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The Leader of the Pack Is Back

The Shangri-Las in 1964. From left, Margie Ganser, reckless biker boyfriend, Mary Ann Ganser, and Mary Weiss (Betty Weiss not shown).  

The band toured nonstop for four years, with a road manager barely out of his teens. After a man put his arm through the plate-glass window of her hotel room, Weiss bought a gun for protection, which resulted in her mother’s being visited by the FBI. “She must have loved that,” says Weiss with a laugh.

The band emerged late on the girl-group scene; Phil Spector protégées like the Crystals—who were even more hysterical, with songs like “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)”—had peaked in the early sixties. The Shangri-Las essentially closed the genre down, pushing the teenage yearning and countercultural fixations of West Side Story and Rebel Without a Cause as far the radio would allow (“Leader of the Pack” was banned by the BBC but proved irrepressible, hitting the U.K. charts three times and as late as 1976).

In 1968, after an attempted upgrade to Mercury Records resulted in two dud singles, the Shangri-Las disbanded amid legal issues that Weiss still cannot discuss. “My mother kind of signed my life away when I was 14,” she says. “I’m laughing. Thirty years of litigation. There’s a storeroom of litigation up to the ceiling … That’s one of the reasons I walked away. The litigation was much thicker than the music. I couldn’t go near another record label for ten years.”

The girl-group era was over anyway, replaced by something more band-driven and psychedelic. Perhaps obviously, she moved to San Francisco, where she spent a year and a half roller-skating through Golden Gate Park, pursuing “peace and love and all that hippie stuff—and floundering,” before returning to Manhattan (“Where else was I going to go?”) and living in weekly-rate hotels like the Warwick that were popular with musicians.

Eventually, she became a secretary at an architecture firm in midtown; later, she moved to a commercial furniture dealership. “I ran installation—all the techie stuff. When I left there, I was working on $20 million projects. The major project I worked on blew up during September 11. The landing gear came through the roof. They had asbestos, dioxin, mold growing everywhere—I walked through it with a mask on and cried.”

As for her former bandmates, Mary Ann Ganser died in 1971; conflicting accounts cite a drug overdose or a seizure. “And I’ll leave it that way. It doesn’t much matter anymore,” pronounces Weiss, sounding a bit like an intro to one of her old songs. Margie Ganser died of breast cancer in 1996. “It happens a lot,” says Weiss, sighing. “They get it, and then within five years—” Her sister is well but “doesn’t want to be a part of this,” says Weiss (Betty was an inconsistent member of the group, in any case).

The comeback was a long time coming. In 1977, Sire Records honcho Seymour Stein signed the three surviving Shangri-Las to record a new album, but a summer of recording sessions—capped by an impromptu gig at CBGB—displeased everyone involved and went into the vaults. Otherwise, she was too gun-shy from her legal experiences (which expanded to include a lawsuit against a promoter who had launched an impostor Shangri-Las act in the late eighties) to want to record.

Then last year, she had a chance meeting with Billy Miller, head of the Brooklyn indie label Norton, at a Rhino Records party for the girl-group boxed set One Kiss Can Lead to Another (it featured two Shangri-Las tracks). “I was a fan since the first record, which I remember hearing on WABC when I was 10 years old,” says Miller. “I followed every record they made. They were on TV a lot. It was the time of the British invasion, and it was just so unique that they were local. It was always stressed on TV that they were from New York City. Everybody on TV was either from Liverpool or California.” He e-mailed her and asked her if she wanted to go back into the studio. “The first thing I told her was I’m not interested in nostalgia. That’s what she wanted to hear, I think.”

“I always said I would do this once more,” she says. “And I didn’t feel like I wanted to—it just wasn’t right.” Still, the fans didn’t forget her; sometimes they went through her trash and showed up unannounced at her office. “When I walked away, it took me twelve years to get lost in the street and not be recognized.” After stints in Forest Hills and an eleven-year marriage that ended in 1985, Weiss now lives in Babylon, on Long Island, and has ducks on her front lawn. Her husband is a legal-case manager. (“I never thought I’d get married again,” she says. “I called it the M-word.”)