'Jocko' Marcellino returns to basics on new CD

La Jolla's 'Jocko' Marcellino touches on storied music career, Sha Na Na's Woodstock performance

Although the Woodstock Festival is considered by many to be ground zero of the 1960s counterculture, sandwiched somewhere between Janis Joplin’s caterwauling vocals and Jimi Hendrix’s searing guitar riffs, an unlikely band of Columbia University students billing themselves as Sha Na Na performed a high-energy set of 1950s revival-style rock ‘n’ roll that seemed at odds with the rest of the peace-and-love promoting bands on three-day bill.

“We were a new act. This was our eighth job and we kept getting bounced (from the roster),” recalls La Jollan John ‘Jocko’ Marcellino, Sha Na Na’s founding drummer, whose new blues CD is called “Make It Simple.”

“They were going to have Jimi (Hendrix) go on and close the festival — and Jimi said, ‘This wouldn’t be fair to the four or five acts that were waiting all weekend and didn’t get on.’ So, Monday morning, we got on stage right before Jimi.” Hendrix had reportedly seen Sha Na Na’s act at bar in Hell’s Kitchen and suggested they be invited to perform.

“He was a very sweet guy and exceedingly helpful. I think the whole thing wouldn’t have happened without his influence,” Marcellino said, noting the $350 check for Sha Na Na’s 30-minute Woodstock set bounced. The group would later sign away its rights to appear in the 1970 documentary of the festival (co-edited by then budding auteur Martin Scorsese) for just $1.

“You couldn’t buy that kind of influence, that kind of marketing for a young act,” said Marcellino, then 19 and the second youngest Woodstock performer.

Their investment paid off, launching Sha Na Na into fame as a popular touring act, opening for The Kinks, Alice Cooper and The Grateful Dead. Several then unknown artists that would go on to achieve widespread success opened for Sha Na Na, including Rush, Hall and Oats, Jay Leno and Bruce Springsteen, the latter who had just released 1973’s “Greetings from Ashbury Park, N.J.” when he embarked on a tour with Sha Na Na.

“We’d sit in with the band at the Holiday Inn bar and we’d have good time,” Marcellino recalled. “Bruce was a very accessible guy.”

Unlike some of their contemporaries, Sha Na Na were slightly less inclined to indulge in the era’s excesses. “We were teenagers in the late ’60s; then we lived the ’70s … like everybody else,” Marcellino said. “At the same time, we were Columbia guys. So, no matter what else we were doing, we’d say, ‘We’re going to get our degrees.’ … We had enough discipline to get things done.”

Marcellino went on obtain a bachelor’s degree in English from Columbia and a master’s in drama from New York University. He has appeared in TV shows such as “Veronica Mars” and “Ally McBeal” and films such as “Rainman” and “National Security.” Original member Joe Witkin, now retired, went on to work as an emergency medical physician for Sharp Grossmont Hospital in La Mesa.

Sha Na Na’s fame — credited with spurring a ’50s nostalgia craze that spanned the 1970s — landed them a role in the 1978 film, “Grease,” in which they performed as Johnny Casino and the Gamblers, contributing six songs to the soundtrack.

Two years ago, during an annual Grease celebrity sing-a-long at the Hollywood Bowl, Marcellino performed the Little Richard classic, “Lucile,” with Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl filling in on drums (Grohl is married to Marcellino’s niece).

Sha Na Na had been playing a steady stream of festivals and college gigs in the U.S. and Europe and were ready to call it quits when they were approached by Procter & Gamble to do their own TV variety show.

“They had approached the Beach Boys and Chicago, but they all couldn’t do it, or didn’t want to do it,” Marcellino recalled. “It was really good for us, because we were a group with actors and musicians and singers and dancers and we definitely had a theme going on, so it really worked.”

The internationally syndicated show ran from 1977-’81, and included musical guests such as Ronnie Spector (of the Ronettes), Cherie Currie (of the Runaways), James Brown and the Ramones, a then up-and-coming punk band also reviving 1950s music, albeit in a louder, faster way. “We were akin to what they were doing and vice versa,” Marcellino said of the Ramones, with whom Sha Na Na performed a skit in gaudy Laverne DeFazio-style drag called “Greasers Feud.”

No matter how unlikely the pairing of acts on a bill they were playing, Marcellino said it was all rock ‘n’ roll at the core. “We always do ‘Jailhouse Rock,’ ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll is Here to Stay,’ ” he said. “It’s sort of a bulletproof act, because if you delivered it with good, tight harmonies and good rockin’ instrumentals, and stage it and choreograph it, we always scored with it. We never really had a problem. … The musicians got it right away. They know they go back to the blues and the blues goes back to the rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll.”

Like his music with Sha Na Na, Marcellino says his new CD of Delta blues and smoky rhythm and blues, featuring local blues greats Robin Henkel on guitar and Billy Watson on harmonica, is not overly complex, though “it’s music you gotta get right.

“You gotta get the feeling right, you gotta get the groove right,” he said. “It’s almost mesmerizing in its repetition.”

Also appearing on “Make It Simple” are bassist Will Lee of the “Late Show with David Letterman,” Steely Dan session guitarist Elliott Randall and bassist Gordon Edwards (James Brown, Etta James). Marcellino frequently performs at Tio Leo’s and Proud Mary’s Southern Bar & Grill (proudmaryssd.com), where he held a CD release party for “Keep It Simple” this week. He resides in La Jolla with his wife, Nicki Marcellino, regional vice president of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices California Properties on Prospect Street.

Jocko Marcellino’s new CD, ‘Make It Simple,’ can be purchased at iTunes or amazon.com

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