Of all the acts that graced the Woodstock stage that weekend in August 50 years ago, perhaps the most unlikely was Sha Na Na, a group of Columbia University students who previously sang together in the campus a cappella group the Kingsmen and had formed just months before the festival.
Perhaps their experience was a harbinger of things to come five decades later. During an appearance at the Grammy Museum this week, John “Jocko” Marcellino, told the museum’s artistic director, Scott Goldman, that the group was paid $350 for their appearance at the legendary gathering — “and the check bounced.”
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Jocko, who just turned 69 in May, was a college freshman at the time, and is one of two founding members still in the group (singer Donald “Donny” York is the other). Like Woodstock, Sha Na Na, too, is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
Their performance of “At the Hop,” edited together by a fledging film student named Martin Scorsese, who worked on the Woodstock documentary, catapulted the group into an appearance in the film “Grease,” and a syndicated TV variety series which ran for four years from 1977 and 1981 and made the long-departed bass vocalist Jon “Bowzer” Bauman a household fixture.
Sha Na Na, named after the nonsense syllables in the doo-wop group the Silhouettes’ “Get a Job,” a staple of their live set, debuted with a spring 1969 “oldies night” performance at Columbia’s Willman Auditorium, donning Long Island greaser duds like gold lame and leather jackets and combing their hair back in a pompadour and ducktails, simultaneously paying homage and sending up ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll. “The crowd all dressed for the occasion, no matter what side of the revolution they were on,” recalled Jocko. “There were cigarette packs in rolled-up sleeves and guys banging chains on the stage. We knew only 12 songs, so when we finished, and the crowd went crazy, we simply played them again.” The set included note-perfect versions of “Little Darling,” “In the Still of the Night” and, of course, “At the Hop.”
A gig at the dingy downtown dive Steve Paul’s Scene, which became a magnet for rockers like Led Zeppelin and Janis Joplin, attracted the attention of Jimi Hendrix, who dubbed them “far out, man,” according to Jocko. The guitarist tried to get Woodstock promoters Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld to see the group, with the duo finally showing up at the club’s last night before it was shut down by local gang activity. “They asked our manager if we wanted to play the festival, and we just said, ‘Yes!’,” said Jocko. “We had heard about it all summer on the local FM station, which was our version of social media back then. That’s how we knew about it, and apparently that’s how 500,000 other people heard about it, too.”
Jocko and the band drove up to Woodstock in a van with Sha Na Na stickered across the back window, which let them roll right up to the stage on Saturday, accompanied by a police escort when they pulled up behind a truck carrying Sly Stone’s equipment.
“I expected it to be a cool scene, hanging out with rock stars,” said Marcellino. “Instead there were all these emergency stations. The whole weekend teetered on going out of control, but never quite did.”
Originally scheduled for Saturday, Sha Na Na’s set was wiped out by the torrential floods, forcing Jocko and his cohorts to take “mood-altering” drugs and wander the site.
As the crowds kept growing for the now-free festival, all Jocko could think of was, “When are we going on?”
“The stage was sinking and there were all these electrical problems,” said Jocko. “They were afraid the artists would fry. It was pretty hairy.”
The Sha Na Na co-founder climbed a hill and got his groove back listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival perform “Born on the Bayou” below.
“At a certain point, I wanted to be alone,” he recalled. “I had a problem with the other half a million people who were there. Every time the drummer hit the cymbal, I saw a flash of light flickering on and off. After that, I went out and bought the entire Creedence catalog.”
As the rains continued to soak the field, the Woodstock promoters approached Hendrix, who was slated to close the festival Sunday night, to take the stage, but he refused, insisting a handful of acts who had been hanging out all weekend, including Sha Na Na, be allowed to play first.
Sha Na Na took the stage Monday morning, August 18, for a 35-minute set at sunrise that included the frenzied “At the Hop” and a closing “Earth Angel,” just before Hendrix performed his immortal set, which included his storied version of the National Anthem.
“It was like a refugee camp. All I remember was blankets covered in mud. They had to wake up the camera crew,” said Jocko. “And lucky they did. We were exhausted and hyper at the same time. I remember us playing very fast, but when I listened back to the whole set [which is being released as part of a 38-CD boxed set], I realized we sounded great. We were campy, yes, but we were true to that music’s American roots.”
Marcellino was two-way football player in high school (hence the Jocko nickname), who took off the shoulder pads to play drums for the marching band at halftime. He played in a number of bands during his freshman year at Columbia before joining what became Sha Na Na. “I was the only one with a drum kit,” jokes Jocko. “We all learned and choreographed the material, and we knew we had something.”
For the past 20 years, the band has recorded for Pat Bonne’s Gold label and continues touring to this day. “I signed Sha Na Na because they not only epitomized the music of the ‘50s, they continued it and kept it going,” said Boone at the Grammy Museum after introducing the group. “I refuse to let that era die. These are happy, cheerful songs that still make us feel good.”
Members of the college-based band eventually scattered with several moving into either academia or medicine as well as music. Original member Henry Gross became a solo artist in his own right, while session guitarist Eliott Randall performed classic solos on Steely Dan’s “Reelin in the Years” and Irene Cara’s “Fame.” Founder Robert Leonard is a professor of linguistics at Hofstra University, “At the Hop” lead singer Alan Cooper is a professor of Bible studies at Hebrew Union College, and original pianist Joe Wilkin is a retired ER physician. One of the group’s first vocalists, the late Frederick “Denny” Green, was a professor of law at the University of Dayton. Early vocalist Scott Powell, who went under the pseudonyms “Captain Outrageous” and “Tony Santini,” became an orthopedic surgeon for the U.S. Woman’s National Soccer Team — and also worked on the knee of the man hosting this week’s event, Grammy Museum moderator Goldman.
Jocko and his band, which included “Rockin’” Randy Hill on Chuck Berry-ish guitar, bassist Tim Butler and drummer Ty Cox, then launched into a rock and rollicking 30-minute set with standards like “Peppermint Twist,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Lucille,” “Shake, Rattle & Roll” and “California Sun.”
“How long have you been in the band, Tim?” Marcellino asked his longtime bassist. “Ever since I got paroled, Jocko,” answered Butler without losing a beat in a bit that’s doubtlessly been honed through years of touring. A half century later, Sha Na Na still got their hops.