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The Shangri-Las

One-part teenage melodrama, one-part charming naivete, and more than their share of unshakable early pop melodies, the Shangri-Las were one of the greatest and most important girl groups of the '60s. Along with joyous adolescent energy tailored for high school dances, the trio of Mary Weiss and twin sisters Marge and Mary Ann Ganser also conveyed an eerie darkness that offset their more innocent characteristics. Some of their biggest hits (produced by studio mastermind Shadow Morton) were crushing love songs about dead bikers, doomed love affairs, and familial estrangement. Like most groups of their era, the Shangri-Las shined brightest on the 45 single format, but their many hits were collected as two long-players, Leader of the Pack and Shangri-Las '65, both released in 1965. As the years have gone on, however, countless compilations have repackaged and revisited the group's material, a breathlessly exciting body of work that played an undeniable role in defining the girl group sound. The Shangri-Las formed in 1963 and were originally comprised of two pairs of sisters from Queens, New York (identical twins Marge and Mary Anne Ganser and siblings Mary and Betty Weiss). They had already recorded a couple of obscure singles when they were hired by George "Shadow" Morton to demo a song he had recently written, "Remember (Walkin' in the Sand)." The haunting ballad, with its doomy "Moonlight Sonata"-like piano riffs, wailing lead vocal, and thunderous background harmonies, segueing into an a cappella chorus backed by nothing except handclaps and seagull cries, made the Top Five in late 1964. It also began their association with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller's Red Bird label, which would handle the group for the bulk of their career. The quality of Morton's work with the Shangri-Las on Red Bird (with assistance from Jeff Barry and Artie Butler) was remarkable considering that he had virtually no prior experience in the music business. The group's material, so over-the-top emotionally that it sometimes bordered on camp, was lightened by the first-class production, which embroidered the tracks with punchy brass, weeping strings, and plenty of imaginative sound effects. Nowhere was this more apparent than on "Leader of the Pack," with its periodic motorcycle roars and crescendo of crashing glass. The death rock classic became the Shangri-Las' signature tune, reaching number one. Several smaller hits followed in 1965 and 1966, many of them excellent. "Give Him a Great Big Kiss" proved they could handle more conventionally, bubbly girl group fare well; "I Can Never Go Home Anymore," a runaway tale that took their patented pathos to the extreme, would be their third and final Top Ten hit. These all show up on oldies collections, but lots of listeners remain unaware of the other fine singles in their catalog, like the moody "Out in the Streets," the dense orchestral swamp of "He Cried," and another teen death tale, "Give Us Your Blessings." Unlike some girl groups, the Shangri-Las were dynamic on-stage performers, choreographing their dance steps to their lyrics and wearing attire that was daring for the time. Their real lives, however, were not without elements of drama themselves. Their constant personnel changes baffle historians: sometimes they are pictured as a trio, and sometimes one of the members in the photos is clearly not one of the Weiss or Ganser sisters. Worse, the Red Bird label ran into serious organizational difficulties in the mid-'60s, and wound down its operations in 1966. The group moved to Mercury for a couple of dispirited singles, but had split by the end of the 1960s. Shadow Morton went on to an interesting, erratic career that included involvement with Janis Ian, the New York Dolls, and Mott the Hoople. Mary Anne Ganser died in 1970; the cause has been a source of mystery but it was due to either encephalitis, a barbiturate overdose, or the result of a seizure. Her sister Marge died in 1996 of breast cancer. Mary Weiss would belatedly return to the spotlight in 2007 with a solo album, Dangerous Game, that proved her voice and her charisma were still a potent force, but she played only a handful of concerts in support and would once again drop out of show business. Mary Weiss died on January 19, 2024, in Palm Springs, California, at the age of 75.
© Richie Unterberger /TiVo


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