When the lineup was announced in March for Woodstock’s “official” 50th-anniversary festival, Sha Na Na — the doo-wop cover band that single-handedly launched America’s ’50s rock revival when it performed at the original Woodstock in 1969 — wasn’t on it. The scheduled headliners for the Aug. 16-18, 2019 event in Watkins Glen, New York include Jay-Z, Miley Cyrus, the Killers and only a few of the surviving Woodstock veterans (Santana, John Fogerty, Dead and Company).
“It’s understandable, with the mostly contemporary line-up they were going with,” founding Sha Na Na drummer John “Jocko” Marcellino said diplomatically, while sipping cappuccino inside his La Jolla house on May 28. (Marcellino moved to town 20 years ago when his wife, Berkshire Hathaway regional VP Nicki Marcellino, was recruited here.)
“I love Jay Z, (but) they’re trying to do Coachella with a Woodstock name, and I don’t know if they can make that bridge,” the 69-year-old said at his kitchen table as the Four Tops’ “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” wafted from a cable music channel on his living-room TV.
Organized by original Woodstock producer Michael Lang, the Watkins Glen festival is beleaguered by legal and financial problems and each passing day makes it appear less likely to happen.
“They’re in court with it right now,” Marcellino said while gently petting his 16-year-old dog, Lucy, “so I’m glad that Sha Na Na took the offer that was given to us this year.”
A week after this interview was conducted, the group returned to Woodstock on its own terms — performing at the 400-seat Event Gallery at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, which was built in 2006 on the actual farmland where the original Woodstock was held.
Marcellino has practice taking slights in stride. Sha Na Na — originally formed as the Kingsmen while its members were Columbia University students in 1968 — was barely invited to the original Woodstock. Unsigned at the time and having performed only seven previous concerts, the group wasn’t even mentioned on the festival poster. Jimi Hendrix had to stump hard to get it any stage time. Twice.
“Jimi really got us the gig more than anyone else, because he saw us perform at Steve Paul’s Scene in Hell’s Kitchen in New York,” Marcellino said of the legendary guitarist, who died in 1970. “He understood where we were coming from because he used to play with the Isley Brothers’ band.”
Then, when promoters were about to end the festival early due to a storm that caused electrical problems and the stage to sink, Hendrix intervened again. “His management finally said, ‘OK, Sha Na Na, you can have 35 minutes before Jimi,’ ” Marcellino said.
Because Sha Na Na managed to get on that stage, it got one song into the Woodstock documentary, released theatrically a year later. And just that 90-second performance (of Danny & the Juniors’ “At the Hop”) reshaped life for the band members in mind-blowing ways.
It led to Marcellino’s singing “Give Peace a Chance” at Madison Square Garden while standing directly behind former Beatle John Lennon in 1971. It also led to numerous jams with Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons on Stax/Volt songs in hotel bars — on a 1973 tour that the Boss opened for Sha Na Na.
“None of that would have happened unless we had been in that film,” Marcellino said. “And they were going to cut us out of the film, from what I’ve been told, because it was long. But we were getting standing ovations in New York and L.A. screenings, so they kept us in.”
“Woodstock” also eventually led to the reason most Americans over age 50 still recognize the band’s name today.
“Five or six years after Woodstock, we were just about to pack it in and say, ‘Hey, this was great, let’s go back to our studies’ — which some guys did,” Marcellino said. (Founding singer Scott “Santini” Powell became an orthopedic surgeon and is now the doctor for the U.S. Soccer Federation’s Women’s National Team. Founding keyboardist Joe Witkin went on to work as an emergency-medical physician for Scripps Hosptial East County and Sharp Grossmont Hospital in La Mesa.)
“And then we got the offer to do a pilot for television,” Marcellino finished his thought. The resulting nationally syndicated variety show, “Sha Na Na,” featured the group members mugging their way through comedy shtick typical of the TV era. But the musical numbers — sometimes featuring special guests of the caliber of James Brown, Ronnie Spector and the Ramones — never failed to amaze and still hold up. The series ran from 1977 to 1981.
“We did 97 half-hours, a show-and-a-half a day, which was insane,” Marcellino said, “but it was great while it lasted.”
Bass vocalist Jon Bauman emerged as the show’s breakout star, for his larger-than-life mouth, personality and torso length. “Bowzer” was not a member at Woodstock, joining the next year and exiting in 1983 to become a concert promoter. Marcellino said it has been Bauman’s choice not to perform with Sha Na Na again, not the group’s. (“My phone rings,” he said, laughing. “My phone rings.”)
Even more amazing than what the group’s Woodstock appearance did for its career is how it managed to reshape pop culture. The ’50s revival it stoked continued for 15 years and included the hit Broadway show “Grease” — whose 1978 movie version starred Sha Na Na and featured six of its songs on its soundtrack — the hit 1973 movie “American Graffiti” and the megahit TV show spawned by that, “Happy Days.”
“You always think you could have done more,” Marcellino said. “Then you turn around and say, ‘Look what I did, that was pretty damn good.’ You know?”
Sha Na Na sold the rights to its “Woodstock” footage to the movie’s producers for $1, by the way. Instead of regretting the move, Marcellino called it “the best 12-cents I ever made.” Then he corrected himself.
“Actually,” he said, laughing again, “we never got the dollar!”