Sha Na Na: Carefree greasers
By Mary Campbell
Sha Na Na is starting the 1970s performing the rock music of the 1950s. Why?
“It’s carefree music,” says Richard Joffe of the group. “You can take almost any song, even a sad song, of the ’50s and it still sounds carefree, compared with the heavy sounds that are really setting the pace now. There’s a lack of anxiety.
Happy mood of 1950s
“It’s the whole happy mood of the 1950s music we’re really interested in creating.”
Elliot Cahn says, “It’s an extremely naive kind of music. People’s minds were not fettered by the problems they are now. Look at what they were worrying about — ‘Why must I be a teenager in love?'”
Sha Na Na is a group of twelve, eleven of them students at Columbia University in New York, one a student at Brooklyn College. They perform on weekends and with all the grease in the performer’s hair — that gave early rock name “grease music.”
They also made an LP for Buddah, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Is Here To Stay!” including such classics as “Teen Angel” from 1959 and “Heartbreak Hotel” from 1956, done “straight” in the original arrangements.
Jacket lists information
The record jacket gives the lyrics, original artist, year, writers and publisher. Ten members of Sha Na Na take solos; at a personal appearance, everybody does. Some sound a lot like the original singer, as Scott Powell does Elvis Presley and Joe Witkin, Dion.
The group got together out of the Columbia Glee Club less than a year ago, learned a few oldies but goodies and at its first concert, when asked for an encore, ran through the whole repertoire again. It named itself Sha Na Na from the refrain in “Get a Job” (1958).
Plans to continue
This year, four are sophomores, four juniors and four seniors, but the group doesn’t intend to disband with June graduation. The Seniors either are going on to grad school or did well in the draft lottery.
Audiences, on hearing Sha Na Na, always laugh whether old enough to recall the original songs or not. Joffe says, “Often an audience isn’t applauding, but it laughs at something and that’s the first step to letting down its defenses and enjoying.”
Cahn says, “I think we’d be offended if nobody laughed. But it’s more than funny.
Big influence now
Members of Sha Na Na don’t go as far as to call the “back to the ’50s” rock we hear today a trend or movement. Joffe says, “It’s just one of the big influences right now.”
Bruce Clarke says, “For the last couple of years rock has been getting its impetus from ‘Sergeant Pepper,’ Jimi Hendrix, etc. It is a very heavy introverted sound.”
Cahn adds, “Rock got a little sidetracked in the last couple of years.”
Clarke says, “We decided that music doesn’t have too much farther to go down that vein; it’s getting back to the more simple and less frenetic. We’re not saying that current rock is bad or that we’re trying to save the masses. Extremely fine music is coming out all the time. But more and more the groups that do their own current material arrange it along old lines, more basic lines, like the ’50s.”
Joffe says, ‘I think rock is getting back to humming. I think groups will do things you can go away and hum.
“But one very positive thing that came out of this sidetracking is more meaningful and artistic lyrics.”
Others doing hard rock
Clarke says “Many groups are coming out with ’50s material. The main difference is that they’re doing the really hard roots of rock. Chuck Berry, Little Richard — solo performers pretty much nationally ignored at that time — started the trend to increasing instrumentalizing. But the music we do is almost always vocally large.”
Sha Na Na on stage tries to recreate the feeling of a 1950s streetcorner bunch, with jeans, sleeveless T-shirts (one newspaper wouldn’t use a picture of them because it thought that was underwear) and white socks.
And three members wear gold lame suits from a theatrical costumer which made them for a road company of “Bye Bye Birdie,” in which Conrad Birdie was a 1960 takeoff on Elvis Presley.”
Video of Sha Na Na singing “Teen Angel” – September 23, 1970 – Fillmore East