SHA NA NA, Carnegie Hall, June 1974

Like many others I had a weak spot for Sha Na Na, the tongue-in-cheek American golden oldies troupe that was a surprise hit at Woodstock. I first saw them at London’s Speakeasy in the summer of 1971, and at the Reading Festival the same week, and on that visit to the UK I interviewed them too, or tried to as they acted in character on and off stage. Keith Moon was a big fan, of course. Wearing a gold lame suit, Keith introduced them on stage that year at the Carnegie Hall in New York. He did the same thing at the Crystal Palace Bowl the following year, a show that was headlined by The Beach Boys. 

I was at a Sha Na show at the Carnegie Hall 50 years ago last weekend, and here’s what I wrote on Melody Maker’s Caught In The Act page. 

Sha Na Na were reviving rock and roll long before anyone else, and long before the current wave of nostalgia swept down on both sides of the Atlantic. Last week they played a couple of shows at Carnegie Hall, and despite the familiarity of their act they proved they are the best at this particular form of rock entertainment.

They were handicapped, though. Bowser, the tall skinny guy with the deep bass voice, was unable to appear apart from a walk-on part as a dance hall MC. For my money, he’s always been the star of Sha Na Na’s show, a singularly ugly young man blessed with a remarkable voice that blends naturally into what the group are trying to put over.

As a result, they were down to nine men, not a small complement for a rock band by any means, but they nevertheless sounded thinner than usual. Instrumentation was kept at a minimum and they relied totally on the harmony vocals to carry them along. Last month their guitarist, Vinnie Taylor, died but his replacement, Elliott Randall*, acquitted himself well within the limited range that guitaring for Sha Na Na offers.

Bearing in mind these setbacks, the band whipped up enormous excitement among the New Yorkers who were surprisingly young. I’d expected a Carnegie Hal full of greasers from the West Side but Sha Na Na’s fans seems to be mainly teenagers. There wasn’t a motor cycle to be seen on 57th Street, and the only leather jackets had buttons instead of zips. 

The show opened with the familiar Sha Na Na routines acting out the ’Fifties oldies that are now almost as synonymous with Sha Na Na as the versions by the original artists. Then they “hit the street”, changing clothes for another bunch of oldies. This time the stage props included trash cans, gas lamps and traffic lights.

This was followed by the dance contest, compared by the hitherto absent Bowser who received an enormous cheer as he walked on and explained that his doctor had prevented him from singing and dancing because he had a partially collapsed lung. He then intimated that he’d threatened his doctor with a chain, which resulted in his belated appearance this evening.

Three of the band picked partners from the audience for the contest which was played mainly for laughs. The winning girl’s prize was an opportunity to dance with fat horn player Lenny – “The Sensuous King Of Rock And Roll”.

The show closed with the back curtains pulled back to reveal a small orchestra – brass and strings – all dressed in their vests. Mostly they were drowned out by the vocals and yelling from the audience, and as usual the group paraded back for a total of four encores. A good evening’s fun. 

* Trivia note: Elliott Randall played the well-known guitar solo on Steely Dan’s ‘Reelin’ In the Years’. 


Glenn Burris said...

Wow, hadn't thought about those guys in quite some time, must say.

The concert you reviewed was about 5 months after the debut of Happy Days. That show was a decent hit from the word 'go', waffled for a bit, then took the top of the TV mountain and kept its flag there for years. I don't recall knowing anybody who didn't like it during its best seasons.

When Sha Na Na got a second wind in the 70s (and then scored their own variety show), it was presumed that it was all owed to a 50s nostalgia craze spearheaded by Happy Days. But maybe that's presuming too much. Maybe Sha Na Na could have made it just fine without Richie and The Fonz. I don't know of anybody else exploiting the same niche at that time.

From their Woodstock performance (where, as I understand it, nobody knew who they were), it was pretty apparent they could win over a crowd no matter the size or time of day. Weren't they on at 8 AM Monday there, or some other ludicrous time slot? And earned an encore?

Anyway, thanks for another interesting read.

Chris Charlesworth said...

Thanks for that Glenn. I always thought there was a real authenticity to them, even if they did play it laughs for part of their show. CC

Danny Hesse said...

Here's The Ronettes (with Ronnie looking unbearbly sexy!) from Sha-Na-Na's syndicated TV show for 1977. They walk in about 1:50 in. I always liked them, as they were indeed authentic, truly talented, AND played for laughs.

Chris Charlesworth said...

Thanks for that Danny. CC