Sha Na Na and the Woodstock Generation

By George Leonard '67 and Robert Leonard '70
(from COLUMBIA COLLEGE TODAY, Spring/Summer 1989, p. 28)

Editor's note: In 1969 the Columbia Kingsmen, a student singing group, insouciantly traded their jackets, ties and rah-rah spirit for an image with more flash. As Sha Na Na, outfitted in gold lame and Elvis Presley hairdos, they perfected a song and dance repertoire of classic Fifties rock'n'roll. Soon after their memorable "Grease Under the Stars" concert on Low Plaza they shot to stardom, playing at Woodstock, the Fillmores West and East, and many venues in between. Their success inspired the Broadway musical Grease, followed by the movie Grease (in which they appeared); the group eventually had its own television series. Two founders of Sha Na Na offer these reminiscences of the early days. [See George Leonard's accompanying article "How to Dance like Sha Na Na".]

Columbia students in the 1960's grew up knowing that Columbia was a major force in popular culture: Ginsberg and Kerouac had led the Beats; Rodgers, Hart and Hammerstein were giants for the modern Broadway musical; Art Garfunkel (with his friend Paul Simon, an NYU student) pioneered American "folk rock." No miracle that Columbia--and only Columbia!-- was represented at the Woodstock Festival, in the movie Woodstock, and later, held the record for encores (four: the Kinks had to wait in the wings for an hour) at Fillmore West till it closed.

Sha Na Na was, in fact, the Columbia Kingsmen. Even after Woodstock, during its fame as a Fillmore headliner, when members dropped out we recruited new ones from Columbia--like Screaming Scott Simon or Jon "Bowzer" Bauman, the group's second leader, now a TV star and producer.

This year, 1989, is the twentieth anniversary of Woodstock and we found ourselves wanting to write not so much a history of Sha Na Na as something that would recapture that spring-- as Columbia recovered from the Revolution and was about to move into the Woodstock Generation. Events came thick and fast in the Sixties and Columbia was at the center of it all.

Spring, 1969, ended not with another Revolution but with two rock'n'roll extravaganzas, "The Glory That Was Grease" in Wollman, and The First East Coast Grease Festival;--the apocalyptic "Grease Under the Stars" concert on Low Plaza.

Before the Columbia Kingsmen went into rock'n'roll, there were no oldies radio stations and no "theater rock:" white rock groups still stood on stage like the Beatles and sang their album, though a lead singer might cavort like Jagger.

Above all, there were no "Fifties." The Fifties were unregretted, still accurately remembered for the Bomb-fearing, Commie-hunting, money grubbing era they were: the Eighties without the glamor. The Beats dropped out, Jules Feiffer got "sick, sick, sick."

In 1969, most of Columbia had been through a year of the riots, fist fights, and broken friendships of the Revolution. Alumni will remember the morning sounds of glass being chipped from last night's broken windows onto the sidewalk, the tinkling mixing with the drone of a bullhorn echoing off Low Library's steps.

George Leonard's daily dining room handouts and twice-weekly Spectator ads revised the Fifties into a pre-political teenage Eden: "Jocks! Freaks! ROTC! SDS! Let there be a truce! Bury the hatchet (not in each other)! Remember when we were all little greaseballs together watching the eighth-grade girls for pick-ups?" The Kingsmen were very excited when, after "The Glory That was Grease" in Wollman, freaks from SDS went to Beta House and (stoned nearly blind, of course) danced with their recent enemies for hours. The idea most Americans under forty now have of the 1950's is a Columbia fiction: a mythical world before politics that Columbia University, exhausted by the revolution, needed, that spring, to believe in.

Sha Na Na grew out of the unique midnight bull-session atmosphere of the Columbia dorms. When George was a junior on the Fifth Floor Jay, Ed Goodgold and his pals used to play a game in the hall that Ed (with Dan Carlinsky) soon boosted into a national institution: "Trivia." George, meanwhile, banded floor members into an underground film company: basketball great Jim McMillian played the heavy. Then, for Ed's and Dan's fist All-Ivy Trivia Contest, the Kingsmen prepared "Little Darlin'." They wore blazers and stood in a semicircle; but when Rob Leonard did the spoken solo, the audience reaction was so intense that George (already studying choreography) had his vision of a group that would sing only Fifties rock and perform dances like the Busby Berkely films Susan Sontag had taught George to love.

By great luck, George and Rob found in the Kingsmen Elliot Cahn and Al Cooper, who could rewrite simple doo-wop harmonies into operatic compositions for twelve voices; Dave Garrett, a mountainous figure with a pure tenor; natural comic talents like Rich Joffe (graduated summa cum laude!), Jocko Marcellino, and Donny York; keyboardist Joe Witkin, guitarist Bruce Clarke, vocalist Scott Powell; and even a trained dancer, Frederick "Denny" Greene. George's masterpiece, "Duke of Earl" --too difficult ever to be performed in public; the group did it privately for their own satisfaction--ended with Denny doing a Double Pirouette And Mike Snatch inside a halo of flying arms.

The Class of '69's climactic rock orgy came about when the frats' representative offered George $100 to play Spring Carnival--$100 for the whole group. He countered that if they'd pay $100 per man, he'd repackage the carnival as the First East Coast Grease Festival and advertise it up and down the coast. The frats agreed. George wrote an ad for the Grease Festival and put it in Fusion, Rolling Stones's competitor: "Come greased!"

At this point someone in the administration became terrified. These were Columbia College students--at the time, the most feared gang of desperados in the country. Twelve months before, during a warm spring, they had marched across the evening news for six weeks, inspiring student protests across the country with echoes as far away as France. It was spring again, and if they were allowed to mass, no one knew if they'd end the night trying to take City Hall.

Someone in administration canceled the concert--even the frats backed out. George, Rob and Denny Green went to Dean Carl Hovde with the Fusion ad: Thousands of rockers were about to descend on Columbia and if they didn't find a concert, there would be hell to pay. Dean Hovde showed the talent which had gotten Columbia through 1969. He not only accepted reality, he volunteered to pay the Kingmen's wages and threw open the concert to the public--free. The concert became the dean's gift to the students.

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 Kingsmen, who preformed on the steps next to Alma Mater. It was a grand ending for the Class of '69, soon to be called The Woodstock Generation.

Our first agent wanted to call us "The Put-Ons" so George changed our name to Sha Na Na--just for the weekend, he promised, he'd think of something better next week. We hit so fast he became scared to. 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 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 ten 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!"

Some of us figured Jimi got us invited to Woodstock, and as it turned out, we played right before him, when he closed the show with his immortal acid-rock "Star Spangled Banner." A week after his visit Rob had come off a set and found a speechless, glassy-eyed freak in our dressing room. Rob grabbed his belt and shoulders, starting throwing him out--Ed Goodgold, who did our bookings, actually tacked Rob! Ed righted the little guy, gingerly brushed him off. The freak grinned, face cherubic, and mumbled, "You guys have got to be in Woodstock." "What's a Woodstock?" Rob asked. He had almost ejected Michael Lang, the festival's major producer. And Lang wouldn't have been back: that night the mob closed the Scene, possibly for nonpayment of dues, battling the Filipino sap-man and black-belt bouncers, throwing tear gas, and routing rock stars, freaked-out Lang, Henry Gross's 80 year-old grandmother, and our parents.

So five months after George had told us in Rob's apartment that he was going to teach us to dance and make us stars, a bunch of Columbia guys who had merely signed up for a King's Crown Activity were staring dumbfounded out the open door of a troop transport helicopter as it flew over miles of hippies, abandoned cars, smashed fences, campfires and wandering day-glo-colored armies looking for water and food and dope.

Everyone was long hair, love beads and tie-dye; they stood around the mikes and sang. When we burst onto stage greased, in gold lame, doing George's Busby-Berkeley-Goes-Apollo dances, a quarter of a million freaks probably thought they'd taken the wrong acid. We did well enough, though, to make the Oscar-winning movie--if you had to pick ten films that will be watched, indeed studied, one hundred years from now, there's one.

Woodstock is American cultural history, and only Columbia had its delegation there, for very good reasons. Columbia works in weird ways: the tradition of leadership in popular culture, the catalyst of the dorms, the superheated New York City atmosphere. All these are inseparable parts of the Columbia education. George sometimes sends money to his old dorm room, addressed "Occupant." He's waiting to see what comes out of the dorms next.

George Leonard, who supplied the conception and choreography for Sha Na Na, received his Ph.D. from Columbia in 1972, and has taught English at Yale and the University of California at Irvine. His novels, Beyond Control and The Ice Cathedral, have been widely praised. He is Professor of Interdisciplinary Humanities at San Francisco State University.

Robert Leonard, Sha Na Na's first president, is Professor of Linguistics at Hofstra University. He has been administrative vice president and professor of linguistics at Friends World College in Huntington, N.Y.; he formerly directed the school's East African Center in Kenya. He received his Ph.D. from Columbia in 1982, where he also taught Swahili.