Sunday, January 31, 2021

Sha Na Na

1950s Rock 'n Roll has always been my favorite type of music.  One of the most durable 1950s revival acts is Sha Na Na, who formed in the late 1960s, recorded several albums for Kama Sutra Records in the early to mid 1970s, then hit their height in popularity in the late 1970s and early 1980s after they were dropped by the record label, and signed on to do a weekly syndicated variety show, and appeared in the movie Grease.  I remember as a child, their TV series was must see TV.  While I was a big Elvis fan as far back as I can remember, and I was very aware of, and liked, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, and Bill Haley before I knew of Sha Na Na, it was thru their TV series I discovered doo-wop and many of the other 2nd and 3rd tier Rock 'n Roll songs and acts of the '50s. During the stay at home order, I rediscovered clips of the show on YouTube.  That led me down a rabbit hole to search out other live concert clips, and ultimately to buy BGO Records' 2014 remastered set of their original Kama Sutra albums.  Previous to this, I did own a CD greatest hits collection, Grease for Peace, and as a child, a vinyl record, The Best of Sha Na Na.  So, here are my brief thoughts and comments on the original albums.

Rock & Roll Is Here To Stay.  The group's debut album, from 1969.  For those most familiar with the classic line up from the TV series and Grease, this original line up is quite different with only Jocko Marcellino, Donny York, Denny Greene and Scott "Santini" Powell from the most popular line up present.  The album consists of well done covers of classic 1950s Rock 'n Roll tunes, mostly given a respectful treatment, although "Teen Angel" is clearly camped up for parody. Lots of energy and a spirit of fun to the tracks, with standouts being "Remember Then", "Come Go With Me", "Long Tall Sally" and "Heartbreak Hotel".  I can imagine in 1969, it may have been hard to collect the original versions of these songs...certainly much harder than it is today with the internet and mp3 files, so this record served a true public service purpose. Overall this album is a great tribute to first generation Rock 'n Roll, and a great debut album for Sha Na Na.

Sha Na Na.  The group's 1971 self-titled 2nd album is unique. Nearly half of the original members have left, and the classic line up is starting to take shape with Screamin' Scott Simon, Jon "Bowzer" Bowman, and Johnny "The Kid" Contardo coming in, plus Lennie Baker, who was the group's "ringer" having played with actual 1950s groups like Danny & The Juniors, albeit in the 1960s.  Side one is a live concert of Rock 'n Roll classics, which is really where Sha Na Na excelled as a live band.  Side two consists of studio cuts... not just studio cuts, but original material.  Unfortunately none of the cuts have any 1950s flavor, as I think the group may have been trying to expand their repertoire. All of the songs were written by Screamin' Scott, except for one by Jocko, and they all showcase a different genre. "Only One Song" is like a typical AM ballad from the 1970s. "Depression" is a hard rocker. "Canadian Money" is a Country twinged, humorous song about going to Canada to avoid the draft.   "Top Forty" is another Country style song critiquing top forty bands who live hedonist lifestyles.  "Ruin Me Blues" is a blues tune.  Jocko's "Just A Friend" is a mid-tempo pop tune.   These sides straddle a fine line between being straight forward and being subtle parodies.  Also around this time, the group recorded a non-album single, "Payday".  I wish BGO had included it as a bonus track on the reissue.  I heard it on YouTube, and let me say I love that song.  As far as Sha Na Na originals go, and there will be a lot more contrary to the group's image as strictly a cover band, "Payday" is in the top two or three.  Unlike the other originals on this album, it hits a perfect balance between a retro-1950s sound and a contemporary style.

The Night Is Still Young.  The 3rd album, from 1972, builds upon side 2 of their second album. Mostly originals, mostly contemporary (for 1972), mostly a mixed bag. This album was produced by Jeff Barry, with a lot of input from Andy Kim. The Barry-Kim duo was also primarily responsible for The Monkees' 9th album Changes from 1970... the one featuring only Micky and Davy, which is usually near the bottom of most Monkees fans' rankings. This record opens with another Screamin' Scott original "Sunday Morning Radio", which appears to question the sincerity of the then-current "Jesus Freak" movement.  Next up is the record's best track, a cover of the classic "Sea Cruise".  Up next are a couple of lackluster Barry-Kim originals, that quite possibly could have been left overs from their Monkees sessions.  Things pick up with Jocko's Rolling Stones inspired "It Ain't Love", followed by Screamin' Scott's "The Vote Song"...which would work very well today if you just substitute the word Nixon with Biden.  Original member Rich Joffe contributes the ballad "Sleepin' on a Song".  "Bless My Soul" and "So Fine" are a pair of good tracks, then it's Screamin' Scott's "Oh Lonesome Boy". At this point it seems as if Scott is to trying to be Sha Na Na's equivalent of Mike Nesmith.  The album concludes with another Barry original, a novelty track by Bowzer about "Glasses", and a cover of "In The Still of The Night".


The Golden Age of Rock 'n Roll. For their 4th album, from 1973, the group got back to what made them: 1950s music.  This became their best selling album, and it was a two record set.  Side 1, much like their debut album, was studio covers of classics, done very well.  Sides 2 thru 4 are a live concert, showcasing Sha Na Na at their best. It turns out, that first Sha Na Na record I owned as a kid, The Best of Sha Na Na, was an abridged 13 track version of the live concert sides, so I was quite familiar with this record without ever realizing it. To show what kind of impact this record had on me, every time I hear "Great Balls of Fire", whether its the Jerry Lee Lewis version or a cover, just before the instrumental break, in my mind I always hear "great balls of Vinnie Taylor".  I became a big fan of Dion DiMucci in part because of the cover of "Teenager in Love" on this album. Right up there with their debut album, this one is an essential classic.

From the Streets of New York. Their 5th album, from 1973, is unique. It consists of studio tracks covering more classic Rock 'n Roll songs, but intercut between each track is an excerpt from a live concert (perhaps left over from the recording of their previous concert album) where the group holds a dance contest with girls chosen from the audience paired up with Donny, Denny, and Santini, with Bowzer serving as the host.  This adds comedy to the album and make for a unique listen. In a way, this record is like a sneak preview of what their TV show will be like.  Speaking of which, this album includes the debut of David "Chico" Ryan on bass guitar, replacing Bruce "Bruno" Clarke. One negative for this record is it seems the mixing is weak (at least the BGO reissue that I have), with music tracks buried in the background, and vocals with a low-fidelity effect.  

Hot Sox. Their 6th album, from 1974, does what the single "Payday" did: strikes a perfect balance between a retro-1950s style and a contemporary sound. Hot Sox is arguably Sha Na Na's best album, at least in regards to original material. The album kicks off with "Maybe I'm Old Fashioned", which is right up there with "Payday" as one of Sha Na Na's best original songs. The album's title track "Hot Sox" is a great novelty number, written by Santini, with Bowzer on lead vocals. "Stroll All Night", "Too Chubby To Boogie", and "Dreams Come True" are the other original songs on the album, and all are great.  And as usual, they do a great job on the covers of classic songs. One tragic side note to this record is that it is lead guitarist Vinnie Taylor's final appearance, as he would tragically die after its completion. To replace him, "Dirty Dan" McBride was brought in, and the classic line up from the TV show era is complete.

Sha Na Now. Their final album on the Kama Sutra label repeats the formula from The Night Is Still Young. Mostly originals, mostly contemporary, which for 1975, is disco. Yes, Sha Na Now is a disco album.  Perhaps a better title would have been Sha Na Na Sell Out. This one was tough for me to get through. Without a doubt, their worst album. The best song on the album is the Jocko-penned "Chills In My Spine", which is the only track I would make an effort to listen to again.  No surprise, it sounds like it would have fit better on Hot Sox. The runner up for best song is "Party Lights", although it sounds derivative. "Basement Party", co-written by Chico, has potential, but is ruined by the disco backing track.  Likewise, I like the vocal arrangement for the cover of "Runaway", but the disco backing track ruins it. The cover of "Breaking Up Is Hard To Do" is all right, but frankly, the version by The Partridge Family from around the same time, is much better. I hope whatever record executive suggested they do a disco album was fired, after being tarred and feathered.

After this, they were dropped by Kama Sutra, but would soon have their own syndicated TV variety show, that would ensure their popularity among kids, while showcasing them at what they were best at: being a live band.  I sure wish a cable network like MeTV, FETV, UP TV, POP TV, or INSP would start airing reruns of Sha Na Na.

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