AUSTIN, Texas - "When I put something down, honey," Mary Weiss is saying, "I put it down."
The lead singer of the Shangri-Las - one of the great '60s girl groups, and certainly the toughest - is speaking of the music career she walked away from nearly 40 years ago.
On an afternoon just chilly enough for a black leather jacket, Weiss is smoking Marlboros on a La Quinta patio during the South by Southwest Music Festival, a day after the 58-year-old New Yorker had packed the Red 7 club here for only her third live performance since the last Shangri-Las reunion, in 1989.
Weiss was greeted as a returning hero at SXSW, not as an oldies act. She came not to rehash old Shangri-Las - though she did sing the symphony of heartbreak "Remember (Walking in the Sand)" and blew the crowd a wet one on "Give Him a Great Big Kiss." Instead, backed by the North Carolina garage band the Reigning Sound, she came to support Dangerous Game (Norton ***), a comeback album that's far better than it has a right to be.
Back in the day, the Shangs - Weiss and her sister, Betty, plus beehived twins Marge and Mary Anne Ganser, all from Queens - went straight from the sock hop to the top of the charts. Working with producer George "Shadow" Morton, the fierce girl group had a string of marvelous, melodramatic hits, starting in 1964, when Weiss was just 15, that took them out of high school and onto the stage with the Zombies, James Brown and the Beatles.
"The Shangs were more of a rock-and-roll thing than the other girl groups," recalls Billy Miller, the Norton honcho who coproduced Dangerous Game. He met Weiss at a party in 2005 for Rhino Records' box set One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost and Found. "They were less glitzy, and tougher, than groups like Diana Ross and the Supremes. It was more easy to relate to. I had a huge crush on Mary when I was a kid."
Besides their street-tough image - as a teenager Weiss made headlines when word got out that she responded to an attempted break-in of her hotel room by purchasing a derringer - the Shangri-Las are revered for many good reasons.
Among them: their close harmonies and Weiss' pleading lead vocals; Morton's re-creation of Phil Spector's Wall of Sound, with stripped-down rock-and-roll instrumentation; and their habit of killing off at least one teenager in nearly every song, from "Give Us Your Blessings" to "Dressed in Black" to, most famous, the motorcycle wipe-out song "Leader of the Pack."
But even when the teen protagonists managed to survive, Shangs songs were always marked by over-the-top emotionalism. Blondie recorded the band's "Out in the Streets," and David Johansen paid homage to "Great Big Kiss" when he borrowed Weiss' intro - "When I say I'm in love you best believe I'm in love, L-U-V!" - for the New York Dolls' "Looking for a Kiss."
The group "pretty much had a song for every stage of a relationship," British soul diva and Shangs fan Amy Winehouse (who was herself the talk of SXSW) recently told an interviewer. "Being lonely, then finding someone, being in love with them, then breaking up with them, then crying about it."
When Miller met Weiss, she had been working in Manhattan designing corporate interiors for an architectural firm, and lived on Long Island. She had quit music when the Shangri-Las' career got tied up in lawsuits in the late '60s.
"I had inadvertently signed some really bad contracts," says Weiss, who grew up poor and fatherless in Queens. She gave herself a musical education by checking out singers at nearby gospel revivals, and listening to her older brother's Ink Spots and Everly Brothers records.
"For me, everything was always about the music, and somewhere along the line it all became about litigation. And it was time to walk away."
Contractually, Weiss was not allowed to record for another label for 10 years. "Everybody was suing everybody else, and I can't go into it," she says.
If she could have, she would have stuck with singing. "I think I would have continued," she says. "But I'm not really a bitter person. It doesn't pay to hold on to anything bad in life, because all it does is just hurt you. That's a lesson I learned."
For a long time, she didn't miss music. "I had a creative outlet, and I was doing something that interested me, and I was good at it."
But recently, Weiss started getting an itch. "I heard this interview with Iggy Pop that caught my ear because he was talking about viewing life in seven-year cycles, which I've always believed," she says. "You're not the same person at 35 as you are at 42 and, hopefully, you continue to grow.
"I lost my mom and my brother. You start revaluating what's important. And I thought: Why not spend my last years working doing what I loved in the first place?"
She hinted to Miller that she might be up for recording again. He suggested the Reigning Sound as collaborators, and Weiss, who monitors her own MySpace page, downloaded the band's catalog before giving the thumbs-up. At the Red 7 in Austin, guitarist and songwriter Greg Cartwright recalled that his band, smokers all, had been nervous about meeting Weiss until they drove up to meet her and saw her standing outside Coyote Studios in Brooklyn, N.Y., with a cigarette.
They hit it off right away. And when they started looking for material for Dangerous Game, whose rocked-out songs use the girl-group sound as a starting point for more mature reflections, Weiss says there was one hard-and-fast rule. "No death songs. We had a whole inbox full of them."
Instead, Weiss, whose voice is still robust, rerecorded one Shangs song (Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich's "Heaven Only Knows"), and cut several written by Cartwright. The best include the ringing kiss-off "I Don't Care" and the surging love song "Stop and Think It Over," which issues the warning, "You're too old to run away."
After singing the latter at the Red 7, Weiss looked out at the audience, and took a moment to reflect on the idea that, four decades after "Leader of the Pack," she's starting out all over again. "Many of you weren't even born back when I was a pup," she said. "It's hard to believe that I'm the new kid on the block now."
To hear samples of Mary Weiss' new album, go to http://go.philly.com/albums
Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, In the Mix, at http://go.philly.com/inthemix.