Rock ’n’ Roll tribute band Sha Na Na wins everyone’s prize for the most out-of-place act at Woodstock. Performing songs from the 1950s and looking nothing like the young people in the audience, they danced, dit-dit-dited, and doo-wopped their way through a high-energy half-hour set that left people delighted and bewildered.
Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock festival, August 1969–2019
Day Three, Performer 9
Sha Na Na
Performed Monday morning, August 18, 7:45–8:15 am
Donald “Donny” York: vocals • Rob Leonard: vocals • Alan Cooper: vocals • Frederick “Dennis” Green: vocals • Dave Garrett: vocals • Richard “Richie” Joffe: vocals • Scott Powell: vocals • Joe Witkin: electric piano, vocals • Henry Gross: guitar • Elliot Cahn: guitar • Bruce “Bruno” Clark: bass • Jocko Marcellino: drums
Woodstock set list:
- Get a Job
- Come Go With Me
- Teen Angel
- (Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame
- Wipe Out
- The Book of Love
- Little Darlin’
- At the Hop
- Duke of Earl
- Get a Job (reprise)
Sha Na Na was the creation of Columbia University students Donald “Donny” York, Rob Leonard, Alan Cooper, Frederick “Dennis” Green, Dave Garrett, Richard “Richie” Joffe, and Scott Powell, who were part of an a cappella group known as The Kingsmen. The name change was necessary because there was already a group by that name, famous for their version of the garage band classic, “Louie Louie.” The name Sha Na Na was taken from the 1957 song, “Get a Job,” by the Silhouettes, which became part of their repertoire. They added Joe Witkin (keyboards), Henry Gross and Elliot Cahn (guitars), Bruce “Bruno” Clark (bass), and Jocko Marcelino (drums) to their large vocal lineup, dressed in gold lamé and leather jackets, and slicked back their hair, and Sha Na Na was born.
Sha Na Na began performing in New York City clubs in 1969. They quickly caught the attention of the hip cognoscenti such as Fillmore promoter Bill Graham, who would have Sha Na Na open for heavyweight counterculture acts such as the Grateful Dead and Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention at the Fillmore East. By chance, Woodstock promoter Michael Lang happened to catch one of these early shows and offered the chance for Sha Na Na to have their big break at Woodstock.
Having been up all night rocking out and partying, the crowd—or what was left of it—was pretty beat by 7:45 am. One can only imagine the shock and surprise that must have come over the audience when Sha Na Na walked onto the stage. Complete with leather jackets, greasy duck’s-ass hairstyles and gold lame suits for its front line members, the band went for it, bringing back deceptively simplistic early rock in an era dominated by more progressive musicians (such as the bemused gentleman watching Sha Na Na from the side of the stage, Jimi Hendrix). Contemporary groups such as The Mothers of Invention and Fleetwood Mac regularly incorporated similar ’50s throwback segments into their acts, but these were more straight parodies and none of the others took it quite this far. Somehow or other, this group of greasers—with a healthy dose of wink thrown into their act—snuck onto the Woodstock bill as the festival’s penultimate act.
Their set began with a ripping version of The Silhouettes’ “Get A Job,” their speed-freak intensity impressive considering the early hour, and the stunned audience gave them an effusive ovation. Versions of The Del-Vikings’ “Come Go With Me” and The Rays’ “Silhouettes” showcased the group’s strained-but-sincere harmonies before the gold lame-clad vocalist Rob Leonard stepped forward to deliver the lead on a severely tongue-in-cheek version of Mark Dinning’s teen tragedy classic “Teen Angel.” The crowd roared with appreciative laughter.
Pepping it up, vocalist Donny York took the lead for an energetic stomp through Elvis Presley’s 1961 hit “(Marie’s The Name) His Latest Flame.” The Surfaris’ classic instrumental “Wipe Out” pumped the crowd further, complete with the famed ferocious drum breaks being replicated easily by Jocko Marcellino and epileptic dancing fits from guitarist Henry Gross. Group harmonies returned with takes on The Monotones’ “The Book Of Love” and The Diamonds’ wonderful “Little Darlin’,” and the main set closed with bass vocalist Alan Cooper taking the lead on a frenzied reading of Danny and The Juniors’ “At The Hop,” which got the band a deserved standing ovation (although most of them were standing anyway, since few people would want to sit in that mud).
The encore was a sensitive rendition of Gene Chandler’s “Duke Of Earl” with a somewhat tentative, nervous lead vocal by tenor vocalist and group choreographer Frederick “Dennis” Greene (who had trained the band to do their dead-on 1950s group-style dance moves). A quick instrumental reprise of “Get A Job” followed, allowing the vocalists to run off the stage ahead of the instrumentalists.
Thanks to Michael Wadleigh’s inclusion of “At The Hop” in his Woodstock documentary, Sha Na Na hit the big time, with years of successful concert tours and a hit TV show making them one of the more enduring (and ironic) images of 1970s American pop culture. The band’s popularity spurred a revival of 1950s music and fashion across the country in the early 1970s, as seen in the Broadway musical Grease, the movie American Graffitti, the television series Happy Days, and Sha Na Na’s own television series which ran from 1977 to 1981.
Of the original Sha Na Na members who played Woodstock, only three continue to perform. Vocalist Donny York and drummer Jocko Marcellino both graduated from Columbia and continue to perform as members of the current Sha Na Na lineup. Guitarist Henry Gross left the group in 1970 to pursue a solo career, scoring a hit with his 1976 single, “Shannon.” Vocalist Rob Leonard left the group in 1970, earned his PhD from Columbia and is a recognized expert in linguistics, serving on the editorial board of the Oxford University Press series, Language and the Law. Vocalist Alan Cooper earned his doctorate in Biblical Studies at Yale University and teaches at Union Theological Seminary and The Jewish Theological Seminary.
Vocalist Dave Garrett co-founded a Long Island-based musical instrument amplifier company in 1970. Richie Joff became a lawyer and is a class-action litigator in New York. Vocalist Scott Powell left the group in 1980 to become a doctor and teacher. Among his accomplishments, he is the team physician for the U.S. Soccer Federation Women’s National Team and works with the charity, MusiCares, to give free medical care to musicians who cannot afford it. Keyboardist Joe Witkin is an emergency room physician in California. Bassist Bruce Clarke earned his PhD in English and is a professor of Literature at Texas Tech University. Vocalist Frederick “Dennis” Greene earned degrees at Harvard and Yale and enjoyed a successful career as a motion picture executive before his death in 2015. Most of the surviving members of Sha Na Na reunited for a one-off performance at Columbia University in 2016.
—Wade Lawrence & Scott Parker
Next artist: Jimi Hendrix