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Woodstock Performers: Sha Na Na

Rockin’ before she could walk, a vinyl hound who can’t remember a thing because the words to all songs from 1960-2019 are stuck in her head.

Sha Na Na? Yes, in what must be one of the oddest bookings in the history of live music, these guys were the penultimate act at Woodstock and hit the stage just before Hendrix.

This series of articles—32 in all—covers each of the artists who performed at the original Woodstock festival August 15-18, 1969. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band had just wrapped up a great set. After Sha Na Na was the final act, and the main reason anyone was still at the festival site...Jimi Hendrix.

I was enjoying a hallucinogen of some kind and I decided I wanted to be alone -- but of course I was in the midst of half a million people. So we wandered up to the top of the hill, me and a couple of buddies, and Creedence was doing 'Born on the Bayou' and there were like rings coming off the cymbals that were going over the crowd, and the crowd probably had cigarette lighters and there were candles. It was an extraordinary sight. I had a groovy experience, like any kid who was there.

— John "Jocko" Marcellino, Billboard interview June 2019

Sha Na Na's Humble Beginnings

This doo-wop outfit was originally known as The Kingsmen, performing a cappella songs on the campus of Columbia University. Conceived by Columbia student George Leonard, the group would don blazers and spontaneously croon '50's tunes like "Little Darlin" all over campus. Like campuses everywhere, Columbia was in turmoil in the late '60s, and people needed a reason to smile. The reaction to these happy, uplifting tunes was overwhelmingly positive, and George knew he had to keep it going. The group grew in size, worked on their choreography and cultivated both greaser and Elvis-like personas, the latter garbed in gold lamé outfits.

After a spring concert by these guys at what was known as The Grease Festival, they got themselves a manager (who happened to be a grad student) and took their act on the road. Now called Sha Na Na (taken from the song "Get A Job"), they played campuses and clubs in the New York area. This was mere months before Woodstock, and as luck would have it, Jimi Hendrix caught them when they played Steve Paul's Scene in New York. He loved their act, and convinced Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld that Sha Na Na should be added to the Woodstock festival bill.

They were on their way.

Sha Na Na Performing "Teen Angel" at Woodstock

Sha Na Na's Woodstock

In what must have been a completely surreal site, these guys hit the Woodstock stage just after 7:30 a.m. on the final morning of the festival. Sha Na Na's Woodstock lineup consisted of Joe Witkin (keyboards and vocals), John "Jocko" Marcellino (drums), Donald "Donny" York, Rob Leonard, Al Cooper, Frederick "Dennis" Greene, Dave Garrett, Richard "Richie" Joffe and Scott Powell (all doing vocal duty), Henry Gross (guitar), Bruce Clarke III (bass), and Elliot Cahn (rhythm guitar and vocals).

They played a 30-minute set, digging into their repertoire of great '50's songs, complete with lamé-clad dancers. They started it off with a bang with an upbeat version of "Get A Job," followed by "Come Go With Me" and "Silhouettes." Rob Leonard, one of the guys in lamé, then stepped up to the mic to deliver an over the top rendition of "Teen Angel." The crowd, awake now and clearly having fun, roared their approval.

An energetic version of the 1961 Elvis hit "(Marie's The Name) His Latest Flame" was next, moving easily into the Surfaris' "Wipe Out." Jocko Marcellino pounded it out on his kit and the crowd was pumped. "Book of Love," "Teenager in Love" and "Little Darlin'" followed, with the group's wonderful harmonies leaving everyone in awe. They closed the main set with a spirited cover of "At The Hop," earning the group a standing ovation. Their encore was a soulful "Duke Of Earl," followed quickly by a reprise of "Get A Job."

Sha Na Na Performing "At The Hop" at Woodstock

Life After Woodstock

What had started out as tongue firmly in cheek camp when Sha Na Na formed at Columbia in 1969 morphed into something way more than just schtick. People began to realize just how great these songs really were. The inclusion of “At The Hop” in the 1970 Woodstock movie made overnight sensations of Sha Na Na. They toured relentlessly and even ended up with a popular TV show that ran from 1977-81. Their popularity also helped spur a revival of '50's music and fashion in the early 1970s, with Grease, American Graffiti and Happy Days all becoming hits in their own right.

Most of the surviving members reunited for a one-off performance at Columbia in 2016.The current incarnation of the group performs about 25 shows a year, and includes co-founders John "Jocko" Marcellino and Donny York.

Five Musical Facts

  1. They were forced to change their name from the Kingsmen because there was already a group by that name, who became famous for their version of “Louie Louie.”
  2. Frederick “Dennis” Greene was the man responsible for teaching the guys all the faithfully replicated '50's dance moves.
  3. From 1969 until 1971, the group played such storied venues as the Fillmore East and Fillmore West, often opening for bands including the Grateful Dead, Zappa's Mothers of Invention, and the Kinks.
  4. Sha Na Na appeared in the 1978 film Grease as a band called Johnny Casino and the Gamblers.
  5. The group's original rhythm guitar player Elliot Cahnand went on to become the first manager of the group Green Day.

© 2019 Kaili Bisson

Comments

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on August 17, 2019:

Hi Pamela and thank you.

It was really light and fun, wasn't it? I still love songs from that era.

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on August 17, 2019:

Hi Linda and thank you.

If you like '50s music, check them out. They actually did some very good covers of some classic tunes.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on August 17, 2019:

I remember this group pretty well as they were popular when I was very young. I really like their music as is just light and fun. This is another interesting article in your series.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on August 16, 2019:

This is an interesting article. I think I've heard of Sha Na Na before, but I didn't know anything about them until I read the article. I like the fact that some of the original group are performing today.

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