Sha Na Na alumni gather for NY reunion
HUNTINGTON, N.Y.—The gold lame varsity jackets still fit.
Four decades after performing as the penultimate act at Woodstock (having been invited by Jimi Hendrix) and three decades after a hosting a long-running TV variety show and appearing in the movie classic, "Grease," several former members of the doo-wop singing group Sha Na Na are reuniting this weekend for a special one-time-only performance.
"It feels so natural that I just have not had as much fun or felt in harmony with anybody since," said Robert Leonard, a longtime Hofstra University linguistics professor who in 1969 helped form Sha Na Na. He spent two years with the band before being offered a fellowship to Columbia Graduate School that led to a career in education.
Leonard, who sang bass and can be seen in the Woodstock movie wearing the group's signature gold lame jacket, is bringing together former members of the group for a performance Saturday at a celebration marking Hofstra's 75th anniversary. Other performers on the bill include Public Enemy, Blue Oyster Cult, Fountains of Wayne, Lisa Lisa, and hip-hop star Trey Songz
"It's being billed as from doo-wop to hip-hop," Leonard said of the bill, a somewhat eclectic lineup not dissimilar to Woodstock, where folkies like Arlo Guthrie and Richie Havens performed as well hard-rockers like The Who and Ten Years After.
Three longtime members of Sha Na Na actually still perform more than 50 shows a year, but this is the first time that Leonard and two others, David Garrett, now a New York City businessman, and Elliot Cahn, a California entertainment attorney who once managed Green Day, will be back on stage together.
"This is a delight; I left in 1973," said the 62-year-old Cahn during a break in rehearsals Friday at a Long Island hotel conference room. "The last two times I sang in public were at memorial services for friends of mine who died."
Born in the era of flower power, Sha Na Na's founders were all college students at Columbia University who shared a love of harmonies inspired by the 1950s doo-wop groups. The group's name comes from the chorus of the Silhouettes' hit, "Get a Job (Sha Na Na Na)." During one of their first performances in New York City in 1969, Hendrix saw their act and became enamored, said Leonard. The guitar virtuoso immediately recommended to the Woodstock organizers that they be added to the lineup.
Despite their appearance as "greasers," the group quickly won acceptance from their musical peers and soon after playing Woodstock, they signed a recording deal.
"People like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead, they really understood what we were doing and they were friends of ours," Leonard said.
The group later appeared in 97 episodes of their own music variety show that aired from 1977 to 1981; by that time Leonard, Cahn and Garrett had left the group, replaced by Jon "Bowzer" Bauman and others. Bauman, a popular fixture on the TV show, has since left the group and will not be appearing with them this weekend.
Another founding member who had a scheduling conflict and won't be appearing this weekend is Alan Cooper, who now is a distinguished professor of biblical studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
"Let's face it, we were a bright bunch of guys," said Jocko Marcellino, an original member who still tours with Sha Na Na 40 years later.
In 1978, the group appeared as "Johnny Casino and the Gamblers," in the movie musical "Grease," which featured several Sha Na Na rock covers. The soundtrack album was nominated for a Grammy and was certified platinum eight times.
"What Sha Na Na did was put the fun back in rock 'n' roll at a time when rock 'n' roll was starting to take itself a little too seriously," said Bruce "Cousin Brucie" Morrow, a legendary New York City disc jockey. "I'd have to say they were very influential in many ways. They never got the flowers, never got the bouquets they deserved."
Marcellino said he was amazed how well the group meshed during Friday's rehearsal. "It's like they were in the other room. We're all just falling into it all over again," he said.
As he looked at his colleagues giving press interviews after the rehearsal, Marcellino summed up the group's story:
"We started it as a campy thing in campus and it still is the essence of it -- guys hanging out doo-wopping, just like we were back on the stoop."
(This version CORRECTS date of release of 'Grease' to 1978, not 1979, in 14th paragraph.)