Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart … or why I ♥ Sha Na Na
So, when I made the momentous transition from cassette to compact way back in the Jurassic Age – a.k.a. the early 1990s – the very first CD I purchased was a copy of the Grease soundtrack. As everyone knows, the 50s revival band Sha Na Na was a major contributor to the album, even appearing in the film as Johnny Casino & the Gamblers (albeit for a very brief instant). What I didn’t know then was that this bunch of uber foxy greaser wannabes actually had their own TV show, which ran from 1977 to 1981, on which they performed various comedy sketches and musical numbers with their inimitable mix of sultriness and satire, rhythm and rambunctiousness. (“Here they are, all greased up and ready to sing their brains out – Sha Na Na !!!”)
These guys RAWKED.
Now, nearly two decades later, I find myself reconnecting with my musical roots – courtesy of Youtube and a couple of very dedicated fans. Thanks, girls (and guys) !
These doo-wopping dreamboats started out as an acapella collective at Columbia University (?!) dubbed the Kingsmen. Fame outside of their home institution arrived in the form of a 40-minute performance at the legendary Woodstock festival on 18th August 1969, where apparently they preceded Jimi Hendrix, and other good things soon followed: a record deal; appearances on the 60s game show Trivia; signing on with the William Morris Agency; their very own television program; Grease. The initial line-up consisted of mostly Columbia students, including a number who left soon after the group’s early success but have since gone on to pretty distinguished careers in academia, medicine and showbiz (e.g. Jewish scholar Alan Cooper, and Elliot Cahn, one-time manager of Green Day). In any case, by the advent of their TV show in the late 70s, Sha Na Na consisted of 10 individuals:
Front row (from right to left): Screaming Scott, Jocko, Chico, Johnny Contardo
Back row (standing, from R to L): Denny, Donny, Bowzer, Lenny, Danny (leaning forward), Santini
Donald ‘Donny’ York: Founding member and heartthrob Numero Uno. <squeal!!> He’s the guy in sunshades and the cut-off striped top … Nummy, int he ? Still plays with the band. Last seen fraternizing with the Republican set though, pity.
Scott ‘Santini’ Powell: Founding member, an orthopedic doc in California these days.
Frederick ‘Denny’ Greene: Founding member. Went on to law school and an academic career. Watch him discussing the band’s early days, and his own multi-faceted life, here.
John ‘Jocko’ Marcellino: Founding member, and the band’s dummer. One of the originals still with Sha Na Na today. Watch him in a short clip here.
Dave ‘Chico’ Ryan: The bass player, and a real sweetie-pie. Frequently yo-yo-ed and roller-skated on TV. Sadly, he passed away in 1998; there’s a tribute site up.
Johnny ‘the Kid’ Contardo: He of the amazing vocal cords, I’m not kidding. See the Runaway vid below. He maintains a personal site these days.
Lenny Baker: Played the sax and sang. Great on both counts. He leads on “I’m Not A Juvenile Delinquent” (below). I love Lennie.
Jon “Bowzer” Bauman: Vocalist. His TV persona scares the bejeezuz outta me – but one of the best-known of the group.
“Screaming” Scott Simon: Joined the group soon after Woodstock, and played keyboards and even penned a song for the Grease album (“Sandy”).
‘Dirty’ Dan Mcbride: The group’s guitarist. Passed away last year.
This is how one rock historian characterizes the impact of Sha Na Na:
In addition to prefiguring punk’s desire to return to a pre-1960s version of rock, Sha Na Na anticipated glam. Their costumes–including black leather “greaser” outfits and gold lamé Elvis suits–and preening stage poses were as self-consciously constructed as any of Bowie’s identities. Bowie, Bolan, and other glam rockers troubled conventional notions of male gender identity by embodying a fey androgyny undergirded by heterosexual machismo. As a group, Sha Na Na presented a catalogue of similarly ambiguous masculine gender stereotypes as refracted through rock and roll and 1950s fashions. Those in the group who embraced the “greaser” pose embodied masculine bravado and aggression, but also a preoccupation with grooming (“grease”) and the moment-by-moment condition of their hair, addressed by the frequent application of pocket combs. Like Elvis himself, the gold-suited members of Sha Na Na juxtaposed an almost feminine version of male beauty with masculine sexual aggression. The distance from the male types represented by Sha Na Na and those staged some years later and in a completely different musical context by the Village People is not as great as it may initially seem, and the connective tissue between them is surely provided by glam rock.
(See the essay on glam rock by Philip Auslander here.)
That depiction of Sha Na Na – as a self-consciously canny and tongue-in-cheek send-up of early rock ‘n’ roll culture colliding happily with the glittery decadence of the 1970s – doesn’t seem far off the mark. During their run on TV at least, the outré costumes (the body-hugging gold lamé and purposively butch greaser gear), the synchronized vocalizing, twirling, gyrating and on-stage preening in general, all point towards a perfected sense of the performative, as Auslander notes above. And yet, amidst all the mass-media dazzle and razzmatazz, its easy to lose sight of just how cutting-edge and dynamic these guys were when they first started out in 1969. It may not seem like it now, especially since the 50s nostalgia industry that they helped introduce has become something of a wince-worthy phenomenon, but Sha Na Na was absolutely ahead of its time. Rob Leonard, then a 19 yr-old college kid, helped found the Kingsmen with his brother George; in his own words, there weren’t too many people then doing what they did :
My brother George, who was also a student at Columbia University in New York at the time – this was all his idea. We had a group called the Columbia Kingsmen – we were playing the 50s songs but didn’t really have the concept of Sha Na Na itself. He said, ‘Rob, call the boys!’ George choreographed us, and Sha Na Na was born. The ’50s were super-avant-garde at the moment. We didn’t have Happy Days or Grease. Frank Zappa called us the freakiest group he had ever seen.
(See the full interview with Rob, a professor of linguistics at Hofstra University these days, here.)
Indeed, that ‘super-avant-garde’ aesthetic, at its inception, was already imbued with a healthy dose of parody and riotous fun, as an article that recounts the birth of the group and the various influences that George Leonard brought to bear on their particular sensibility, makes even clearer:
Before the Columbia Kingsmen went into rock’n'roll, there were no oldies radio stations and no “theater rock:” white rock groups still stood on stage like the Beatles and sang their album, though a lead singer might cavort like Jagger. Above all, there were no “Fifties.” The Fifties were unregretted, still accurately remembered for the Bomb-fearing, Commie-hunting, money grubbing era they were: the Eighties without the glamor. The Beats dropped out, Jules Feiffer got “sick, sick, sick.” …… George Leonard’s daily dining room handouts and twice-weekly Spectator ads revised the Fifties into a pre-political teenage Eden: “Jocks! Freaks! ROTC! SDS! Let there be a truce! Bury the hatchet (not in each other)! Remember when we were all little greaseballs together watching the eighth-grade girls for pick-ups?” …… Sha Na Na grew out of the unique midnight bull-session atmosphere of the Columbia dorms. When George was a junior on the Fifth Floor Jay, Ed Goodgold and his pals used to play a game in the hall that Ed (with Dan Carlinsky) soon boosted into a national institution: “Trivia.” George, meanwhile, banded floor members into an underground film company: basketball great Jim McMillian played the heavy. Then, for Ed’s and Dan’s fist All-Ivy Trivia Contest, the Kingsmen prepared “Little Darlin’.” They wore blazers and stood in a semicircle; but when Rob Leonard did the spoken solo, the audience reaction was so intense that George (already studying choreography) had his vision of a group that would sing only Fifties rock and perform dances like the Busby Berkely films Susan Sontag had taught George to love.
(Read the full article, archived on George Leonard’s personal website, here.)
And there’s no better index of just how rock ‘n roll these faux-50s rock ‘n roll-ers were than their Woodstock gig. The slick choreography and seamless harmonizing of the TV years is perhaps less conspicuous there than the sheer chaotic energy of the performance, closer in spirit to, say, the guitar-smashing hijinks of The Who than the smoother-than-silk vocals of classic doo-wop. Below are glimpses of Sha Na Na at their early best: howling, hooting, cavorting, hamming it up, and just having the time of their lives — on the very same stage that Jimi Hendrix was soon to appear on.
Welcome once again to 1969.
Sha Na Na at Woodstock
Rob Leonard – with the unmistakable shock of brunette hair – is the lead on this one. Watch out for when the camera cuts away to catch reactions from the audience: some of the expressions are priceless ..
The superbly mickey-moused montage at the end, which finishes with a shot of Donny slicking his hair back – a trademark gesture – is beyond awesome.
“Duke of Earl”. The moustachioed chap jerking around at the mic is just gorgeous; haven’t figured out who he is though ..