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Remembering Mary Weiss, lead singer of The Shangri-Las

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEADER OF THE PACK")

THE SHANGRI-LAS: Is she really going out with him? Well, there she is. Let's ask her. Betty, is that Jimmy's ring you're wearing? Mm-hmm (ph). Gee, it must be great riding with him. Is he picking you up after school today? Uh-uh (ph). By the way, where'd you meet him? (Singing) I met him at the candy store. He turned around and smiled at me. You get the picture? Yes, we see. That's when I fell for the leader of the pack.

BIANCULLI: That's one of the big hits from the 1960s by the girl group The Shangri-Las. Today we remember the group's lead singer, Mary Weiss. She died last week at the age of 75. The Shangri-Las had a tough urban image and sang songs about teenage love, love that often ended up in tragedy. Their other hits include "Remember," "Give Us Your Blessings," "Long Live Our Love" and "Give Him A Great Big Kiss." Their producer was George "Shadow" Morton. Some of their records were produced like mini dramas with dialogue and sound effects.

During the '60s, James Brown hired the group for a big show and was surprised to discover they were not Black, as he assumed. The Shangri-Las influenced Debbie Harry, Amy Winehouse and the Ramones. The group originally consisted of sisters Mary and Betty Weiss and twin sisters Marge and Mary Ann Gansler. Mary Weiss left music after the group broke up in the late '60s, but she returned to music in 2007 and released her first solo album, which she titled "Dangerous Game." The CD was described in The New Yorker as a remarkable solo debut. Quote, "Weiss is in fine voice, and the songs combine the dark innocence of girl-group records with a mature sense of regret," unquote.

Terry Gross spoke with Mary Weiss then. They began with the opening track from the CD, the song "My Heart Is Beating."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY HEART IS BEATING")

MARY WEISS: (Singing) When you held me close, that's when I knew. Shield me through and through. I couldn't let you go. I couldn't let it show. And this whole word's unfair. I know it's true. What can I do? One day you'll be free. You'll come running to me. Till then, my heart is beating, beating, baby. I know you've been cheating. But if I take you back, you got to walk a straight and narrow track. I said if I take you back, I want to know you'll be good to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: That's Mary Weiss from her new CD, "Dangerous Game." Mary Weiss, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's so great to have you recording again.

WEISS: Thank you.

GROSS: Yeah. You really sound great on the new record, but you haven't recorded and you haven't even performed much since The Shangri-Las broke up in the late '60s. Why have you stayed away from music for so many years?

WEISS: Basically, when we first started, it was all about music. And by the time we finished, it was all about litigation, and it just became thicker than the music.

GROSS: So what changed? And did somebody convince you to come back now?

WEISS: Interestingly enough, I was listening to an interview you did with Iggy Pop. And he mentioned life being in seven-year cycles, and I was just floored because I've always viewed life that way. And I've had a lot of things happen to me in recent years. I lost my mom. I lost my brother. And I've been reevaluating what it is I want to do with the last sector of my work life.

GROSS: And why did you think you wanted to go back to music?

WEISS: Because music is home to me. It always was. Music was my life as a child growing up, and it got me through most of the things in my life. And it feels like where I belong. So...

GROSS: So it must have been horrible to not be able to perform for all those years.

WEISS: Never been real fond of performing live. I'm a very private person, but I love the studio. That's my home.

GROSS: So that must have been frustrating, not being able to record.

WEISS: Yes and no. When I put something down, I really put it down. And I packed my bags, and I went on my way. I developed a new career. I was working for an architectural firm, and I had started in their accounting department. By the time I left, I was their chief purchasing agent. And I worked at commercial furniture dealerships, and I installed multimillion dollar installations.

GROSS: Did they know who you were?

WEISS: Yeah, unfortunately.

(LAUGHTER)

WEISS: And sometimes people would show up at my place of employment with an album in hand.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about The Shangri-Las. Now, you started out in high school performing at local bars with The Shangri-Las before you started recording. And the band was initially made up of you, your sister Betty and two twins who were your friends.

WEISS: Right.

GROSS: What was the band like before you started recording?

WEISS: Well, actually, we met in grammar school, and we used to sing on the street corner, all of us. So that's how we really started - in not bars. I was too young to be in a bar, actually.

GROSS: Right.

WEISS: Little hops and dances and things like that we did initially until we went up to Bob Lewis' apartment and met Shadow Morton.

GROSS: And the story of how you met George "Shadow" Morton, who became one of your producers and one of your chief songwriters is a story that's kind of entered rock 'n' roll lore, but I want you to tell it.

WEISS: We had an original manager. I believe his name was Tony Michaels. And he wanted Bob Lewis to hear us singing. So he had made an appointment with him, and we went up to his apartment just to hear us, and we got up and sang for him a cappella. And George was there - Shadow - Shadow - sitting there. And that's when I met him.

GROSS: And he, I think, wrote this on a dare. He was trying to convince the songwriter Jeff Barry that he was really a songwriter and he could write, you know, a ballad or a - or, you know, an up-tempo tune. And, and the song was "Remember (Walkin' In The Sand)," which is one of those, like, great, like, drama songs that you recorded.

WEISS: I really like that record.

GROSS: Oh, I love the record. I mean, who doesn't (laughter)?

WEISS: I'm doing that on stage. Are you? Yes, I am.

GROSS: Let's hear "Remember," which was The Shangri-Las' first hit. And you were - what? - 15 when this was recorded?

WEISS: I believe so.

GROSS: OK. Here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REMEMBER (WALKIN' IN THE SAND)")

THE SHANGRI-LAS: (Singing) Seemed like the other day my baby went away. He went away 'cross the sea. It's been two years or so since I saw my baby go, and then this letter came for me. He said that we were through. He found somebody new. Let me think. Let me think. What can I do? Oh, no. Oh, no. Oh, no, no, no, no, no. Remember walking in the sand. Remember walking hand in hand. Remember. The night was so exciting. Remember - smile was so inviting. Remember. Then he touched my cheek - remember - with his fingertips. Softly, softly, we meet with our lips. Whatever happened to the boy that I once knew?

GROSS: That's The Shangri-Las, their first hit. My guest, Mary Weiss, was the lead singer of The Shangri-Las. And now she has a new solo CD, which is called "Dangerous Game." Now, this song has such drama to it. You know, like when you're saying, like, let me think. Let me think. What can I do? Were you used to that kind of drama in your performances?

WEISS: I was used to that kind of drama in my life, so I think it would come out in my performances.

GROSS: What kind of drama in your life?

WEISS: Well, I think teenagers, for the most part - I can only speak for myself. But teenagers have an intensity that we seem to - I don't think we grow out of. But there's variable shades of gray added where, when you're a teen, a lot of things - or for me, anyway, everything was black and white. I don't know if I'm expressing myself correctly.

GROSS: Can you give us, like, an example of a dramatic incident that had already happened to you when you were 15 and recorded this?

WEISS: Not specifically. It's just the way - I grew up with a difficult childhood. We grew up pretty poor. And, I mean, I've been supporting myself since I'm 14. So I don't know. There was a lot of pain in me.

GROSS: Some people lose their bearings when they have that kind of sudden success at a young age. Did you?

WEISS: Oh, definitely. I think most - it's hard enough for an adult to deal with that type of situation, much less a child. I grew up on the road. I had a road manager who was barely a couple of years older than me. So, I mean, kids were going to proms, and I was giving press conferences in London. It's quite a weird way to grow up.

GROSS: If you don't mind my asking, did guys in bands try to hit on you on the road when you were traveling in rock and roll shows and sharing a bill?

WEISS: Other bands?

GROSS: Yeah.

WEISS: Sometimes, of course. We have such a tough image, supposedly, but...

GROSS: The Shangri-Las - absolutely. Yeah.

WEISS: Yeah. I think a lot of that comes from surviving, from making people back down.

GROSS: So you didn't have a tough image before your success.

WEISS: I never thought much about image. I just didn't like chiffon dresses and high heels.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WEISS: You know, that's as honest as I can be. And I never liked women's slacks back then. You know, they didn't have low-rise pants in 1964. They just didn't make them. So I used to go to a place on Eighth Street and have men's clothes tailored for me.

GROSS: Did anyone ever try - anyone, like, from a record company ever try to make The Shangri-Las more girlish and glamorous and less kind of tough-looking in, you know, your boots and pants?

WEISS: No, actually not. What we wore on stage after we started making money - I mean, you can see the difference from early on. We didn't have any clothes. Where you saw other groups where they had money and support behind them were extremely well-dressed from the beginning, we were out there pretty much in our street clothes. But then when we started making money, we designed our own clothes and had them made in the Village.

BIANCULLI: Mary Weiss speaking to Terry Gross in 2007 - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STOP AND THINK IT OVER")

WEISS: (Singing) I know your folks give you a hard time. Little boy, just put your hand in mine. You'll see what a good, good girl I'll be. And all your friends - well, they say I'm bad.

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2007 interview with Mary Weiss, former lead singer of the '60s singing group The Shangri-Las. She died last week at age 75.

GROSS: Let's hear, but talk about first, another really famous Shangri-Las recording. And I'm thinking of "Leader Of The Pack."

WEISS: OK.

GROSS: Your first impression of the song?

WEISS: I really had to sit down with this one. I took it home and listened to it for a very long time before I agreed to do it.

GROSS: Why were you so reluctant?

WEISS: Even - I mean, even at the time, it was pretty much out there, I mean, in England, there was a very rigid environment, even globally. I mean, the record was banned in England the first time it came out.

GROSS: Did you rehearse this song differently than you usually rehearsed songs because of the spoken parts in it and the drama?

WEISS: Well, usually I'd rehearse those home initially, and I remember having a hard time with certain songs where we'd actually dim lights in the studio so I could feel, like, alone in order to be able to deliver it properly. The look out took a little bit because it's kind of metered, and it had to be right on the money to do. So I would just sit at home and yell, look out, which is - I'm sure my neighbors loved that.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear the song?

WEISS: OK.

GROSS: And this is The Shangri-Las, "Leader Of The Pack."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEADER OF THE PACK")

THE SHANGRI-LAS: Is she really going out with him? Oh, there she is, let's ask her. Betty, is that Jimmy's ring your wearing? Mm-hmm (ph). Gee, it must be great riding with him. Is he picking you up after school today? Uh-uh (ph). By the way, where'd you meet him? (Singing) I met him at the candy store. He turned around and smiled at me. You get the picture? Yes, we see. That's when I fell for leader of the pack. My folks were always putting him down. Down, down. They said he came from the wrong side of town. What you mean when you say that he came from the wrong side of town? They told me he was bad, but I knew he was sad. That's why I fell for the leader of the pack. One day, my dad said, find someone new. I had to tell my Jimmy we're through. What you mean when you say that you better go find somebody new? He stood there and asked me why, but all I could do was cry. I'm sorry I hurt you, the leader of the pack.

He sort of smiled and kissed me goodbye. The tears were beginning to show. As he drove away on that rainy night, I begged him to go slow. Whether he heard, I'll never know. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Look out. Look out. Look out. Look out. (Singing) I felt so helpless. What could I do, remembering all the things we've been through? In school, they all stop and stare. I can't hide my tears, but I don't care. I'll never forget him, the leader of the pack. Ooh. Gone. The leader of the pack, now he's gone. Gone, gone, gone, gone, gone, gone. The leader of the pack, now he's gone. Gone. The leader of the pack, now he's gone. Gone, gone, gone, gone, gone, gone.

GROSS: That's The Shangri-Las. My guest, Mary Weiss, was the lead singer of the group. You know, as we were saying, The Shangri-Las had the image of being very tough. What was your neighborhood like in Queens when you were growing up?

WEISS: I probably would consider it middle to low middle class. There were a lot of kids in the neighborhood. An average neighborhood, pretty much.

GROSS: What did your mother do to support you?

WEISS: She had periodic jobs on occasion, but nothing really substantial.

GROSS: So you were pretty much scraping by?

WEISS: Yeah, absolutely.

GROSS: So it must have been really welcomed when you started making a lot of money.

WEISS: There you go.

GROSS: And did you send a lot back to your mother?

WEISS: Always. We kind of raised her, as much as we could.

GROSS: What are you hoping for musically and professionally this time around? You stayed away from the music business since the late '60s. There was so much litigation. You were so kind of disillusioned with the business at that point. You stayed away for decades. What do you want this time around?

WEISS: Actually, I want music. The funny thing about it now is I'm not a kid, there is no ladder I'm trying to climb, I have nothing to prove. No one can remove what I've done from my past. It is what it is. And now it's time to just have some music in my life and have some fun. I don't know. The whole thing has been fabulous, and the response is absolutely overwhelming, but I'm not looking for anything specific. I just want to rock 'n' roll. That's how I want to spend my last days before I retire.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BIANCULLI: Mary Weiss speaking to Terry Gross in 2007. The former lead singer of The Shangri-Las died last week at age 75. Coming up, I'll review "Masters Of The Air," the latest World War II series from the makers of "Band Of Brothers" and "The Pacific." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRED HERSCH'S "PASTORALE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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