It’s been more than 40 years since Sha Na Na’s break-out appearance at Woodstock, but the group is still out there performing that good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll. Some of you may remember them as Johnny Casino and the Gamblers in “Grease: The Movie,” or maybe you watched their TV series. Then, there are the albums featuring both originals and cover materials. If you’re real lucky, you’ve seen one of their high-energy shows and if not, you have another chance with their current tour making two stops in Upstate NY: Turning Stone Restort and Casino and Seneca Niagara Casino and Hotel. Jocko Marcellino, one of the three original members still performing as Sha Na Na, took some time to talk about their first Christmas CD, “Rockin’ Christmas: The Classic Christmas Collection,” along with life in the do-wop lane.
Angela Thor: Why did you decide to do a Christmas album this year?
Jocko Marcellino: The label came to us, and some of them had been released before and the label said “let’s rerelease them” and I said “let’s do six new bonus sides because we had, it’s one of those things when you, as soon as you wrap a project, you come up with more songs. We’re always writing songs and writing Christmas songs and I’m really pleased with some of the new ones, some of the original titles. I wrote a song called “This Is My New Year’s Resolution” and there’s one called “There Ain’t No Holly in Hollywood,” which is the Southern California lament. Donny [York] has a nice vocal one called “Say Ho Ho Ho,” so we got them all in there and it just makes sense with us. We’re sort of an Americana thing and luckily, we don’t seem to fade away and what’s good about Christmas is it comes every year.
AT: A lot of people have the economy on their minds. Do you think your music is more popular in bad times than in good times?
JM: Well, we go in cycles, for sure, with people interested in this set of music, but you might have something there. It is throwback; they’re sort of fun, warm songs that everybody shares. It’s everybody’s music, and it’s the kind of music and the sound, the do wop and the rock ‘n’ roll, that is shared by two, three, four generations of families where other music is not. So yeah, I think there’s definitely something to that.
AT: The album is a mix of covers and originals, is that your standard?
JM: We like to do that and we want to make sure when we do an original song, it sounds like what they expect to hear from Sha Na Na. Twenty years ago, we probably did experiments trying to sound like something else then we decided “eh, we sound like ourselves.” We really know and love the sound of the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll, which is about ’55 through ’62.
AT: Do you only write music for Sha Na Na?
JM: No, I write music for television, films, and I had a couple of Halloween songs that did very well last couple of years. I had them on “Law and Order,” “Special Victims Unit,” “Pretty Little Liars,” “Castle,” “The Office,” so I do a lot of other recording. Basically, you need to deliver the whole master now, it’s a whole different scene where you can have home studios and do a complete top to bottom. The people want to hear finished songs, so that’s what’s my advantage. I can write, produce, and perform, and own the material without having encumbrances that a TV show or a film would have to get around. When I have songs I go in there when I have songs I want to put down, and sometimes it works for Sha Na Na or sometimes it doesn’t. I’m just so fortunate to be able to make a living doing this extremely rewarding and fun thing. I can afford to jump in the studio when I have an idea.
AT: You also act.
JM: Yeah, I’ve done a lot of character acting. Surprisingly, I play either mobsters or cops. It got me a lot of work. I can turn up the accent a bit, my Brooklynese. (I’m really from Boston.)
AT: Any one aspect you like the best.
JM: I’m a drummer and a singer and I write on guitar but I don’t really know music theory heavy, so most of what I do is collaborative, whether I’m producing a group or doing a show with the guys or a show with my own bunch of guys, I do things as Jocko and the Rockets, but then when you’re doing a film or a TV show, it’s a collaborative thing and I always liked that, being part of a group. I don’t mind being a leader in a group, but I think I enjoy the democratic group experience. And I like to perform, and that can come in a lot of different mediums, and I’m lucky enough to have done them all. I did a gig up at St. Camillus [healthcare facility, Syracuse, NY] once. We were over at the [NY State] Fair and Michelle Rivoli was a marketer with the hospital group and she said “would you come over” so Donny and I came over after our show because we were staying overnight. They picked us up in some cool, old, fifties cars and we went over to St. Camillus and did a little free show for them. It always feels good that you can do something that they can enjoy. I guy came up to me afterwards and said: “Listen, my mother hasn’t smiled in a year.” and that’s great.
AT: How do you go about choosing new members?
JM: Well, number one, you’re looking for a slot, say you need a sax player who sings. And then we find, I’ve found guys who are, obviously, younger than us, but really know and live for this kind of music. Like Michael [Brown] and Gene [Jaramillo], Gene’s on lead guitar and Michael’s on sax, these guys can play and sing their brains out in a lot of different idioms, but they really like the sound that we do. It was funny when we first hit it was like “that’s campy old music”, then all of a sudden it’s like “wow, that roots music is really interesting” and these guys, who are like formidable musicians, realize they had to work hard to play it right because you can’t play a thousand notes. You have to empty it out and make it primitive, which makes it so real and accessible. And there are just a lot of younger guys who are students of this music. There are not a tremendous amount of original art forms that are American. There’s, I would say, jazz, and I would say rock ‘n’ roll, because the rest if borrowed and combinations, but it’s just such great, original, roots music, and there are some young cats who are just diggin’ it, so they really fit in to what we’re doing. And we do a lot of harmonies, so we want guys that have good ears, and we want performers because the other element that we made successful from day one is we don’t just play the songs; we present them in a big, entertaining way. So as much as we’re the neoclassicists of rock ‘n’ roll, we’re also one of the first major acts in “theatrical” rock ‘n’ roll, because the beginning of the seventies, bands realized they had to put on a show. They just didn’t want that gelatin light show behind them like at the Fillmore East. Then came Jethro Tull, Alice Cooper, Elton John, and we really came right at the beginning of all that too. I remember we did a show, it sounds strange, with Alice Cooper, double bill. Musically, they’re very different things but theatrically, there was a lot in common, crazy as it sounds.
AT: How do you keep things fresh and not become a parody act?
JM: It isn’t a parody at all for us: we know and love the music. When we go out and do the music, we don’t think “hey, we’re going back to the fifties.” No, we’re just putting on these leather jackets, loud shirts, greasing up our hair, it’s sort of like method do wopping, and we enjoy it for that night. It’s great, sharing all this music. When people go to a classic music concert, I don’t even like the word oldies anymore because if you were going to go hear Brahms they don’t say “here’s an oldie for you from Brahms,” that’s the piece we’re going to do tonight. And it’s great that it continues to be celebrated, and we’re proud to be the group that celebrates it. There hasn’t been a lot of “oldies” formats, it’s been waning a bit, but now I see it coming back again; it’s all in cycles. Maybe people will get sick of talk radio and want to hear blue moon. How many times can you listen to the same argument and nobody bullied off their position.
AT: What can we expect out of a typical show?
JM: That will be our live show. We’ll take you to the hop, make you do the great dances of the fifties. It was an era that they always had, every month there was a new dance hit, you know, mash potato and all that, so we do the stroll, we do the twist, the peppermint twist, we do the hand jive, and we make you dance along. Then we make you sing along, we have everybody, everybody can relate to the “why must I be a teenager in love,” although we haven’t been teenagers in years, somehow it still strikes a chord. We do some rhythm and blues; what’s sort of cool is that music had different flavors. There was the do wop a cappella; the gospel influence, which Elvis sort of got into; the rock-a-billy, you know, the Buddy Holly stuff; there was the straight out rhythm and blues like Little Richard. So, we cover all those flavors with seven vocalists so we just, bam, we hit you with another guy and another kind of song. So we’ll go from “Lucille” by Little Richard, and we’ll do “Wake Up, Little Suzie” by the Everly Brothers. It’s just great stuff. What I really appreciate is, “American Idol,” and “Glee,” whether you like them or not, what I like is they present an evening, like a Motown evening, an Elvis evening, an oldies evening. So there’s a whole generation of kids going “hey, what’s that, where’d that come from.”
AT: Any final words?
JM: Yeah, rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay!