“The golden age of rock n’ roll that everyone knows and loves” has been good for Sha Na Na — to the tune of 50 years, a surprise booking at the first Woodstock festival, a hit TV show and an appearance in the Grease film.
The group is celebrating in style this year, including a return to the Woodstock site in Bethel, N.Y., earlier this month and a new 50th Anniversary Commemorative Edition album dropping June 21 and featuring unreleased live tracks — including a version of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” that’s premiering below — as well as new studio recordings from remaining co-founders John “Jocko” Marcellino and Donny York and longtime member Screamin’ Scott Simon.
Marcellino tells Billboard that “it was all campy” when Sha Na Na formed at Columbia University during 1969, with guitarist Henry Gross, who went on to solo success, and Elliot “Gino” Cahn, who managed Green Day early in their career. But at some point the singer and drummer says the group became more than a schticky curiosity. “People started realizing how great these songs were,” Marcellino notes. “It wasn’t just nostalgia, you know? It was great American music based on blues and rhythm & blues and the doo-wop songbook. We try to do the songs as they are; We don’t try to fix the songs, but we try to present them in a big and fun way.
“I think people expect to come to a Sha Na Na show and have a good time, and I think we deliver.”
Among the group’s early fans, of course, was Jimi Hendrix, who caught some of Sha Na Na’s early performances at Steve Paul’s Scene club in New York. It was Hendrix who hipped Woodstock co-producers Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld and suggested they be added to the festival bill. “Our manager, who was a grad student at the time, was talking to them and said, ‘These guys want you to do something called Woodstock,’ and I said, ‘Go over and tell them yes, we’ll do it,’ because I had been hearing all about it,” Marcellino recalls. “We were indebted to Jimi Hendrix twice — once for getting the producers down there and getting us the gig, and then for making sure we got to go on stage. We got paid $350 and that check bounced, and we got a dollar to be in the movie.”
Sha Na Na wound up going on just after dawn on Aug. 18 and just before Hendrix closed the festival. “There’s footage of (Hendrix) grooving on the side, watching our act as his team was getting ready,” Marcellino says. “We were almost edited out (of the film) but we were getting standing ovations at previews in New York and L.A., so they left it in. We were a little different from everyone else that was in (the film), and I think people liked that.”
Marcellino and most of his bandmates spent the entire weekend at Woodstock, and besides the usual memories of mud and chaos he particularly recalls a Saturday night experience while walking around the site with Bruce “Bruno” Clarke. “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.”
The current incarnation of Sha Na Na does about 25 shows a year, according to Marcellino, who now lives in La Jolla, Calif. “Not too many, but enough to keep it going,” he says. “It’s pretty extraordinary; It’s something that started as college fun 50 years ago, and it’s remarkable that it still has legs. And we still rock.”