MARY WEISS REMEMBERS….

[NOTE: This is an interview that Mary Weiss gave to Norton Records’ Billy Miller and Miriam Linna in 2007 upon their release of Weiss’s first music in forty years. Weiss has not made any records since and the interview disappeared from Norton’s website a couple of years ago, apparently the victim of some serious weather damage to their offices. I’ve noticed that the links I once provided to that interview still draw a fair amount of interest and I’ve tried to contact Norton several times to see if they are ever planning to repost the interview. As I’ve not heard from them, I assume they are either not planning to do so or are seriously backlogged. I’m reposting the interview here because, even sans the cool graphics and trove of wonderful photos (a few of which I tracked down for some relevant passages here), it’s one of the most important interviews ever given by a rock and roll singer. If you’ve followed along on this site for a while, you know how I feel about the Shangri-Las, but, more to the point, you know how I feel about the often ridiculous narratives that were imposed on them–often by the usual well-intentioned sorts paving the usual roads to hell–during Mary’s forty years of silence. By extension, many of those same false narratives were imposed on the entire Girl Group era (another ongoing concern of this blog), and there has never been more de-bunking assembled in one place than this wide-ranging interview. If Norton re-posts this in the future I will re-link to it. If they request me to take this down, I will do so. In the meantime, I’ll post it here in the interests of historical preservation. It needs to be available somewhere. (And, of course, I encourage everyone to consider buying Norton’s products, especially Weiss’s still valuable CD, Dangerous Game, which now seems likely to be the last we will hear from her on record.)]

(MW is Mary Weiss, BM is Billy Miller, ML is Miriam Linna…I’ve retained the original’s sometimes idiosyncratic punctuation, etc.)

MW: Do you want to start with the Shangri stuff?

ML: Let’s start at the very beginning. Where were you born?

MW: Jamaica, Queens, New York. Jamaica hospital.

BM: Wow, me too. Same hospital!

ML: How about some family background?

MW: I grew up in Queens, Cambria Heights. My father died when I was six weeks old. I’m the youngest of three kids. My brother George was eight years older than me. He passed away in 1996. And my sister Liz was in the Shangri-Las with me.

ML: What drew you to the music?

MW: I became interested in music at about four or five years old. When I was a kid, I loved the Ink Spots and then with rock n’ roll, I loved the Everly Brothers and Neil Sedaka. My brother was much older, so I listened to all of the records he had. He was an Elvis freak. There were guys that sang on the street corner in my neighborhood. I would listen to them and I’d sing with them sometimes.

ML: Do you remember when you started singing.

MW: I always sang, as far back as I can remember. I sang in the church choir. I was in every shcool play and sang in all of them.

ML: Did you go to rock n’ roll shows?

MW: The only rock n’ roll show I attended was in grammar school. Our class wen to Freedomland and the Everly Brothers played. They did so much for everybody regarding harmony. By the time I was fifteen, I was always in the studio, so I didn’t get to go to shows at that time. I really didn’t go to concerts until much later.

ML: What were the local hangouts in your neighborhood for teenagers?

MW: It was a place called Ed’s. We all hung out there. There were all these groups of kids–Ed’s group, Bill’s group, Reno’s group, the 225th Street group and we all meet there, four or five groups of neighborhood kids.

ML: Who were you listening to?

MW: We’d listen to Babalu and Cousin Brucie on WABC. When I was a teenager, I bought all my records at Korvettes. They had the best record department and they were cheap.

BM: Great store! They’d print their own charts every week.

ML: How did you meet the Ganser sisters?

MW: I met the twins in grammar school although they went to public school and I went to Catholic school–so much for organized religiou! They lived a few blocks away. We hung out at their house and began singing together there and on the p layground. We all had an interest in music and our voiced blended well. At that time, we were really pursuing our own sond. We all went to Andrew Jackson High School for a while.

ML: Did you call yourselves the Shangri-Las right from the start?

MW: You know we didn’t have a name initially. We were going to make a record and we said “We better get a name–fast!” We were driving on Long Island and saw a restaurant called the Shangri-La. That’s where we got the name.

BM: Were you the lead singer from the start?

MW: Actually, my sister Liz was at first. On the first demo, on “Wishing Well,” that’s Liz. She actually sang both sides (“Hate To Say I Told You So”). She also sang “Shout.” “Wishing Well” was actually our demo and they played around with it and released it.

BM: Spokane Records. That was Artie Ripp, right?

MW: Right. Kama Sutra Productions. That was very short lived.

BM: I love that first record you made, “Simon Says” with the Lonnie Mack type guitar and the Bo Diddley beat.

MW: Liz was the lead singer on that one, too.

BM: You were singing at hops and dances, who was booking you when you started?

MW: Before we went to Red Bird, we had a manager names Tony Michaels.

BM: Now you met George “Shadow” Morton through Bob Lewis, Babalu from WABC.

MW: Right. Bob Lewis. That’s where I met George, at Bob’s apartment. Tony Michaels took us over there so he could hear us sing and get his opinion. George was there, I don’t know why he was there, but that’s how we met him. True story.

ML: In a nutshell, can you describe Shadow for us?

MW: George is one of the most colorful, unique people I’ve ever met in my life. Extremely talented. He used to be very difficult to get into a room at a scheduled time, but a brilliant man.

BM: An amazing producer.

MW: I was with George at some arena show when he met Phil Spector.

BM: Wow! What was that like?

MW: Oil and water! That’s all I can say. I was not happy to be there.

BM: There’s a 45 by a group called the Beatle-Ettes produced by a George Morton…

MW: I know what you’re going to ask and that’s not the Shangri-Las. They say a group called the Bon Bons is the Shangri-Las. That thing is everywhere. I see it all the time and go “Who the hell are they?”

BM: It doesn’t make any sense because you and Shadow pretty much started together.

MW: Right. You got me! I have no idea where people get this stuff.

BM: Did Shadow make any plans for you right away?

MW: No, not until we did the demo for “Remember.” Billy Joel played piano on it. George said he had a phone conversation with Billy years later and Billy said, “You owe me $67. You never paid me scale!”

BM: Was the demo really over seven minutes long like legend has it?

MW: I don’t think it was quite that long, it’s been exaggerated over the years, but it was longer than the actual record. At the time, it was unheard of to extend a record to more than a few minutes. That seemed abnormal to me.

BM: Still, it seems that it would be weird for Shadow to go that far out on a limb his first time out, with so much at stake.

MW: It would.

BM: So the whole reason for making the demo was that George had told Jeff Barry at Red Bird that he was a songwriter even though he’d never written anything before. In your words what transpired to bring all of this about? What exactly was the story?

MW: As far as “Remember (Walkin in the Sand)” goes, I think you should ask George Morton. My involvement with the song was in the studio.

ML: It’s a complex song.

MW: Initially it was done instrumentally and kind of evolved. I like that song a lot.

BM: And you did that at Mirasound in Manhattan?

MW: We did most of them there. We did use Ultra-Sonic sometimes. We did most of our demos there.

BM: My Boy Scout troop went to Ultra-Sonic in 1965 to see a real recording studio. I was really into it until the engineer goes, “You boys should have been here last night. The Shangri-Las were here.” That’s really not the kind of thing to tell a room full of teenage boys if you want them to keep paying attention.

MW: That wasn’t nice. It could have been fun!

BM: Now you tell me! The Shangri-Las first hit at the start of the British Invasion. That’s a mighty tough uphill battle.

MW: Absolutely. Look at the Beach Boys.

ML: When “Remember” hit, you started playing right away….

MW: Right away, yes. The Brooklyn Fox Theatre. I was traveling all the time. When I wasn’t doing that I was in the studio. When I wasn’t doing that I was rehearsing.

ML: Were you still in high school.

MW: I missed out on doing any real high school stuff. I went to professional school where you could leave if you had to tour. It was necessary. When you do television shows when you’re a kid, they put a tutor backstage in the corner with a little book. It’s the law. Kinda strange. Paul Jabara was my closest friend there. He wrote “Last Dance” for Donna Summer. Paul had the greatest sense of humor. I wish he was still around. I miss him to this day. I’d tag along to auditions with him. Once he stood on stage, pulled out his sheet music for the piano player–about ten feet long–and broke into “I Enjoy Being a Girl.” I sat in the back of theatre and was laughing so hard I was crying.

ML: When the Shangri-Las first became successful, did neighborhood friends act differently towards you?

MW: It’s a catch-22. They act differently towards you and meanwhile, you’re still hitting that handball and hanging out, but you don’t fit in anymore. It’s them that’s changed, not you. At the time, you think, “Oh, my God!”

ML: Were the twins like you? Was there a shared Shangri-Las persona?

MW: Mary Ann and Margie were more assertive, actually, as far as their public persona. Both of them were much gruffer than me. They both had great senses of humor. They were pranksters.

BM: What’d they do?

MW: Mostly stupid stuff. Margie added an apostrophe and an ‘s’ to Marvin Gaye’s door and took the ‘s’ off his last name so his door read “Marvin’s Gaye”.

ML: Did the twins have similar personalities?

MW: They were very similar personality-wise. Margie was more aggressive than Mary Ann. When my sister wasn’t in the group and it was just me and the twins, it was like “Hello? What do you mean ‘majority rules’?!” It was very devastating for Margie when Mary Ann died.

BM: Your sister didn’t tour at first, but she still sang on all the records, right?

MW: Yes, the four of us were on the records. Liz is an extremely talented singer. We’ve been through so much together. Liz looked like Bardot when she was young. She still lives near me now and has been happily married for 25 years.

ML: You went straight from playing neighborhood hops to big stages and national TV. Were you terrified?

MW: It didn’t faze me much. Maybe it should have (laughs).

BM: Those Murray the K shows at the Brooklyn Fox must have been brutal.

MW: They were real brutal. From early morning until late at night. Seven sets, back to back. You have a record on the charts–there you are! I did the Cow Palace and I don’t know how many big arenas. Right after “Remember” came out, James Brown hired us to do a Coliseum show in Texas. They had signs put up COLORED GIRLS’ and WHITE GIRLS’ bathrooms and I got in a huge fight with a cop because I used the black women’s bathroom and he drew his gun on me. I was absolutely amazed. This is backstage in a Coliseum and the white bathroom is on the entire other side of the floor. I really had to go and then get onstage!

BM: Is that where the song “What’s a Girl Supposed to Do” got its inspiration.

MW: (laughs) I’ve never seen anything like that. What surprised me more was the other women in the bathroom looking at me with their mouths open. Earlier, when we did the afternoon sound check, James Brown’s mouth fell open! He turned around and looked at me–here’s this little blonde girl. He thought we were black. All the other performers were black and we were very nervous because we didn’t know how the audience was going to respond. It turned out to be a great show!

BM: That’s wild.

MW: We worked with James a few time. I was at his house once. He lived in St. Albans, the next town over from Cambria Heights. He had “JB” on the gate. We were just BS’ing there, basically. I liked him.

BM: There’s a story of you putting Murray the K’s motorcycle on the roof of the Fox.

MW: Come on, Murray didn’t even have a motorcycle.

BM: But you did hit him in the face with a pie onstage at the Fox.

MW: That was long overdue! (laughs) One fun thing we’d do at the Fox, was if there was a really good group onstage, we’d grab a microphone behind the back curtain and there’s be four part harmony going on like a chorus. It was wonderful!

BM: You played a bunch with the Zombies.

MW: They were great guys. Still are. I just saw them play at B.B. King’s. They’re still great! I wish them the best in everything they do.

BM: What other groups did you pal around with?

MW: I didn’t get to pal around with anybody. We were so busy. It was very different then. Now these singers say how rough they have it. They don’t have a clue. Ride in a bus every night. Sleep every other night. See how that feels. People don’t realize how hard it was back then. There were no monitors at the time. Sometimes you were screaming just to hear yourself singing. The Dick Clark Caravans, they were grueling shows. Every other night you’d sleep in a hotel. Sleep on the bus, then you’d have to get up and look perky. It’s exhausting. But, there was one great thing at the end of the Dick Clark tours, because he’d have Caravans going all over the country and we’d all mee in one place and they’d have like a Battle of the Bands type thing with all the stars. Those were cool shows. You’d meet up in one arena, do one big show and then we’d all go home.

BM: Sometimes there were four of you and at various times, Liz, Margie and Mary Ann were off the road…

MW: And I was the one constant member. That was it. There’s lots of BS written about our group. I’ve seen it written that we missed concerts, that the other girls did some shows without me. That’s simply not true. I never missed a single show. I couldn’t take a break. Everyone got exhausted and could take time off. Touring was exhausting. Most of the times when I woke up, I didn’t know what state I was in. Too many buses, too many flights. Touring was a blur.

BM: Red Bird was owned by Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller and George Goldner. What were your impressions of them.

MW: We were crazy about George Goldner. In fact, at the end of our first year on Red Bird, we bought George a huge television set, at that time, they didn’t have them that big everywhere. We gave it to him with a big gold plaque on the front as a thank you present. It said, “George Goldner, Thank You, The Shangri-Las”. It was a gesture from us. I don’t think he got enough credit for anything at Red Bird. He was a kid who never grew up. Riding around in a Cadillac with the top down. He was like a very large child. I loved him.

BM: And Leiber and Stoller?

MW: Leiber and Stoller are wonderful people. They brought a tremendous amount of enthusiasm to all their artists. I have a lot of respect for them both, but they didn’t work with us directly. They worked on songs with George Morton, then he worked with us.

BM: “Leader of the Pack” was the second Red Bird record and the biggest one. There really wasn’t a motorcycle in the studio on the session, was there?

MW: I’ve heard that, too.

BM: Yeah, because you hear it roaring away. Where did it go?

MW: Studio B. (laughs)

BM: That guy on the album cover, was he anybody special?

MW: Absolutely not! And he sure didn’t look like any biker I knew!

ML: On the Red Bird recordings, they double-tracked your voice sometimes….

MW: Yes, on a few.

BM: That was quite a team that you had in the studio at Red Bird – (producer) Shadow Morton, (engineer) Brooks Arthur and (arranger) Artie Butler.

MW: Absolutely! I know. You can’t ever give them enough credit. The Shangri-Las was one of Brooksie’s first things. That’s why we’re friends to this day. Brooks Arthur is extremely talented in so many areas. Artie Butler is one of the most brilliant arrangers I’ver ever heard. I love both those guys.

BM: Those sessions were pretty monumental. Would you come in and sing or would you get more involved in the whole process?

MW: Oh, I always stayed there. I stayed for every mixing session.

ML: Even before you had to sing your parts?

MW: Right. I was there for every step.

BM: Would they listen to your input?

MW: Oh, sure.

BM: How much free rein did the group have on vocal arrangements? On something like say, “The Train Fom Kansas City,” that introduction is extraordinary.

MW: OK, on “The Train From Kansas City,” I worked hard with Jeff (Barry) on that. You can hear the flavor to it.

BM: Unmistakably the Shangri-Las.

MW: Our group, I mean even for that time period, the harmonies were unique. The blending of the voices was unique.

BM: Like “Out in the Streets”– flawless record. That’s my absolute favorite Shangri-Las record.

MW: That’s my favorite, too.

BM: Just curious, what would be your five favorite Shangri-Las records?

MW: “Out in the Streets,” “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” “I Can Never Go Home Anymore,” “Past, Present and Future” and “The Train From Kansas City.” I also like the Mercury record “I’ll Never Learn.”

BM: “Out in the Streets” and “Give Us Your Blessings,” you look in the national charts, and they weren’t real huge smash hits, but here in New York, those records were monsters. You heard them everywhere.

MW: Yes, they were biggest here. Definitely.

BM: Did you know that “Out in the Streets” was the last song played on WINS before they switched from rock ‘n’ roll to all news?

MW: Yes, I did. I thought that was quite touching. Very neat. There were a lot of great Djs then. They seemed to be more involved than nowadays where it’s all programmed.

BM: I dig “Heaven Only Knows” a lot.

MW: Really? Why’s that?

BM: I guess when I boutht “Give Us Your Blessings” as a kid and I got a great B-side, it was like getting an extra record.

MW: Oh, I hated it when the B-sides on records stunk. We always wanted both sides to be cool.

BM: Your flips were all killers–“Heaven Only Knows,” “The Train From Kansas City,” “Dressed in Black”…

ML: That deliberate spoken part….

MW: I always thought “Past, Present and Future” was a unique sounding record. And everybody that’s written about it said it was about rape. That was news to me! At the time, you need to remember, people are forgetting about the teenage angst. When somebody breaks your heart, you don’t want anyone near you. Things are very different now. Kids grow up younger and younger.

ML: Right. In the Shangri-Las, you had young voices singing about pretty heavy emotional stuff. It was like “Yeah, that’s how I feel.” You don’t have to relate to adult themes.

MW: When you’re a kid, who hasn’t felt like that? When somebody blows you off or hurts you, it’s very traumatic.

ML: Especially having a girl’s voice saying it. Other girls can relate, like “I have real feelings.”

MW: I thought we all felt like that.

BM: And your approach is so powerful. It sounds like you’re crying by the end of “I Can Never Go Home Anymore.”

MW: I was crying. That whole sentiment…it’s kinda funny because at the time I really didn’t talk to my mother at all.

BM: Your vocal delivery on “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” and “Past, Present and Future” was very personal, very intimate.

MW: The studio is a very private place. I always thought it should be. Actuall, at one Shangri-Las session, Mary Travers from Peter, Paul and Mary showed up. She was pregnant at the time. I was extremely impressed that she came. I would have been very nervous if I had known in advance that she was going to be there. She’s a wonderful talent and a great person.

BM: Who’s that singing the lead vocal on “I’m Blue.”

MW: Mary Ann.

BM: What do you remember about “Right Now and Not Later?”

MW: Not a whole hell of a lot! (laughs)

BM: Were there any songs that the Shangri-Las recorded for Red Bird that never got released?

MW: No.

ML: You must have been excited when your first album came out.

MW: All this stuff is exciting. Don’t get me wrong if you’re not getting that impression. It’s wonderful stuff when you open BILLBOARD and you’ve got two pages. “There it is! All right!!”

ML: Were the Red Bird sessions specifically for singles or did you try a few things and saw what clicked?

MW: One song most of the time, especially the larger sessions like “Remember” or “I Can Never Go Home Anymore.” The strings on that? I love them. Those were huge sessions with the room full of musicians.

BM: When rock videos started appearing, I always thought they could never capture what the Shangri-Las and Shadow Morton put into my imagination. Since I first heard “Remember,” I always pictured it all taking place at Long Beach on Long Island, for some reason.

MW: I did, too. Later, I pictured it in Florida. When we went to England we found, the British spent more time setting up everything as far as television goes. They’re meticulous. I walk in the studio and the entire soundstage was filled with sand and a giant grandfather clock for one song. I just could not believe it. It was beautiful. Dusty was on that show.

BM: Dusty Springfield?

MW: Yes, Dusty is an absolutely amazing talent. The Shangri-Las were in London doing Top of the Pops and Ready! Steady! Go! Dusty was having a very large party in her flat. It started out all civilized, nice French doors and antique desks, but she liked to start food fights. And she started one and I’m hiding under this lovely French desk with her manager and fish and food are flying by! They were actually throwing pies later in the night. So Mary Annd goes to put her boots on and they were filled with fish! Dusty was a kinky girl, but a true talent. But, Mary Ann got even with Dusty. She waited and waited and the next time we were with Dusty at the Brooklyn Fox, Mary Ann put fish in Dusty’s shoes. And that’s called….payback! (laughs)

ML: Yeah!

MW: Dusty also flung crockery at the Fox. There was this place where she bought a ton of cheap crockery. We learned the fine art of throwing plates there. Stand at one end of the corridor and fling it with all your might. It makes a loud crash and gets rid of the stress. Parts of Dusty were very self-destructive, but the other side of her was so much fun. I’ll always think of her fondly, mo matter what anybody writes about her. The world will remember her talent. I’ll always remember her laughter, the fine art of crockery throwing….and her talent!

ML: Your records were pretty notorious right from the start.

MW: Look at “Leader.” It was banned in Britain. What was there to ban?

ML: In England there was a lot of trouble between the Mods and the Rockers. That’s why “Leader of the Pack” was probably banned.

MW: I was so proud. I was a Rocker!

ML: Yeah!

MW: I got off the plane dressed in black leather. They definitely knew where I stood. (laughs)

ML: And what did you make of the Mods?

MW: The Mods were just not home. To each his own. Their lifestyle was…(laughs)…I was never into fashion.

ML: Which is wild because you became such a fashion icon.

MW: I could never picture myself sitting at a runway show, could you?

ML: No, never. But that’s the great thing. You subconsiously started a whole look.

MW: Who cares?

ML: Cool!

BM: I feel like I’m a guest on The View…

ML: But you only went to England, no other countries?

MW: Pretty much. There were a million things booked. I remember sitting in Los Angeles with these Japanese people and they were giving me scripts and things and making plans for us to go there.

ML: But you never did.

MW: Never did. It should have happened but there was just no time.

ML: Did you follow the charts?

MW: The charts thing is a strange position to be in. Once you have a smash hit, the record company is like, “OK, here’s the next one. I feel sorry for artists today. They’re here and gone and hey bring on th next one. I just saw Chrissie Hynde talking about today’s artists and what they face. Nobody gets behind them or develops them anymore. Bring on the next midriff section…

BM: Do you see the Shangri-Las in any act today?

MW: Maybe like the Donnas. I can see our attitude.

ML: Who were your favorites during the Shangri-Las years?

MW: I loved Dusty. The Jefferson Airplane, that might have been a little later, but I remember I first heard them on the way to the Fox Theatre. I saw Jimi Hendrix in the Village before he was famous. My jaw dropped. You know what was a great time? I went to a big party at Andy Warhol’s one day. It was fascinating. He had a huge loft with a deck and umbrellas and the bathroom had a golden throne. Very cool. Ultra Violet was there. Lots of cool people.

BM: There was a Shangri-Las Day at the New York World’s Fair.

MW: How did you know that?

BM: Because I remember being pissed that I didn’t get to go. We were always at the Word’s Fair.

MW: Me, too. I thought it was cool. They had a Monorail with our name on it and we performed.

BM: Mary, even being a star by then, that had to be a big thrill–hometown girls make good….

MW: Oh sure. We loved it. We all did.

BM: The Shangri-Las played at the New York Paramount with the Beatles. Did you meet them?

MW: No, they were on one floor and everybody else was on another. At the Paramount, Margie saved out the window high up so that everyone thought it was the Beatles waving. The crowd went nuts!

BM: When you gals….

MW: You gals? At least you didn’t say Girl Groups.

BM: Sorry Mary. No, I know better than to mention Girl Groups.

MW: Oh, kill me now! Thank you. How do you take an entire sex and dump them into one category? Girl Groups, I mean, please! What if we all had penises?

BM: Uh, that would have seriously affected the crush I had on you as a kid.

ML: People tend to categorize….

MW: Count me out. If Girl Groups were products, what were Boy Groups? (Looking at photo) Ow! You know who did this to my hair? Monti Rock III.

ML: How did Monti Rock end up doing your hair?

MW: He did our hair on that album cover nobody likes on Mercury, where we look Mod. Monti, wherever you are, what were you thinking?

ML: But you look so sultry there, like Veronica Lake.

MW: I look stupid. I didn’t like it at all.

ML: And those boots…

MW: Are you kidding? I’ll tell you what boots I really liked. They buttoned up and they were kid leather. There were like old fashioned 1890’s boots with cool heels. I got those at Saks.

ML: Boots became your signature.

MW: Yes, that’s why I like those outfits on the LEADER album. That was my thing.

ML: Whose suggestion was that?

MW: Nobody’s. That was us. It’s funny because it created such a hoopla, like we were tough, whatever and all it is, is a white shirt, a vest and a pair of black pants.

ML: But the black slacks, slacks at all, you really did something different there. It really defined the Shangri-Las.

MW: Jeans don’t fit on everyone.

BM: Yeah, when you’d see the Supremes on Ed Sullivan, hey’d have evening gowns on, old people’s clothes.

MW: I used to get my slacks on Eighth Street in the Village in a Men’s Store. People would look at me like I was gay because I like low rise pants. I don’t get it, quite frankly.

ML: These outfits were something else. (holds up I CAN NEVER GO HOME ANYMORE album)

MW: Yes, that’s what everyone was wearing ten years later, like Spandex.

ML: Now you couldn’t have bought those in a store. You had to have those made.

MW: Absolutely.

ML: Who designed them?

MW: We did. We just sat and did them ourselves.

ML: You don’t still have your boots, do you?

MW: Do you still have your boots from 1965?

BM: She might….

ML: The Shangri-Las got a lot of magazine coverage, too.

MW: We did a lot of interviews back then. “What do you do in your spare time?” What spare time?

BM: I have a record where the Shangri-Las are being interviewed and you get asked things like, “Do guys on the street really give you a great big kiss?”

MW: (laughs) “Ew, get away from me!”

BM: You hear so many stories about how bad you were….

MW: WHAT ABOUT IT!? (laughs)

ML: There’s stories about you tying up a guy and kidnapping him.

MW: You know, I don’t remember that, but if I did, he deserved it!

BM: And that you had guns….

MW: I did purchase a gun once, a little Derringer. I bought a gun after somebody tried to break into my hotel room. There were these glass panels on the side of the door and all of a sudden I see this arm coming through. Not only was I scared to death, but there were large amounts of money in the room. You’re on the road with no protection. But, I was a little kid. I didn’t know. Back then, you could walk in anywhere and buy a gun. But the FBI came to my mother’s house and said, “Will you please tell your daughter she’ll be arrested if she gets off the plane with her gun?” We just finished a tour in Florida and I turned it in at the police station down there.

BM: Did they get a chaperone for the group at any point?

MW: If you can call an eighteen-year-old a proper chaperone. Maybe nineteen, but that’s as grown up as it got. We had a road manager, Fat Frankie, for a while, then he managed NRBQ following that. That wasn’t much supervision. One of our other road managers was a black belt in karate. Once, there was a car full of drunken guys weaving all over a bridge, waving beer bottles and stuff and it was getting very dangerous. They kept swerving into our car and it was very scary. I was so petrified, my heart was in my throat. It was as if they thought they had the right to do this. They could have killed us all. Louis stopped the car and took them all on. They were flying everywhere, all over the bridge. You had no choice in the matter. It was a dark road with nowhere to go, there were no cell phones then. I’m glad he was there. I could see the headlines now, JIMMY KILLS MARY ON BRIDGE. It was much different than now. It’s very hard to explain. Nothing was organized. It was ‘Here’a list of shows, get on the road.” I was only fifteen.

ML: Now what about the night club scene?

MW: (whispers) I shouldn’t have even been in there. I was fifteen. We’d go in them and hang out, but we were more geared to the teen clubs. But we played the Whiskey A Go Go.

ML: Did the Shangri-Las work with one booking agency?

MW: Different ones. William Morris and others. But, you’d set limitations on them or they’d beat you to death, you’d never be off. You’d have to rehearse and record and do television, too.

BM: The Shangri-Las made so many TV appearances like Shindig and Hullabaloo. Here in New York, I never missed the Clay Cole Show. You seemed to be on it all the time…

MW: All the time. We sure were.

BM: It was almost like, time for Clay Cole, let’s see what’s new by the Shangri-Las.

MW: Clay had us on a lot. That was great! I’d walk in the studio, I knew all the guards by name, they were all nice, reputable people. I really felt at home there.

BM: And The Soupy Sales Show you were on that, too.

MW: I loved Soupy Sales! White Fang and Black Tooth. I loved it!

BM: And Philo Kvetch and Onions Oregano!

MW: Oniions Oregano–yeah, yeah! They had a gazillion White Fangs’ arms becaues the man doing White Fang kept burning it with his cigar! White Fang rules! I’d love to see the old Soupy tape again.

ML: What was it like dealing with mobs of fans?

MW: A lot of times it was very frightening. One time in an aquarium there was no security and I just about had my clothes ripped off. And the fans with pens almost poking your eye out. There was no security then. We were just winging it. When there’s a lot of them and one of you, it gets scary. I was in the Village one time and there was like thirty bikers and they recognized me. Luckily, they were fans and nothing happened.

BM: When Red Bird went out of business in 1966 and you signed to Mercury, how different was it from Red Bird? Did you notice a change?

MW: Definitely. There really wasn’t much support.

BM: Mercury issued two singles and the greatest hits album. The last Shangri-Las single “Take the Time” from 1967 is weird, a pro-Vietnam record.

MW: I never wanted to record that song. I was completely against the Vietnam War and I protested accordingly. Still, the Shangri-Las supported our servicemen and women and I’ve done many shows for them.

ML: The tough appearance of the Shangri-Las, that wasn’t just an image thing, you really were tough.

MW: In certain ways I am. When you’re a kid and you’re on the road and nobody’s got your back, you better be tough. You better act as tough as you can because they’ll devour you. We scared lots of people away, made lots of bands behave and back down. What else are you going to do?

ML: That wasn’t just you. That was your sister and the twins, too?

MW: Absolutely. It was us against the world, really. Miriam, you would have done the same thing. You would. It was better when we had our own band traveling with us. It was more like a family.

ML: One thing that makes the Shangri-Las different than a lot of female acts of the day, was most of them seemed overprotected. And it virtually was always a family member calling the shots.

MW: Can you imagine? Mommy is there to wipe your nose?

ML: You wouldn’t have had a chance to be tough. It’s what makes you who you are.

MW: Absolutely not. And I’d have been a different person if my father hadn’t died. They’re all life experiences. Some good, some bad. It’s the same thing when everybody’s your best friend and then they suddenly go away. That is a very hard lesson in life. Who are your friends? That is tough stuff. I guess in a way I’m tough. I’m a survivor.

BM: Was there a defining moment when the Shangri-Las split up?

MW: Everybody around us was suing each other. Basically to me, the litigation just got so insane and it wasn’t about music anymore.

ML: Did you go back home?

MW: I moved out on my eighteenth birthday. I moved into a hotel in Manhattan, then Gramercy Park and then I moved to San Francisco for a while. It was hard to get into the music business and it was even harder to get out. I couldn’t go near another record company for ten years.

ML: For the next ten years you couldn’t record?

MW: No. It was absolutely insane. And that was also how long I was still recognized in the street, which made it even more difficult. People don’t realize how comfortable it is being Joe Blow, private citizen. Everybody wants to be a star. I never quite got that, honestly.

ML: But singing was what you wanted to do, and when that was no longer an option, it must have been horrifying.

MW: It was. I lost my way.

ML: Ten year sentence, that’s rough

MW: It was real rough.

ML: It seems like you had a positive feeling and then to have it come crashing down…

MW: Yes and no. I could have pursued it further but how much deeper do you want to get into legal nonsense? At some point you just have to cut it off. I always thought that someday I’d go back to music, I just didn’t know when.

ML: Were you being pigeon holed or typecast? Did you want to do other types of music?

MW: Afterwards? Absolutely. I could have sung lots of stuff. I was always the one who pursued things here and there and I went up to a publisher, but disco was popular and they wanted me to put a gardenia in my hair and ….(dances)

BM: At least you don’t have bad disco albums coming back to haunt you. If you had to pick one song, a post Shangri-Las song by somebody else, to tackle, what would it be?

MW: I love Patti Smith. I always wish I had recorded “Because the Night.” What a great freakin’ song.

BM: The Shangri-Las got back together in 1977 and recorded for Seymour Stein at Sire Records. Seymour worked with the Shangri-Las in the sixties, right?

MW: Seymour was our road manager for a short period of time. Margie was a complete prankster and I don’t think Seymour got it. Kids will be kids. I think the fireworks didn’t set well with him. When we were touring and we were in states that sold fireworks, we always bought them and set them off.

BM: Teenage girls with explosives, what’s not to like?

ML: But nothing you recorded with Sire was ever released. Why was that?

MW: I was very grateful to Seymour years later for giving us a shot with Sire, but it wasn’t there, material-wise. I don’t want anything released that I don’t believe in. It just wasn’t there. I wish (Richard) Gottehrer had been brought in. It just wasn’t right. I welcomed the opportunity from Seymour Stein, but it just didn’t work out. We recorded a few things, but it wasn’t happening.

BM: Did Liz and Margie feel the same way?

MW: Yes, we all did.

BM: But the Shangri-Las did one unannounced show at CBGB at the time.

MW: That was cool! It was impromptu. We just walked in and had fun.

BM: Why didn’t you do more shows like that?

MW: I didn’t want to do old stuff. I could have done that for thirty years.

ML: The Shangri-Las accomplished a lot.

MW: I come from an extremely poor family. The Gansers were relatively poor. Nobody had any money. No money for attorneys. So considering where the four of us came from, with no support, no guidance and nothing behind us, we didn’t have proper outfits onstage. I mean nothing. It’s a miracle in itself to come from those circumstances and have hit records, so I’m very grateful.

ML: So where have you been?

MW: I went to work for an architectural firm and I was seriously into it. Then I got into commercial interiors, huge projects, buildings. Then we hit a point in our lives where you go, “What am I doing?” I knew where I feel at home and I’ve never felt more at home that with music. Either I’m gonna do it or not.

ML: Cool! Welcome back.

MW: Thanks, it’s been way too long. I look forward to recording and my future in music. Long live rock ‘n’ roll.

THE RETURN OF MARY WEISS (Memory Lane: 2007)

{NOTE: I’m kinda’ swamped at the moment so, to cap the week, I’m posting one from days gone by. Rock and Rap Confidential was kind enough to distribute a slightly edited version of this piece in their on-line newsletter at the time Mary Weiss’ solo album Dangerous Game was released in 2007. I don’t see any reason to alter any of its basic assumptions. Weiss, not surprisingly for someone who tends to let silence speak volumes, has recorded nothing since, though she has toured occasionally. For anyone new to the site, you can track some of my personal history with the Shangri-Las in the SHANGRI-LAS FOREVER category at the right. In any case, this is an accurate reflection of how things stood between me and Mary Weiss when she finally came out of the shadows. FYI: You can follow the Norton Records link below to find Weiss’ interview at the time, which I’ve linked before but can’t possibly be over-publicized.]

About fifteen years ago, driving through middle Georgia, I happened across a very small black gospel station of the sort that proliferate throughout the south. It was a Sunday afternoon and the programming consisted of a live, obviously local choir performance.

The choir featured a very young female soloist who sounded remarkably like….SOMEBODY. I drove along–slowly!–mentally riffing through dozens of favorite black female singers, trying to place the similarity. After about thirty minutes, hearing her off and on, I finally realized I had been on the wrong track. The striking resemblance wasn’t to a black woman at all. It was to a white teenager.

Just before I passed out of the tiny station’s limited range, never learning the young singer’s name, or even the name of the choir she was fronting, I realized she was a dead ringer for the Shangri-Las’ Mary Weiss–Ah, yes, Queens and the Georgia plains, together again!

A few months back, at the Norton Records’ website, Weiss related a wonderful story about reverse-integrating a women’s bathroom while a Houston cop drew down on her during a show she played with James Brown. I certainly wasn’t surprised to learn that the lead singer of the Shangri-Las was not intimidated by racist cops. And because of that Sunday afternoon in Georgia, I wasn’t even surprised to learn that Augusta’s own James Brown had hired the Shangri-Las because he assumed from their records that they were black.

But Weiss’ return is far more than a nostalgia trip with a lot of great stories attached. This is one comeback that is tremendously important to both history and the moment.

As to history: In breaking a lifetime of silence regarding her career with the Shangri-Las, Weiss has driven about a hundred new nails in the coffin of Standard Rock Theology’s most damaging falsehood–that because they were female and often impossibly young, many of the greatest singers of the rock and roll era owed their success primarily to svengali-like male producers rather than their own drive and talent.

This lie is rooted in a deep, almost willful misunderstanding of singing as a creative process, fully equal to writing and producing. It has probably kept the Shangri-Las (and Arlene Smith and the Marvelettes and Mary Wells, among others) out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and, if reading and hearing Weiss’ modest, convincing voice doesn’t kill it for good, nothing will

From her, we learn that the Shangri-Las’ revolutionary dress and stage manner–which instantly and permanently changed the way women could present themselves in popular culture and left a long, deep shadow on the New York street scenes that would eventually produce both punk and rap–were entirely their own. That they worked closely with their producers and arrangers at every stage concerning what they would record and how. That their impeccable, drop-dead harmonies, always a vastly under-appreciated aspect of the female group sound, were forged by years of practice in a hyper-competitive environment** where literally hundreds of fine groups never made it off the streets and only a handful ever had a hit (let alone the near-dozen chart records, including four top twenties, notched by the Shangri-Las).

As to the moment: Weiss’ new album–the first music in forty years by one of rock’s signature voices–has been consistently damned with faint praise that grows straight out of the old, false mindset. Most mainstream reviews have been content to convey two basic ideas: 1) Gee, the old girl sure does sound like herself and 2) it’s always nice to have an excuse to name-drop Shadow Morton.

Don’t be fooled.

On Dangerous Game, Weiss is backed by the fine southern garage band, Reigning Sound, whose Greg Cartwright supplied most of the first-rate songs. The sound and style are as far from Morton’s justifiably storied extravagance as you can get.

But after a dozen listens, I’m convinced this music is of a piece with Weiss’ long-ago greatness not because of her still unmistakable timbre, but because of her ability to bring her great themes–trust and betrayal–to bear on any situation anyone is ever likely to write a song about.

There’s no doubt either, that they are her themes. Morton’s wonderful songs–and Cartwright’s–have frequently emanated from the mouths of others without once acquiring the capacity to either wound or heal. Weiss has nearly always made them do one or the other. At her very best, as on “Remember” and “Never Again” forty years ago or “Cry About the Radio” and “Stitch in Time” here, she’s done both in the same song.

The inability of the modern rock press to address her in these terms–the terms due a singer who owns the idea that no relationship worth having can ever be entirely safe as surely as Roy Orbison owns romantic paranoia and John Fogerty owns righteous anger–simply reinforces their own irrelevance.

(**As a poignant footnote, when Weiss began touring and giving interviews shortly after this piece was published, she was asked why she was reluctant to sing some of her old songs on stage. Though she has, of course, sung at least some of her oldies live, her answer, essentially, as to why she preferred not to, was that those songs were arranged for particular voices and those voices–two of which belonged to the deceased Marge and Mary Ann Ganser–no longer existed.)

Mary Weiss “Cry About the Radio” (Audio Recording)