By Lyndsey Parker, Yahoo Music | When most classic rock fans think of the original Woodstock festival, held a half-century ago in Bethel, New York, certain iconic rock stars probably spring to mind. Grateful Dead. Janis Joplin. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Joe Cocker. Sly Stone. And, of course, Jimi Hendrix.
Sha Na Na probably don’t spring to mind.
But the kitschy ‘50s revival act, who’d originally formed as an a cappella group at Columbia University in the late 1960s at the height of hippie counterculture, and had only played seven previous gigs, were unlikely breakout stars at Woodstock ’69 — after the virtual unknowns secured a prime slot right before Hendrix’s weekend-closing set. And they went down in history as one of the coolest, most unique acts on the bill. “We were certainly against the grain at Woodstock,” says founding Sha Na Na member Jocko Marcellino.
And incredibly, this was all thanks to Hendrix himself, who discovered Sha Na Na at a Hell’s Kitchen nightclub called Steve Paul’s Scene and convinced Woodstock promoters Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld to book them for the festival.
Marcellino, who was still a 19-year-old college student when he played Woodstock, tells Yahoo Entertainment that Sha Na Na’s career-launching moment almost didn’t happen at all. But once again, Hendrix had their gold-lamé-jacketed backs.
“When the rains came and the stage was sinking and they were worried about electrocuting artists and things like that, they went to Hendrix, whose deal was he going to play last. So they said, ‘We want you to go on Sunday night,” Marcellino recalls. “Jimi and his management team said, ‘There are several acts who have been waiting out here all weekend, and they deserve a shot.’ So, we got our 35-minute set, just before Jimi Hendrix, on Monday morning.”
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Sha Na Na’s documentary appearance almost didn’t happen either, but fate once again intervened. “They tried to cut us [from the Woodstock film],” reveals Marcellino. “They had previews in New York and L.A., and it was running long, because it’s a long documentary. But we got standing ovations, so they kept us in.” Adds Jocko with a laugh: “We got $350 [to play the Woodstock festival]. The check bounced. And we got $1 to be in the movie. But that was a good dollar.”
So ironically, by playing retro ‘50s music at a ‘60s festival, Sha Na Na were somehow ahead of their time. In the Woodstock concert film, Hendrix can be seen in the stage wings appreciatively observing Sha Na Na’s wild, breathless set, but when the cameras cut to shots of the crowd, many of flower children in attendance appear utterly confused, almost as if their brown acid has just kicked in.
“They thought they were on a bummer!” Marcellino laughs. “But we won them over. I think in general, people first saw us as very campy — which we were. But then they realized that beyond that, the harmonies, the music, the drumming, the bass playing… we were pretty solid band. And [we offer] entertainment that still holds strong.”
Sha Na Na’s 50th anniversary “The Band That Was Born at Woodstock” boxed set and bundle, featuring 12 unreleased live tracks, can be purchased here. Eight Sha Na Na performances are also included on Rhino Records’ 10-disc Back to the Garden box.
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