Jocko Marcellino: Rock and Roll (and Ugly Christmas Sweaters) are Here to Stay

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Jocko Marcellino

I grew up watching SHA NA NA as a television variety show. And I was into it. Somewhere there exist blackmail photos of me with my (brown) leather jacket, my hair slicked back with Alberto VO5, and my oversized sunglasses. I was the most bad-ass 12-year-old you'd ever seen! So I was more than happy when the offer came to interview band frontman Jocko Marcellino. But it turned out there were things about SHA NA NA I did not know.

My first introduction to SHA NA NA was the television show, and I never looked back farther than that. But you guys actually played at Woodstock! What kind of tentpole was that in the band's history?

That was an extraordinary opportunity that was given to us by Jimi Hendrix. When we were starting out, we had stayed in school that summer. Then we decided to try and make it with the act. We had done eight professional gigs, and our eight professional gig was Woodstock.

What Jimi did was, we were at a place in Hell's Kitchen, New York...and he got the promoters down, the producers of the Woodstock show, and they hired us that night. We were paid $350 to be at Woodstock, and the check bounced. When we were there that weekend, we kept getting bumped. It was very disorganized. Acts couldn't get in the first day, they'd be showing up later, and we kept on getting pushed back because we were an unknown act.

The producers went to Jimi Hendrix Sunday night, after the storm and the stage was sinking and there were electrical problems, and said, "You have to go on, and we're going to close the show." And Jimi said, "No, there are two or three acts that have been here all weekend that haven't got a chance to play." And he said he wasn't going to go on until these acts got to go on.

So when the sun was coming up Monday morning, we got to do our set of about forty-five minutes right before Jimi Hendrix closed the show. So it was a pretty amazing and exhausting weekend. But thanks to Jimi Hendrix and the film crew getting up to shooting our number, "At the Hop," in the WOODSTOCK film, it really gave us world-wide acclaim almost instantly.

When I think of Woodstock today--and I don't think I'm alone in this--SHA NA NA isn't exactly the sound that comes to mind.

That's absolutely true. But it was sort of an interesting thing because were celebrating the beginning of it. Rock and roll wasn't that old, so we were reflecting and going back to the beginning and the roots of rock and roll. So it made sense.

Rock and roll has gone through so many phases and fads as it has evolved, with some moments being more memorable than others. For instance, the famous line is "Disco is dead," reflecting the feel about that era. But the Greaser sound has had a staying power. What do you think it is about the doo-wop sound that continues to resonate with listeners even today?

Well, it was a very rich era which we celebrate, about '55 through 1962, the Golden Age of Rock and Roll. These were great songs, and I just think there was more of a concentration of great songs, as there was before it with the standards we knew from Nat King Cole and Sinatra. Then I would jump to the great standards, the great doo-wops -- the "In the Still of the Night," "Little Darling," "Hound Dog." Those were great songs -- and they're great songs still, but it was concentrated in that era. We find that we'll have three generations of a family come to a show; some folks that lived the music when it first happened, and other folks heard it on oldies radio, and maybe younger fans who went to the movie GREASE, because we do six songs on that soundtrack, more than any other artist. So it's a rich period of music that just stays. It goes in cycles, but I'm noticing again a new cycle, particularly in advertising and on television they're using oldies again. I saw a Subway sandwich dancing to "Rock Around the Clock" recently. But that's how we've always seen it...but it's great music that will last forever. Rock and roll is here to stay, as we say every night.

It seems to me that the era must have had a certain, if not a naivete, then an innocence to it that is missing today. Can you imagine any band today trying to get away with lyrics like "Sixteen Candles" or "Hey Little Girl in the High School Sweater," the political environment of today would simply gut it.

Yeah, that is true. They're in different times. But there's enough of it that was so innocent that I think it stands the test of time.

SHA NA NA has by necessity added members over the years, and you've got some younger members in there now. How do you find people among millenials and slightly older to join in and have the spirit and the sound that's necessary?

This is just good old rock and roll, and good old doo-wop. The guys we get to come in just know the music, love the music -- and we don't even on a particular night say, "Tonight, we're gonna go out there and hearken back to the fifties." I don't see it that way at all. Tonight we're gonna go out, and we may have leather and cool shirts on and our hair in a pompadour, but it's an attitude thing and we're just celebrating this music, not looking back at it. It's almost not oldies to us. It's like, if you went to a classical music concert to see some Beethoven and some Brahms, they don't say, "Here's an oldie!" No, it's, "This is the music we're going to play tonight." We really see it that way. I get a little bit of an attitude, and luckily I've still got a lot of hair and I can do a good pompadour, but that's an attitude you get when you grease it up, put on the leather and hit the stage.

You guys have a Christmas album out. Is this a mix of standards done in a doo-wop style?

It's got a lot of doo-wop on it, and about half of them are original. The one we're touting now is called "Ugly Christmas Sweater." It's such a craze. So we wrote a sort-of rock and roll ugly Christmas sweater anthem, because it's such a popular thing now. I was just at an ugly Christmas sweater party Saturday night. It's a fun song, and we've got some great covers -- "Feliz Navidad," "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree." Another original is called "Santa's on a Diet." "Christmas Bells" is a great doo-wop. There's some real nuggets in here that you'll dig for the holidays.