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An ‘original’ sheds light on Sha Na Na — and how it spawned doo-wop revival, miscast ‘50s as golden era
Thursday, 10 November 2022 22:16
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A discussion on the musical and cultural impact of Sha Na Na —  formed in 1969 as a doo-wop revival band that unexpectedly impressed guitar-great Jimi Hendrix who helped pave the way for the band’s unlikely smashing national debut at the famed Woodstock Music Festival (a few months later) in August 1969 — was held Nov. 2 during the Music to Your Ears session at the Asheville Guitar Bar in Asheville’s River Arts District.

The 90-minute program, which drew a full house of about 30 attendees, featured Elliot “Gino” Cahn — a founding member of Sha Na Na (who sang and played rhythm guitar) and now is an Asheville-area resident — in an “interactive” discussion (including a few breaks to listen to recordings by the group) with Asheville-based author and music journalist Bill Kopp. 

Periodically, the program was opened to questions from audience members for Cahn. And there were many questions, including afterward. (Cahn is now mainly an entertainment lawyer, but still loves performing music.) 

A revelation to emerge from Cahn’s talk was his contention that Sha Na Na members agreed from the start to capitalize off the idea that the band should present the America of the 1950s as Americans, in 1969, wanted to remember it, instead of the rather ugly way it really was. 

Before the program began, Kopp, the host, played over the Asheville Guitar Bar’s sound system covers — by Sha Na Na — of several doo-wop classics, including the following:

• “Get a Job” — a song originally recorded by The Silhouettes that sold more than 1 million records and reached No. 1 on both the pop and rhythm and blues record charts in 1958. 

• “Teen Angel” — a song originally recorded by Mark Dinning that hit No. 1 on the Billboard chart in 1960, despite the reported initial reluctance of some disc jockeys to play it because of its morbid subject matter — a teenager’s car stalls on the railroad tracks.

• “Book of Love”  — a song originally recorded in 1958 by The Monotones that reached No. 5 on the pop chart and No. 3 on the R&B chart.

(In a brief interview after the program, Cahn told the Daily Planet that he grew up singing doo-wop music with groups in New York City, including outside under the streetlamps at night, as welll as singing in any other locales available. He said he also had deeply experienced listening and singing to jukebox music in diners and elsewhere. What’s more, he admitted a deep love for doo wop music.)

The formal program began with Cahn noting that, while attending Columbia University, he joined what is billed as the school’s “oldest and finest” all-male a cappella group “since 1948,” the Columbia Kingsmen, where, in Ivy League style, he said with a laugh, “it was blazers with repp ties (classic, diagonally striped silk ties) and grey flannels (trousers).”

The group performed about three times a year, he said, recalling that it once performed for the the “psych ward” at a local hospital, where, he noted that, in an ironic twist, the group “sang Little Anthony and the Imperials’ ‘Goin’ Out of My Head,” a 1965 hit that was a major leap from the Columbia Kingsmen’s usual repertoire — but was well-received by both the staff and the mental patients. 

“I took over the musical direction of this group when I was a sophomore. We did more folk-rock stuff,” at first. “But we still wore navy blue (blazer) jackets, ties and grey flannel pants.”

After a pause, Cahn said, “We had someone (George Leonard) in the group who was obsessed with pop culture and trivia — and he put on the first All-Ivy Trivia Contest, at which Sha Na Na performed The Diamonds’ “Little Darlin’,” a 1957 doo-wop classic 

At that point, Sha Na Na’s cover of “Little Darlin’” then was played over The AshevilleGuitar Bar’s sound system.

Cahn reiterated that, standing in a semi-circle, “we did this (song), wearing navy blue (blazer) jackets, ties and grey flannel pants.”

According to an essay, “Sha Na Na and the Woodstock Generation,” it was during the group’s performance at the trivia contest that “when Rob Leonard did the spoken solo (of “Little Darlin’” when the audience reaction was so intense that George  Leonard (already studying choreography) had his vision of a group that would sing only ‘50s rock and perform dances like the Busby Berkely films Susan Sontag had taught George to love.”

The essay added, “By great luck, George and Rob found in the (Columbia) Kingsmen Elliot Cahn and Al Cooper, who could rewrite simple doo-wop harmonies into operatic compositions for 12 voices....”When the school’s fraternities decided to throw a spring 1969 carnival, the essay noted, George Leonard said that if they hired the Columbia Kingsmen at $100 per man, he would repackage it as the First East Coast Grease Festival and advertise it up and down the East Coast.   

The essay noted that “the Grease Festival turned out to be the first taste of Woodstock, three months later. Five thousand spaced-out, peaceful freaks from Harvard to Virginia made a bobbing sea of heads beneath the (Columbia) Kingsmen, who performed on the steps next to (their) alma mater. It was a grand ending for the Class of ‘69, soon to be called The Woodstock Generation.”

To that, Cahn added with a smile, “We threw a party with a flyer called, ‘Come as you were.’”

To much acclaim, “we played our set (of all of the doo wop songs that the group had rehearsed) — and then they made us play our set again,” Cahn said. “That’s all we knew. So something kind of clicked” with the crowd becoming so ecstatic over the doo wop music.

Then someone laid out a plan,” Cahn explained. “In 1969, the whole country was yearning for a return to the 1950s — even though many people were trying to forget that the ‘50s even happened.

“This guy, George Leonard, soon told the other members of the Columbia Kingsmen that “if you do it exactly as I say it, you’ll be the heroes” of their generation and beyond. 

When one of the group members objected, noting, “But George, only one of us ever even played in a band before,” Cahn said, “He (Leonard) looked at us and said (merely), ‘Details!’

So he convinced us after this one show” to become a 1950s doo wop revival group, “so we spent one month furiously learning songs and choreography. Everyone showed up in (‘50s doo wop) costumes,” ranging from gold lamé suits to greaser attire.

After another pause, Cahn noted that in 1969, “The atmosphere at Columbia was real hostile. People on the left and the right were talking about as kindly to one another as people are now.

“The strange thing is these people who hated each other were walking around the halls, singing together” — but only to 1950s doo wop songs.“Then we did a show for 4,000-5,000 people. It was just riotous. We found a manager and agent. For our very, very first gig, we played at Dino’s Club in mid-town New York.”While waiting alone in Dino’s office, Cahn said, “I saw a contract (on the desk that he chose to read that specified no payment was to made to the group), so somebody was ripping us off on our very first gig.”

The group’s first agent-manager also wanted to change the name of the Columbia Kingsmen to The Put-Ons, so, according to the aforementioned essay, “George changed our name to Sha Na Na — just for the weekend, he promised... he’d think of something better next week. “We (then) hit so fast he became scared to (change the group’s name to something else). Within two months we were the hottest rock act in New York, held over week after week at Steve Paul’s Scene, where the stars themselves partied. 

“One night Janis Joplin ran backstage to kiss us, reeking of Southern Comfort; another night Rob was being helped off the Scene’s floor after collapsing in the finale

“One night Janis Joplin ran backstage to kiss us, reeking of Southern Comfort; another night Rob was being helped off the Scene’s floor after collapsing in the finale of ‘Teen Angel,’ and Bruce Clarke, Ellie Cahn, and Henry Gross were blasting into ‘Wipe Out,’ when Rob looked up and saw Jimi Hendrix not 10 feet away, jumping up and down on a chair, clapping and waving his arms, looking like he was going to take off and fly. Later he told us we were ‘Right ON!’”

Regarding the late guitar great, Cahn said, “Jimi Hendrix was there literally every night. I was playing electric guitar… There was some woman standing up and ripping at her hair like we were the Beatles. It was Janis Joplin. Eric Clapton came” and was enthused. “Within two weeks, we had signed with the William Morris Agency. We gpt booked at the Filmore."

Cahn added, "Then this very scruffy guy came up and said, 'Hey man, I'm playing at Woodstock! Would you guys (Sha Na Na) lke to play" there, too? It was Jimi Hendrix — and that show he got us booked at was ... Woodstock!"


At that point, Kopp asked Cahn, “How many gigs do you think you (Sha Na Na) did before the Woodstock show?”


“Maybe four or five,” Cahn replied.


“Golly!” Kopp exclaimed, before asking, “What about Woodstock?”


“We (Sha Na Na) were supposed to go on right after Joe Cocker, but it started to rain, so other performers wanted to go on (and were allowed to perform, so they could leave immediately afterward) before us,” Cahn said of the Woodstock festival.


“Jimi Hendrix’s contract said he would close the show” and, Cahn said, given the delays and problems caused by the rain deluge before Hendrix’s scheduled performance, Hendrix could have just insisted to perform the first thing the next morning and been finished with the concert.


 Instead, Cahn added, “He (Hendrix) was basically nice enough to let us go on first (on the last morning of Woodstock), right before him, We were hanging out with him (Hendrix)  — and he kind of liked us” and the Sha Na Na’s doo wop music. “He thought we were cute little college kids.”


After another pause, Cahn said, “I knew my band (Sha Na Na) was going to tear it up (energize the Woodstock audience)  — and there was (almost) nobody there (a reduced crowd because of the rain). We sounded terrible. It was a disaster. But we played.”


Kopp then interjected, “There’s the idea that ‘whoever writes history determines who is remembered.’” 


To that end, Kopp suggesed that everyone should “read the list of famous bands which played (at the Woodstock festival) that weren’t remembered because they weren’t included in the (subsequent) movie (that featured the festival). 


“So you guys (Sha Na Na) were fortunate, in that sense — that you were included in the soundtrack... and in the movie.”


Responding, Cahn said, “We (Sha Na Na) got (paid) $300 for playing Woodstock. Half gets paid to the agent. The other half gets paid later (to the group) — and the ($150) check (to pay the 12 group members) bounced” when he tried to cash it.


Wryly, he added that, now, “I wish I had kept that check instead” as a momento, given that it was such a paltry amount for a performance by a large group at the most renowned of all music festivals, rather than losing track of the check after it bounced for insufficient funds in the banking system.


Further, Cahn said, “They were going to cut us from the (‘Woodstock Festival’) film, but we went over very well with the focus group, so that’s how we got included in the film.” (The group was featured in its performance of Danny & the Junior’s 1957 doo wop classic, “At the Hop.”)


The Sha Na Na co-founder then noted that “the first big gig we did (after Woodstock) was at the Filmore East. I opened my mouth (as the lead singer on the first song) and nothing came out,” so he shook the microphone up and down, as if it was its fault, before his voice returned, creating much attention and interest from the crowd over his seemingly crazed antics.


“We (also) did have a record deal, we just hadn’t started recording yet,” he said.


Kopp said, “Bands have different experiences with overnight success. You (Sha Na Na) guys had it close to ‘overnight?’” He then asked Cahn if he could address that quandary.


“There were 12 of us — one is now an Old Testmanent scholar — and all were still in college, except for me,” Cahn replied. “So basically, we could only play on long weekends and vacations, so we didn’t get carried away like some bands do,” with overnight success.


“Henry Gross was our first guitar player… and he quit after a year to pursue a solo career... He had a hit about (the late) Carl Wilson’s dog — and it sounded just like a Beach Boys’ song. (Wilson was an original member of the Beach Boys.)


Someone in the audience then asked, “Why did you quit Sha Na Na?”


“Without being melodramatic, I looked at how my life would be — and that it would be bad for my soul... perpetually crazy,” Cahn answered. “I would get bored really fast. I just thought this is not good.”


However, Cahn noted that prior to leaving the group, he was involved with Sha Na Na’s first four albums.


Kopp asked, “Did subsequent producers run the show?”


In reply, Cahn said, “We (Sha Na Na) weren’t really very good (musically). We had a terrific live act — and people just loved us. But when we got into the studios, we weren’t particularly good — and we were singing covers, so that’s not good” that Sha Na Na did not sound as good as the originals.


Further, Cahn asserted, “None of our (Sha Na Na) albums did particularly well. The fourth one was a ‘gold album,’” but despite achieving the “gold” distinction, he said the group just did not excel musically. 


At that point, Kopp showed the program attendees a Sha Na Na album cover, autographed for him by Cahn.


Cahn then triggered laughter from the audience — and Kopp, the emcee — when he quipped, “I told him (Kopp) the last autograph I did... was for the IRS.”


Cahn then recounted that, during his time with Sha Na Na, the group performed at concerts that included famous acts on the bill, including then-ex-Beatle John Lennon (and Yoko Ono), Stevie Wonder and the then-up-and-coming singer-guitarist Bruce Springsteen. 


And the emcee at one concert was Geraldo Rivera, whose show business career was just getting started and who Sha Na Na befriended.


To a questions from the audience, Cahn said, “We never met John (Lenon). He barricaded himself within his dressing room.


“We met Stevie Wonder — and he hung out with us. He was playing piano and we were singing with him.


“We met Keith Moon, the drummer of The Who, who is my favorite drummer of all time, at a concert at which we were playing at. And he invited me and some others to a party at his house. My nickname was (still) ‘Gino’ at the time....”


Kopp asked, “Outside of the United States, where did you tour?”


“When I was in the group, we did three (overseas) tours,” Cahn answered. “We did well in England and Germany, but when we were in Paris, (France) we had a disastrous concert. We were at a big dilapidated sports stadium. It probably seated 10,000 people — and maybe 200 people showed up. Among those people were a gang of French hoodlums — and maybe they thought we’d sound like Eddie Cochran (‘Summertime Blues’), so they took over the stage... and we ended the concert” in complete disarray.


Kopp queried, “The Grateful Dead?”


“Jerry (Garcia, the Dead’s principal songwriter, lead guitarist, and a vocalist) liked us quite a bit. He smiled broadly (when Sha Na Na performed)  — he probably was stoned.”


“Sly Stone?” Kapp asked, referring to the frontman for the soul group Sly & the Family Stone.


“Three hours late,” Cahn said succinctly in response. “He (Stone) did show up, but he was always late


“Alice Cooper?” Kopp asked.


“We did a lot of shows with him — and he loved us and we loved him,” Cahn answered. “We got along very well with him.”


“Yes,” Kopp said, “you both had the ‘theatrical’ thing,” an assessment that drew no disagreement from Cahn.

Kopp asked, “The film ‘Festival Express’ — were you in it?”

“Yes, we were in it,” Cahn said of Sha Na Na., noting that the band also was booked to play at the Filmore West, in a situation wherein if it canceled an appearance, it would never be invited back, “so we only played the last stop of the festival, in Calgary, where I think the film was made.” (“Festival Express” was about a 1970 train tour (of the same name) that rolled across Canada, featuring some of North America’s top rock bands.)

The film got shot… and then they ran into financial problems. And so it was sitting in someone’s cellar for 30 years,” instead of being released in theaters. However, the tapes eventually were rediscovered and the film was released, Cahn said.

“Bruce Springsteen?” Kopp asked.

“He opened a bunch of shows for us,” Cahn said. “He was just getting going” when the members of Sha Na Na met him. “His first album had been out for a few months and wasn’t doing that well. We played a lot of colleges — and he wanted to break into the college market.”

Speaking further about Springsteen, Cahn said, “He had just learned ‘Rosalita,’ which was an amazing song and performance. We hung out together” — and Sha Na Na members were fond of the young Springsteen — and vice versa.

Kopp then asked, “Did you have a sense when you crossed paths with Springsteen that this guy would be thought of in the same way as Van Morrison” — and other musical greats?

I thought he was really good, but I’m not sure I thought of him that way” at that point in Springsteen’s career, Cahn replied.

“Steely Dan?” Kopp asked.

“They also opened several shows for us,” Cahn answered. “There were several different characters” in Steely Dan. “Some were ‘stand-offish,’ while others were really friendly.”

Kopp asserted, “A number of music scholars credit Sha Na Na as sort of lighting the fuse to the musical revival that opened the doors to (the Broadway musical and film hit) ‘Grease.’”

In response, Cahn said, “If you listen to this guy (a Sha Na Na founder and member) George Leonard, who was the creative spark... In 1969, (he said) America was yearning for a quieter, more placid, duller world,” following the nearly nonstop protests and social unrest that were upsetting citizens across the nation.

“What George was talking about was ‘the greaser’ — rather than ‘the beatnik’ — being created (and highlighted). What we (Sha Na Na) tried to do is hand people the 1950s the way they wanted it, rather than the way it really was.”

A program attendee then asked if Sha Na Na ever wrote and performed original songs?

“We did a side on our second album that was all originals,” Cahn answered. “It was good, but not great.”

Another program attendee asked if any original members remain in Sha Na Na.

The only remaining originals in Sha Na Na, according to Cahn, are Jocko Marcellino, the drummer and vocalist; and Donny York,” a vocalist. Since the group’s founding, “they’ve gone through hundreds of people” as performers.

Cahn added, “We (Sha Na Na) did a reunion concert at Columbia (University) around five or six years ago. The most fun was when we were around the piano, where we learned we still could sing together. But I felt like an ‘old fart’ on stage.”

Kopp asked Cahn to specify what musical instruments and equipment he played and used through the years.

Cahn says he owned a Fender Stratocaster electric guitar and a Fender Showman amp — and a Les Paul Jr. electric guitar.” 

Regarding Sha Na Na’s legacy and its marketability now, Cahn noted that “I ran into someone wanted to make a ‘jukebox musical’ about Sha Na Na, but the script was terrible and it never went anywhere.”

Following up, Kopp said, “There was a Sha Na Na TV series in the 1960s,” after Cahn had left the group.

“I thought it (the TV series) was awful,” Cahn asserted.

Agreeing, Kopp quipped (in an apparent reference to the group’s “greaser” aspect), “It was like ‘Hee Haw’ — with Brilcreem.”

Members of the audience laughed at Cahn’s and Kopp’s jabs at the Sha Na Na TV show, but one unidentified man in the crowd said that when he was just a young boy growing up, he watched the show each week “and loved it” then and still remembers it with great fondness today, so he said it was hurtful to hear Cahn’s and Kopp’s trashing of the show.

At that point, both Cahn and Kopp expressed their apprecation to the audience member for sharing his thoughts on the TV show — and said they did not intend to cause offense.

Then Kopp played the second song of the night — Sha Na Na’s cover of the 1961 doo wop classic “Rama Lama Ding Dong” by The Edsels.Despite Cahn’s expressed love and appreciation of doo wop music, he also made numerous critical remarks about the music and the groups, including a verbal shot at the group The Edsels for naming itself after a famously failed model of automobile.

Speaking of himself, Kopp asked, “So having played music — not that (doo wop)  kind of music — the songs were short… so how long was the setlist” for Sha Na Na shows (concerts)?

“It was very long,” Cahn replied with a smile.

An audience member then asked, “Is it easy to find videos of live performances when you (Cahn) were in the group?”

“It’s not that easy,” Cahn answered. “It was right before the video era.”

With a grimace, Cahn then reiterated a comment from earlier in the program that “we (Sha Na Na, a 12-member group) got cheated out of $50 for our first gig."

The question of how the group got its name was asked again.“We were the Columbia Kingsmen,” Cahn replied, noting there already was a famous West Coast group called the Kingsmen that had recorded “Louie, Louie,” a classic rock party song.

“The first (doo wop) song we did was the Silhouettes’ ‘Get a Job,’” so the ‘sha na na’ line from that song was adopted as the new name for the group as it transitioned into 1950s’ music.

Later in the program, Cahn said, “My mom taught me how to sing… I loved harmonies” from the beginning, “so doo-wop music was perfect for me... I was the musical director of the group (Sha Na Na).”

During the program, a Daily Planet reporter asked why the tempos of most — if not all — doo wop covers by Sha Na Na were speeded up so much. Why were the gorgeous harmonies being sacrificed for the sake of speed?

"The tempos were timed to match the choreography,” Cahn replied, noting that to rev up an audience with doo wop music, especially in 1969, the group felt it had to greatly accelerate the tempos of its songs. Kopp added,

“Hardly any of those songs hit the three-minute mark.”

Agreeing, Cahn added, “We definitely sacrificed the music for the choreography. It (the Sha Na Na approach to doo wop music) was very aggressive” — and it had to be, for those times.

Kopp asked Cahn, “Do you still have a gold lamé suit?”

“I never wore one,” Cahn answered with a smile. “I really became ‘Gino’ (his Sha Na Na nickname) for a long time.

“When we played our first show, I put half a tube of K-Y (Jelly personal lubricant) in my hair and combed it back. The first time I greased my hair back, I said, “Oh god,’ I look like….”

“So what did you do once you left the band?” Kopp asked.

“I played with Henry Gross for a year and half. Then I ended up singing on some albums. As soon as I went on the road, I knew he was booked, and it was fun singing with him....

Later, “I was drunk on a plane and reading ‘War and Peace’  — and I just thought, if Leo Tolstoy could do it (be a writer), so could I. I wanted to be writer... So I spent about a year in Los Angeles as a free-lance journalist... Then I went to law school — then graduate school. And then I worked at a think tank for several years — and was tricked by somebody to be a lawyer.”

He later became an attorney for various speed metal bands, lost his hearing and transitioned to punk pop bands, eventually managing the band Green Day.

A woman in the audience asked, “Do you still sing and, if so, what is your favorite song?”

“I still sing,” Cahn replied. “I still play the guitar.— an acoustic. Recently, I liked a song by a group called Little Big Town, a band out of Nashville, that sounds sort of like Crosby, Stills and Nash...”

Someone asked the former Sha Na Na member if he could be in another band, “playing exactly what you’d like,” what would have been his choice?

“I would have been in a band like the Byrds, something like that — or Crosby, Stills... and Cahn — that would have been nice!” Cahn said with a smile.

Kopp then noted “(Frank) Zappa was a huge doo-wop fan....”

To that, Cahn strongly agreed that Zappa loved doo wop music and “one of the guys in my band (Sha Na Na) said Frank wore a gold lamé suit.”

On a coy note, Kopp asked, “There’s a possiblity you’ll be teaching a class at UNCA?”

“Yes,” Cahn replied, “and there’s a possibility you (Kopp) will be teaching that class with me.”

Kopp then said, “Elliot and I have put together a proposal for a curriculum of the ‘History of Rock ’n’ Roll from the 1950s and ‘60s’” to teach at UNCA’s College for Seniors. “We’ve submitted our proposal, but we haven’t heard yet."

Cahn addded, "They really ought to say ‘Yes.' If that one (college class proposal) goes, you’ll ‘have’ me.”




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