Seeing Sha Na Na and their music variety show in 1977 as a seven-year-old, was must see t.v. for me. Their choice of songs, skits and comedy were something that I had no idea existed beforehand. I sat there, week after week with a tape recorder and microphone plugged into the t.v. to tape them on a cassette player. Watching them two years later in Grease as Johnny Casino and the Gamblers- where they performed six Sha Na Na versions of their rock classics and one original song Sandy which was co-written by Scott Simon- screaming for John Travolta to sing- made me love this band even more. And when I thought about it more, fully recently after I found out that Sha Na Na was appearing nearby, I realized that their music had done for me more than any other bands. Which surprises me, given how much music I have listened to and how many bands I have worked with. Because of Sha Na Na, I launched headlong into a still thriving obsession with rock’n’roll. Especially early rock’n’roll because for the first time in my life I got to see, on their show, artists like James Brown, The Ramones, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Bo Diddley, The Ronettes, Chubby Checker…and because of Sha Na Na I become enamored of all things music as a kid. Which lead me watching shows like WKRP in Cincinnati- which lead me wanting to be a DJ- which lead me to a near obsession with the music industry and the people within it. Which kind of mildly affected my decision to take mass communications at university which then informed my decision to work on the other side of the industry as a publicist.
Sha Na Na brings their rock & roll celebration to town in a dynamic, crowd pleasing show that includes highlights of their four decade journey from Woodstock, the movie Grease, The Sha Na Na TV show and their world wide concert touring. In an interactive show where the audience sings along, dances along and participates in a “Greaser Olympics, a good time is had by all ages. Hey all you greasers, teen angels and party dolls: twist, stroll and hand jive to the classics as performed by the crowned princes of doo-wop and rock & roll, Sha Na Na.
Sha Na Na may not have invented rock nostalgia, but the group has successfully – very successfully – celebrated the music and the memories for the past four decades… in concert, in the movies and on TV, and on record. Sha Na Na’s story is an all-encompassing one: they were in the original Woodstock Festival lineup, starred in “Grease”, hosted the “Sha Na Na” TV series for four years, and still play more than 50 concerts a year, from state fairs, performing art centers, casino showrooms to mega corporate functions world wide. And through it all – flower power, hard rock, metal music, disco, hip hop, rap and more – Sha Na Na remains true to the original concept: rock & roll is here to stay.
Jocko, now in his four decade with Sha Na Na, was the first to walk onstage “greased and ready to rock ‘n’ roll” in 1969. That same year, at age 19, he appeared with the group at the Woodstock Festival. Jocko holds the distinction along with fellow Sha Donny of performing in both the most successful music documentary ever (Woodstock) and the most successful rock and roll film musical ever (Grease).
Jocko: It’s all YOUR fault.
Eric: *laughs* It’s all YOUR fault.
Jocko: It’s all OUR fault.
Eric: Do you find that people that are now or are in a position of power at the radio stations or people who work in the media, grew up watching your show?
Jocko: First of all, it’s very obvious you never grew up.
Eric: No *laughs*. No, but neither have you.
Jocko: It’s funny, we have sort of a wide demographic because of what we do. They are all those folks who actually lived the music for the first time and then rediscovered it as “Americana”- instead of calling it “Oldies but Goodies”. They saw our show and enjoyed it but, and we hope we did, we do our best to recreate the songs and not to fix them. People were so interested in this kind of music. But, if we could play in a country sort of place, we could not do hard rock. Not saying we’re heavy metal or anything but you’re right. It was so funny, we had The Ramones come in and they just loved doing variety television show, they were having a ball..
Eric: Let’s start with a pretty obvious question because you’ve been doing this now, coming up on about 47 years – how do you not get stale? How do you still keep it fun for yourself?
Jocko: Well, it’s a very interactive show. You know, as far as a group of songs, I think it’s one of the greatest eras of rock and pop music. You can go back and say the standards; Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Little Richard and Tony Bennett – those songs they were singing. They were just rich in lyrics and music. Then there was this doo-wop and street corner and this ‘Come Go With Me’ and ‘Little Darling’ all those great songs from the golden age of rock’n’roll from ‘55 through ‘62, pre-Beatles. And of course, The Beatles you can give them their own category in terms of great songs. You know, this is just a love for music, it’s shared music. It just doesn’t seem to go away so we celebrate it every night. People say, call them “Oldies but Goodies” – they don’t like that expression. If you were going to go to a Beethoven symphony – you wouldn’t say hey that’s an oldie by Beethoven because it’s old.
Eric: That’s a REAL oldie.
Jocko: Yeah, this is the group of songs we’re doing tonight and, of course, we’re dressed either with leather or, you know, cool bowling shirts. D.As- hair-dos, we grease it up. So it gives you an attitude when you put it on. But I never think I’m going back tonight to do an oldie and I’m going back to the 50s. I’m not going anywhere. This is right now, tonight and everybody are sharing this song. We have the same vocabulary.
Eric: Sha Na Na started as an acapella group at Columbia University in New York around 1969, while you were juggling your schedule around your touring, earning both a B.A. from Columbia and a Masters in Drama from New York University. What did you want to achieve? Did you always want to be in a band? Did you take acting because you knew that you wanted to combine acting and music or did you want to actually become an actor?
Jocko: Well, let me go back. When I was a kid in Boston area, I was in the Boston Children’s Theatre for a season. Then I started having bands when I was like twelve or thirteen-years-old.
Eric: What did you play? Drums?
Jocko: Drums and a bass guitar. We were The Miltones from Milton, Massachusetts. Eventually I was in the Pilgrims from New England with Big Lenny, who I recruited to be in Sha Na Na. I was an All-State football player out of Massachusetts. And Columbia is one of the schools that recruited me, although, I’ve got to tell you late ’60s was not a great time to be playing ball because within a year I had sung at Woodstock and I had to go tell the coach I was moving on and he understood. I said, I got two record deal, I got to play at Woodstock. This was going into my sophomore year. I guess I knew that Columbia was our Broadway so I brought myself to one of the media, of the several cities in the world that show business was in. So I guess I knew all along that I was a good drummer. I had acted all along, in and off the school plays; when I was in the sixth grade I played Scrooge in a Christmas Carol, which is a big part. But first, Sha Na Na became The Kingsmen. Singing tight harmony songs like the School Fight Song and Christmas carols and then they started throwing in the Do-Wop oldies like ‘Come Go With Me.’ So that’s when I knew right away that this had all the elements of the things I was interested in: The drumming, the singing, the acting, the creating a theatrical musical experience. I remember one of the first shows we did on campus. It was completely sold out. It was a night off from the Revolution that was going on outside our doors. There was a lot of protest of the war, especially at Columbia University. They all sort of took a night off to play act and they were as wild as we were because one of my guys’ older brothers put up posters and flyers, “Come As You Were” and they did. I remember I had to negotiate because I was in a play on the stage that night, and I was in both casts. We nailed the drums down so that it wouldn’t topple into the audience and it was hugely successful. We had to go on early because the crowd was so rowdy then we finished, we had 11 songs, that’s all we knew. And they went crazy- so we did them all again. *laughs* I knew that this was something. Right then, I knew this was something.
Eric: What happened next?
Jocko: We had done these things on campus, it was the summer of ‘69. We had done these things on campus so we went down to Yale and we knew we had something. I said, I’m not going to go home so it was the first time I hadn’t gone home for the summer.
Eric: What did your parents think?
Jocko: At first they thought it was wild and later my dad, God rest his soul, he’d sign autographs too. *laughs* We decided to stay in New York, stick it out and see what we could do with this thing. You know, we had a twelve-guy band. What do you do with this now? We did a show at The Boston Tea Party, this was the club where everybody hung out at. After you did your gig, you came to the Steve Paul Scene and hung out. Hendrix jammed there. So we played it for three weeks before it got shut down by a local mafia crew, who wanted protection, and we were there for the last night. But during that week, Hendrix came down three times. Jimi loved it. I’ll tell you how indebted we are to Jimi Hendrix; this whole thing of us getting to Woodstock wouldn’t have happened without Hendrix. He was a sweet, quiet man until he got on stage. Hendrix got the two producers of Woodstock down to see us and that was the very last night it was open. Joplin was there and Zappa was there, Led Zeppelin was there, it was pretty intense for a young rocker.
Eric: Did you see these performers as your peers or as a fan?
Jocko: Hell no! They were the gods! I was the fan.
Eric: Those other musicians all loved Sha Na Na – it was their music.
Jocko: All around, they loved the idea that we were historically looking back at what this was. You see the early pictures of Hendrix with the Isley Brothers and he’s got formidable do and a sharkskin suit on, you know what I mean? This is where they came from, not that long before. So anyway, Ed Goodgoll was our first manager, he was a professor at Columbia, he said “There’s a guy over here talking about Woodstock. Do you want to do it? Do you know what it is?” And I’ve been listening to FM radio. So I said, “yeah, go over and tell him yes”. So, they cut us a deal for $500 and that cheque bounced.
Eric: Did it really?
Jocko: Yeah… and we got a dollar to be in the movie.
Eric: Everybody got a dollar?
Jocko: No, split it up twelve ways. 8 cents each!
Eric: You got the record deal after that. Did the label put any constraints on what you wanted to do or did you know what Sha Na Na was – we’re just going to put it on record.
Jocko: We did an album of some of the original stuff, right away. Half the time we’d do the oldies. The other side were some original songs. Scott Simon, keyboardist, and I had written a lot of songs that are a part of packages. We knew we had a funny thing, a rock in a hard place. We knew that if you played an oldie someone might say that’s not the original. *laughs* If you play the original, that not Sha Na Na. But having ‘At The Hop’ being in Woodstock, it just put us on the map worldwide. And we had a good, energetic set and I think we did pretty well in recreating, and not fixing the songs.
Eric: Where did the idea of the TV show come in?
Jocko: We’re playing nonstop from ‘69 through ‘74, ‘75; were playing to campuses, we’re playing to hippies, we’re playing to punks, we’re playing to everybody!
Eric: How many shows were you doing a year?
Jocko: Oh geez, over a hundred I guess.
Eric: And you’re living essentially on the road?
Jocko: Yeah mostly in and out of New York. But we took classes from Monday afternoon to Thursday mornings and then we used to satellite out to do gigs.
Eric: You were still taking classes… at school?
Jocko: I was still a sophomore when it happened. We always thought, and I’m glad we did it, that we should all get our degrees because there was a changeover right away that the lineup that did Woodstock. Half these guys said listen, I’m going back to pre-med and I’m going back to pre-law and there was some attrition. Then we went out and recruited Johnny, Lenny, Bowzer… And these are the guys who were singers and actors who wanted to be in show business and I was sort of both. It was a good character for me. Some guys had to pretend that they were tough, I was the guy who was tough, you know. It was an amazing time. Then in ‘75– I think it was Colgate-Palmolive or one of the big soap companies who make TV syndicated shows. We were actually one of the first shows offered syndication. Right across American, right off the top. So they came to us and had said they wanted to do a variety show. First, they had pitched it to The Beach Boys and then to Chicago and we were third. And neither of the other groups wanted to do it. But we were a good choice for television because we had the players; I’m not going to say we we’re great dancers but we were capable of movement. Capable of movement. We had a little vocabulary, as we say, in the dance world. We could certainly sing all the harmonies and we had the different flavours of singers- which I think is important. There’s the rockabilly, the rhythm and blues, which is my sort of area, there’s sort of the southern rock, the Jerry Lee kind of stuff and then there’s a little pop Ricky Nelson stuff. There’s a lot of different flavours to this and then we had a character who could sing each flavour. We did 97 half-hours that ran for eighteen years.
Eric: The Sha Na Na TV show will never be on DVD, will it? The cost of licensing the songs is so high.
Jocko: It’s almost too late. People aren’t buying DVD sets, it’s a downloading world. There’s a lot of costs to it and now I just say listen – there must be a 1000 plus YouTube videos, go YouTube it.
Eric: Keep the band alive that way.
Jocko: You know, it’s just all out there. The Sha Na Na name is a household name, and our job and whatever lineup we have is to go there on that given night and entertain with them a set of music we all share. And I think we do that, I think we do it in a very good way. How long I can do it and how to keep it fresh…Until I don’t like doing it, until the phones stop ringing, until I get sick of airports… but that’s with anything, there’s a downside.
Eric: There’re three original members left.
Jocko: Yeah, the good looking guys. We got rid of all those others, guys.
Eric: *laughs* Can Sha Na Na continue forever? Can it go on as a concept with new members all over the world under the Sha Na Na name.
Jocko: Ahh–You’re asking me and I’ve done it for 47 years. I don’t think it would be wise to say no. We worked really hard to get to this point. Other bands, unless they made the charts it was over. No, we were known for our live show. We’re in the biggest in the biggest documentary ever, we ended up in the biggest musical film, ever, and we have our own variety show so we’re in other mediums. We have six songs on the Grease soundtrack and Scott co-wrote ‘Sandy.’
Eric: How does a song like that come about? Does one of the producers ask you or Scott if you have any original songs around?
Jocko: Here’s what happened. Scott quietly did it so that Sha Na Na doesn’t perform it, obviously, John Travolta does. Louis St. Louis and Scott Simon would be sitting in the corner while we were taking breaks at this high school that had an old piano, it was really nice. The producers told them what was going on, that Olivia Newton-John had some great songs that were already in the can. John was light, and he wanted a song. So they wrote Sandy; Scott wrote the lyrics, got it to Louis St. Louis who basically wrote the music, more or less. Then from the writing and then two days later they were recording, then like a day later they were filming at the drive-in. It was really fast and obviously good for Scott. We do it in our show.
Eric: The first time I saw the band live was in ‘77 and it was the night that Elvis Presley passed away.
Jocko: Oh, in Toronto.
Eric: And my parents told me that you did something like five, or six, or seven encores that night. That it was announced, I think, from the stage that Elvis had passed away.
Jocko: Yeah, it was sad. I had never met Elvis. That show, and other concert billings; the monsters of Rock’n’Roll really… Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and a lot of people in between. Ethel Merman– You know it was very interesting this show live. She had the best cold opening, alright, in the TV show. It’s Ethel Merman in front of a big, maroon lush drape, you know, curtain. And she goes “Cuuuuuurrrtaainn uuuppp”, so they raise the curtain and we’re all standing there like The Pogues, standing there looking cool. And she turns around and looks at us and back to the camera, “Cuuuurrrtaaainsss doowwnn”. It was hysterical.
Eric: *laughs* Who did you think wasn’t going to be good on the show but ended up being amazing?
Jocko: Edgar Bergen. This was the funny thing, it wasn’t on him. He had the dummy and he was doing the voice, the ventriloquist. And I swear to God, we had to do three takes; the sound guy kept on going over to the dummy with the overhead mic. For me, James Brown was coming in and I’m a soul fan, this is my wheelhouse, you know- so they gave us his latest tape, Too Funky. I said I don’t want the background singers, let the band sing the backgrounds of this, it will be more soulful. They all said okay. So the next morning, literally, the audience is in and we’re about to play it back and James Brown is about to sing it. We choreographed it the night before. The Godfather of Soul, mind you, he hears it for the first time and we’re all sitting there on the end of the stage. He’s shaking his head, very quiet and finally it ends and he goes, “who’s the drummer?” And I was like wow, uh oh.
Eric: Are you thinking, oh this is bad.
Jocko: Yeah, it could be. So I said, “I am Mr. Brown.” He goes, “Brotha” and he puts out his hand… He wanted five. So a little dab from the Godfather of Soul. So for a drummer, that was the ultimate compliment.
Here’s an addendum to this interview I just did with Jocko from Sha Na Na and if you think he ran out of stories, you’re very wrong. As he’s leaving at the end of an hour talk, he’s walking out the door he says, “I forgot to tell you about the Hollywood Bowl… because Dave Grohl married my niece.” And that’s the last words before he walked out of the hotel room getting ready for the show. “I forgot to tell you about Hollywood Bowl because Dave Grohl married my niece.” That would of been a whole other hour with Jocko from Sha Na Na!
Love live rock and roll.