Rock and Roll's Sha Na Na Remembers the Golden Days of Woodstock
After taking the stage in 1969, the iconic music group celebrates Woodstock's golden anniversary and remembers its origins in the Hudson Valley.
Photos provided by The Gold Label
The 50th anniversary of Woodstock is also the 50th anniversary of one of the youngest bands to perform at the festival. Sha Na Na had only been together for a few months before it took the stage before Jimi Hendrix’s legendary closing set, but its supercharged takes on classic doo-wop hits left a lasting impression, spurring a throwback revival that led to films like American Graffiti and Grease, the latter of which features many iconic performances from the group.
Sha Na Na celebrates this anniversary with a special live album, and the band returns to Bethel Woods for an intimate show at the Gallery space on Saturday, June 1. Though the Bethel lineup has undergone many changes, original Woodstock performers Donny York and Jocko Marcellino will be onstage.
Hudson Valley Magazine spoke with Marcellino about the origins the group, the road to Woodstock, and the lasting significance, both personal and cultural, of the festival.
Can you tell me about the beginnings of the band?
We started as an offshoot of the glee club at Columbia University in 1968-9 school year. The group then was called the Kingsmen, named after the school — the Columbia Lions — but we didn’t want to be the Kingsmen, because that was the “Louie Louie” boys. So we changed it to Sha Na Na, which is basically nonsense syllables sung in harmony.
The vocal group really started singing oldies, because they were otherwise singing the school fight song, and Christmas carols, that sort of thing, in blue blazers and white turtlenecks. But one of the guy’s older brothers, who was a real greaser on Long Island, said: “You guys gotta dress this up and choreograph it.” And then we started working with him and other people, and went shopping down to get leathers and rented gold lame suits that were for a “Bye Bye Birdie” Broadway show.
So this all came together, we put fliers every place, and we filled the Woolman auditorium on campus. And they came as they were too, the audience got really into it. We had to go on 45 minutes early, and we did all the songs we knew, about 10. And they demanded an encore so we just did them again.
So it really started with a bang, and I said, “Hey, this is really something.” At that point we did Yale, we did gigs in clubs, and we didn’t know what to do with it. It was mid-summer, beginning of the summer. So Alan Cooper, our original bass singer, said “Let’s go downtown.”
We go downtown to the rock and roll hangout, the Steve Paul Scene in Hell’s Kitchen, and that’s where Zappa and Led Zeppelin and, you name it, the stars hung at that joint. And Jimi Hendrix came down, we played there for like two weeks straight before the club got closed, and Jimi really dug it, he got the promoters to come and see us. That was a big moment because they hired us on the spot, we got paid $350 to do the gig and the check bounced. But we got added to this [and] I knew it was going to be something. There wasn’t social media, but there was FM radio, and when I heard the buzz, this thing was turning into something large.
Our eighth or tenth gig was Woodstock. So we got there, and everything was awry. It was free [and] it was a miracle that everybody survived because it was just so out of control. So we kept coming back trying to get on, but they kept bouncing us, other groups were trying to get on, and the promoters went to Jimi Hendrix on Sunday afternoon and said, “We’ve gotta end this thing.” And Jimi and his management said no, I’m not gonna end it until these three or four acts get their slot.
So, long story short, Monday morning, just before Hendrix, we did 35 minutes, and “At the Hop” was captured in the Woodstock film. Our bits were edited by — what was his name?
That’s it, I should know my paisan. So that was pretty amazing. Four or five months from inception we’re at the most famous concert of all time. And indebted twice to Hendrix for saving our career.
Sha Na Na plays primarily oldies music. Were you a fan of that style at the time?
I learned to love it with Sha Na Na. I dug the Beatles and the Stones and I really dug Jimi Hendrix. I was more into RnB, like James Brown. I was in five bands on the Columbia campus, largely because I was a good drummer, and I was the only guy with drums.
One of these became Sha Na Na. I was into all sorts of music, but this really taught me the music — rhythm and blues, rock and roll, rockabilly — and people at first loved our campiness, but eventually they realized we were doing a good job with it. We always tried to recreate it as it was. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. So we specialized and learned and performed all major rock and roll from 1955 to 1962, before the British Invasion.
How long were you at Woodstock?
I got out there Saturday morning. I was out there for two nights, we had a van I slept in, we bathed in the pool, kept on coming back to see if we could get on, and that’s when we got our final slot.
Did you see a lot of music?
I remember Sly and the Family Stone kicked ass. Creedence Clearwater Revival did a great set, people don’t remember that because they never gave them permission to put it in the film. We gave permission right away for a dollar, I don’t think we ever got that dollar, but it was all cool.
What do you remember about your performance?
I remember we played everything too fast. I think we were so tired and wired. We got out there and looked at the crowd — it was probably a fifth of what was there earlier — and they’re looking at us like, "What is this?" And then finally they got hooked on it and started grooving. I don’t recall a lot of it, but I know I did “Wipeout.” It was that kind of weekend. It was wild.
What are your memories of the festival itself?
At one point I was probably enjoying some substance, and I decided to be alone. But of course it was in the middle half-a-million people, so I wandered up to the top of the hill, where you could see the fires burning and the candles, lighters. Creedence really got me back into a groove with “Born on the Bayou.”
What do you think the cultural legacy of the festival has been?
It established the Woodstock Nation. Maybe that got dissolved at Altamont, but it was really the end of a massive decade of cultural change — the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, the protests against the war in Vietnam, Martin Luther King and Bobby and John Kennedy all got assassinated.
This was almost a sigh of a relief, that these half-a-million people could actually cooperate and stay out there for the three days without catastrophe. There could have been! But in the spirit of cooperation, it was pretty cool.
Did you realize that at the time?
I was aware of the cultural and social things. I was going to Columbia and we were in the thick of it. Somebody on Sunday morning had the New York Times, who knows where from, and there was an aerial shot of the whole festival with all the people, and I knew then that it was beyond an entertaining show, it was culturally important. The name and the legacy will last forever, even if they’ve had trouble trying to recreate it. But Woodstock was Woodstock.
What does Woodstock mean to you?
It was the best of times and the worst of times. It was miserable, wet, rainy, and then there was the euphoria of performing, of getting to perform. That’s the long lasting meaning to me personally.