Why Did Sha Na Na Exist? '50s Nostalgia For Hippies, Born At Woodstock
Jon 'Bowzer' Bauman, of the group Sha Na Na, performs onstage at the Holiday Star Theater, Merilville, Indiana, February 2, 1982. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)
Sha Na Na played Woodstock.
Of all the anecdotes and bits of trivia about that famous music festival, the presence of '50s revival/novelty act Sha Na Na is among the weirdest. Hendrix played. Richie Havens played. Crosby Stills & Nash played. Joe Cocker played. And so did Sha Na Na.
This music and comedy act, formed in the late '60s and repping the '50s, became a phenomenon in the '70s, appearing frequently on TV and even getting their own show by decade's end.
In 1969, Columbia University was dealing with the aftermath of the student protests from the prior year; these protests had created serious divisions in the student body. George Leonard devised a strategy to unify them by using nostalgia. Robert Leonard was part of an a capella group, the Columbia Kingsmen. George decided the transform the group into a ‘50s band. According to Robert Leonard, George choreographed them into a “music hall act.” The transformed group, Sha Na Na, named after a line in the 1957 song “Get a Job” by The Silhouettes, became a popular live act. According to John “Jocko” Marcellino, one of the band’s original founders, their music was “all campy” when the band originally formed.
They Were Discovered By Jimi Hendrix
In the summer of 1969, Jimi Hendrix saw Sha Na Na perform at Steve Paul’s The Scene Club, and recommended them to the Woodstock producers. Without an album to their name, they became the group to perform right before Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, and they played a 40-minute set at 7:30 in the morning on Monday wearing leather jackets and gold lame suits; their music was unexpected, but the audience loved them. Later in 1969, they released their first album, Rock and Roll is Here to Stay; this first album came out less than a year after they became a band. The record company, Buddah Records, promoted the album, taking out a full-color ad on the front page of Billboard in November 1969. The album was re-released in 1973. Since their inception, Sha Na Na have released 18 albums, with sales topping 20 million and during their concerts, they hosted a number of notable opening acts who were just starting out, including Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel.
Things Seemed So Much Better Then
Around the time that Sha Na Na was emerging on the music scene, there seemed to be a boom in ‘50s nostalgia. This longing for the 1950s seems to have been born of some of the chaos of the early ‘70s, as the country faced Nixon’s impeachment, and the Vietnam war, as well as other unrest. Many seemed to long for the past they looked back to with rose-colored glasses, failing to remember that the ‘50s had its share of negatives as well. As a reflection of this yearning for the past, in 1972, the musical Grease premiered on Broadway. Other films, such as American Graffiti (which was set in 1962 but had the feel of the ‘50s) and The Godfather, were released in 1973. MCA released the album 41 Original Hits from the Soundtrack of American Graffiti, which continued to reintroduce audiences to some of the songs from the ‘50s, and the album went triple platinum. TV then sought to reproduce some of this success. Garry Marshall reworked a pilot for the series that would become Happy Days. The show spawned Laverne & Shirley, another sitcom set in the ‘50s.
Their Role in Grease
In this environment, Sha Na Na thrived. They appeared in the movie Grease as Johnny Casino and The Gamblers. They also appeared on the soundtrack for the movie, performing six songs and the band’s pianist, Screamin’ Scott Simon, cowrote the song “Sandy” for the film. According to Marcellino in an interview for Billboard magazine, “People started realizing how great these songs were.” He added that “it wasn’t just nostalgia…It was great American music based on blues and rhythm & blues and the doo-wop songbook.”
Comedy And Music In The Inner City
From 1977-1981, Sha Na Na also recorded 97 episodes of their variety show. This show was a themed and was very similar to other variety shows. It featured comedic skits and music and was centered around the band and their fictional inner city neighborhood, which was reminiscent of the Bronx. Of course, the show hosted quite the variety of guests, from James Brown to the Ramones. Each episode ended with Jon “Bowzer” Bauman saying “Good night, and grease for peace.”
When Nostalgia Fades...Sort Of
By 1979, the nostalgia seemed to have faltered. By the end of the ‘70s, both Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley had fallen in the ratings. Sha Na Na had changed as well. They began with 12 performers, a number which dwindled to seven, with just three of the original members continuing with the group: Jocko Marcellino, Screamin' Scott Simon, and Donny York. (Although Jon "Bowzer" Bauman was the most identifiable face of the group, he did not join until 1970.) Other band members went on to successful careers after the band, including Robert Leonard, who became a linguistics professor, and George Leonard, who became a professor of Interdisciplinary Humanities. The band continues as one of the longest running musical acts as they have continued to perform, since, as Jocko Marcellino has said, “Whole new generations get swept up in the nostalgia craze, effectively becoming our potential audience.”
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