And you got to know Dion.
Oh yeah, and I played on his record ‘Heart Of Saturday Night’ in 1978. His old records sound really good as they had such great players on them. I loved the doo-wop songs themselves: the Jive Five’s ‘My True Story’ always cracks me up, and I love “They often call me Speedo but my real name is Mr Earl”. My all-time favourite is Rosie and the Originals with ‘Angel Baby’. Can there be a sexier voice in the dream palette of a young man? Of course not. The record may be out of tune technically but everything about it is perfect.
Was Sha Na Na your first band?
No, I was in a high school band with a couple of guys and one of them went to Columbia University. He had a band with another guy and those clever boys from Columbia called it Orogeny which is to do with the earth’s crust following an earthquake. They were in a glee club called the Columbia Kingsmen and at one of the shows they did ‘Little Darlin’’ with 12 guys and the reaction was astonishing. The older brother of one of the guys had a brain storm. He told them to grease their hair, put three guys up front in gold lamé suits and do a concert of rock’n’roll and doo-wop songs. The show was booked for the steps of Low Library at Columbia. They thought that 500 people might show up but they put handbills all over the university which said, “Hey, you hoods, come to the first east coast grease festival.” It was a beautiful night for an outdoor show and 5,000 people showed up. There were students dancing naked in the fountains and the debauchery of that night became legendary. The next morning the preppiest of the Kingsmen quit in disgust and they asked me to come in. Debauchery, hey, I of course joined. Together we created this love letter to the 1950s which we called Sha Na Na.
…taken from ‘Get A Job’.
Sort of. We called the group Sha Na Na from the vocals on ‘Get A Job’, but later on, someone got a hold of the lyric sheet and it said “Sha Da Da”. I was there when it started but I was only there for six months.
The group established itself really quickly.
Yes, we played the Steve Paul Scene which was the hottest coolest club in New York City. We opened for Dr John at first and we kept playing as they loved us. We had Slim Harpo as an opening act. Imagine the great Slim Harpo opening for us. I had been doing ‘Baby Scratch My Back’ in my band when I was 12. Slim Harpo played a Gibson ES 330 with dot markers from 1959 or 1960. I asked him why he had a capo on the first fret and he said, “Man, the action on this guitar is no good.” The blues guys were real. They didn’t get better guitars; they made do with what they had and they made it work.
I was taking a cab one night with Ellie Cahn whose nickname was Geno; we were living in Harlem and he had a leather jacket with 400 zippers. The cabbie said, “Are you from Sha Na Na?”, totally Brooklynese. He said, “I used to be in the Regents.” They did ‘Runaround’ and ‘Barbara Ann’ and ‘Liar’ and lots of singles that were equally as good but they were on Gee Records. It was Morris Levy’s label which tells you everything. The cab driver said, “Make sure you get paid. We got suits and a car but we never got any money.” It was heart-breaking, he was driving a cab and taking us to Harlem and we were aping what he had invented.”
You were soon getting the big shows.
Bill Graham offered us the Fillmore East and it was Santana on their first New York show, then Sha Na Na, then Canned Heat and Three Dog Night. All this for $4.50. Santana went on first and were great and then we went on. The first nine guys came out, all greased and ready to kick butt. We carried combs and a couple of guys spat into the audience and we were putting the KY on our hair and flicking it into the front row. A couple of the guys had motorcycle chains and people were yelling at us to get off the stage. Then Jocko, the drummer who had just spat on someone in the front row, played a drum roll, and we fell to our knees and three guys come out with gold lamé suits and we played ‘Get A Job’. The audience realised that they had just been had. It was electric after that as they were screaming and going mad and Jimi Hendrix thought we should be at Woodstock.
From what I’ve read, no one knew what time to put you on at Woodstock.
Well, we wanted to be on when it was dark. We were scheduled for Sunday afternoon and anticipating diabolical delays we left in the middle of the night on Saturday and after talking our way through countless road blocks, we arrived at 6.30am at the Holiday Inn in Fernwood which was a couple of miles from the stage. As soon as I walked in the lobby, I saw Jimi Hendrix holding a quart of Jack Daniel’s and he had been up all night. So we passed the bottle back and forth and after an hour we were pretty well lit. One of the organisers wanted to have us available if somebody was late. I said goodbye to Jimi and as I left the Holiday Inn, I saw a helicopter. I was drunk and the pilot tilted the chopper so that we could see the half million people down below. The door was open and we almost fell out. The pilot took one look at me and went right back down and I wobbled back into the lobby and there was Jimi Hendrix and he could see that I had had it. He burst out laughing as he had been a paratrooper in the 82 Airborne. He said, “Have a drink, it’ll calm you down”, and I was already drunk. Then they got a car for me – a 1958 Cadillac with a driver. We’re about to pull away when a guy slides in with a big beard and round orange sunglasses. I was drunk but I knew it was Jerry Garcia from the Grateful Dead. He had this big transcendental smile, and he offered me something to smoke, a very large spliff. By then I was higher than Kilimanjaro but you can’t turn down something from the greatest stoner of the twentieth century. It took about an hour to reach the stage as we were surrounded by people who could see Jerry Garcia was inside. By the time we got to the stage, I was really smashed.
I’m amazed you could do any show at all.