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When Sha Na Na opened for Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock: 'Hippies thought they were on a bummer!'

·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music
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Check out Pandora's "The Sounds of Woodstock 1969" playlist to listen to the music of the moment.
Check out Pandora's "The Sounds of Woodstock 1969" playlist to listen to the music of the moment.

When most classic rock fans think of the original Woodstock festival, held a half-century ago in Bethel, New York, certain iconic rock stars probably spring to mind. Grateful Dead. Janis Joplin. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Joe Cocker. Sly Stone. And, of course, Jimi Hendrix.

Sha Na Na probably don’t spring to mind.

But the kitschy ‘50s revival act, who’d originally formed as an a cappella group at Columbia University in the late 1960s at the height of hippie counterculture, and had only played seven previous gigs, were unlikely breakout stars at Woodstock ’69 — after the virtual unknowns secured a prime slot right before Hendrix’s weekend-closing set on Aug. 18, 1969. And they went down in history as one of the coolest, most unique acts on the bill. “We were certainly against the grain at Woodstock,” says founding Sha Na Na member Jocko Marcellino.

And incredibly, this was all thanks to Hendrix himself, who discovered Sha Na Na at a Hell’s Kitchen nightclub called Steve Paul’s Scene and convinced Woodstock promoters Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld to book them for the festival.

Marcellino, who was still a 19-year-old college student when he played Woodstock, tells Yahoo Entertainment that Sha Na Na’s career-launching moment almost didn’t happen at all. But once again, Hendrix had their gold-lamé-jacketed backs.

“When the rains came and the stage was sinking and they were worried about electrocuting artists and things like that, they went to Hendrix, whose deal was he going to play last. So they said, ‘We want you to go on Sunday night,” Marcellino recalls. “Jimi and his management team said, ‘There are several acts who have been waiting out here all weekend, and they deserve a shot.’ So, we got our 35-minute set, just before Jimi Hendrix, on Monday morning.”

Marcellino admits that he and his fellow young, inexperienced, and very out-of-place Ivy League greasers were understandably rattled by the time their 35 minutes of fame finally arrived. “We were sort of nervous, we were exhausted, we were jittery. We had been there sleeping in the van, sleeping on the ground, bathing in the pond; we lived it like any other kid would have who had participated. We were a little too edgy — the tempos were a little too fast — but it gave it the energy that was appropriate at the time.”

Sha Na Na performing "Duke of Earl" at Woodstock 1969. (Photo: YouTube)
Sha Na Na performing "Duke of Earl" at Woodstock 1969. (Photo: YouTube)

Marcellino attempted to calm down pre-show by taking “some sort of mild experimental something,” but when paranoia set in and he became desperate to be alone — not easy, considering that about 500,000 people attended Woodstock — he climbed to the top of a hill to watch the festival from afar. “I turned around, and Credence Clearwater Revival was singing ‘Born on the Bayou,’” he chuckles. “That's the song I remember the most, because [John Fogerty] got me back in a groovy trip.”

As it turns out, all that pent-up nervous energy worked to the group’s advantage. Sha Na Na made the most of their whirlwind stage time, with a totally bonkers, theatrical set that was practically performance art — and, 50 years later, arguably comes across as hipper than many typical Woodstock acts. Their amphetamine-paced rendition of Danny & The Juniors’ 1958 hit “At the Hop” even seems a bit punk. “People have said that we inspired, in part, the punk-rock era,” notes Marcellino.

It may be a stretch to say Sha Na Na kickstarted the punk revolution. But their metallic outfits were right in step with the glam-rock movement that was right around the corner. And it’s certain that when their electric, elaborately choreographed 90 seconds of “At the Hop” footage (edited by a young Martin Scorcese) appeared in the award-winning and widely seen Woodstock documentary a year later, they helped spark the 1950s nostalgia craze of the 1970s — a wave that included the TV sitcom Happy Days, the movie American Graffiti, the 1971 Broadway musical Grease and the 1978 Grease film (in which Sha Na Na played rockabilly band Johnny Casino & The Gamblers), and Sha Na Na’s own hit variety show, which ran for four seasons and once even featured actual punk pioneers the Ramones as special guests. (Yes, that was Jocko in drag during “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,” and yes, he still owns the outfit.)

Sha Na Na’s documentary appearance almost didn’t happen either, but fate once again intervened. “They tried to cut us [from the Woodstock film],” reveals Marcellino. “They had previews in New York and L.A., and it was running long, because it's a long documentary. But we got standing ovations, so they kept us in.” Adds Jocko with a laugh: “We got $350 [to play the Woodstock festival]. The check bounced. And we got $1 to be in the movie. But that was a good dollar.”

So ironically, by playing retro ‘50s music at a ‘60s festival, Sha Na Na were somehow ahead of their time. In the Woodstock concert film, Hendrix can be seen in the stage wings appreciatively observing Sha Na Na’s wild, breathless set, but when the cameras cut to shots of the crowd, many of flower children in attendance appear utterly confused, almost as if their brown acid has just kicked in.

Sha Na Na performing "Teen Angel" at Woodstock 1969. (Photo: YouTube)
Sha Na Na performing "Teen Angel" at Woodstock 1969. (Photo: YouTube)

“They thought they were on a bummer!” Marcellino laughs. “But we won them over. I think in general, people first saw us as very campy — which we were. But then they realized that beyond that, the harmonies, the music, the drumming, the bass playing… we were pretty solid band. And [we offer] entertainment that still holds strong.”

Sha Na Na’s 50th anniversary “The Band That Was Born at Woodstock” boxed set and bundle, featuring 12 unreleased live tracks, can be purchased here. Eight Sha Na Na performances are also included on Rhino Records’ 10-disc Back to the Garden box.

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