the spotlight. Morton said "The Shangri-Las vacated, they vanished". Reportedly, they were angry that they had received few royalties despite the millions of records they had sold.
Mary Weiss moved to New York's Greenwich Village, then to San Francisco. Returning to Manhattan a few years later, and prevented from recording because of lawsuits, she worked as a secretary while taking college classes. She then went into the architectural industry, working in the accounting department of a New York architectural firm. She moved up to be the chief purchasing agent and later ran the commercial furniture dealership. In the late eighties she managed a furniture store and was an interior designer. By 2001 she was a furniture consultant to New York businesses. She married in 1974 but the marriage ended in 1988; she married again several years later, and her second husband now manages her music career.
Betty Weiss also married, and had a daughter (who was raised with the help of her brother George Weiss, who died in 1998), the only member of the group to have a child. She worked for the cosmetics company Charles of the Ritz in Manhattan and later started her own business on Long Island.
The group declined offers to perform throughout the 1970s, although they did a few random live performances. But following the successful re-issue of "Leader of the Pack" in the UK in 1976, which renewed interest in the group, Mary and Betty Weiss and Marge Ganser reunited. Contacting Seymour Stein of Sire Records, they spent summer 1977 in New York with producer Andy Paley. Paley said the sessions went well, but they weren't satisfied with all the material and declined to release the record. The tapes are now owned by the Warner Music Group. They did, however, give a live performance at CBGBs; Paley put together a band, including Lenny Kaye, and after two hours rehearsing the Shangri-Las returned to the stage for the first time in a decade. Although the Sire sessions came to naught, the group toyed with signing with another label but were put off by the insistence of record executives that they be a disco vocal group, the musical trend of the day. Mary said she envisioned the Shangri-Las like punk singer Patti Smith. The Shangri-Las split up.
Since the 1980s a trio has called itself the Shangri Las, although unconnected with the original group. The tribute act was put together by Dick Fox, who claimed to have bought the rights to the name, and resulted in legal action from both sides. The original group performed for the last time at a reunion show hosted by Cousin Brucie (Bruce Morrow) in East Rutherford, New Jersey on June 3, 1989.
In March 2007 Norton Records released a solo album by Mary Weiss (backed by garage rockers, The Reigning Sound) called Dangerous Game. She has been performing in the United States, Spain and France and is working on a new album for 2010.