John 'Jocko' Marcellino: The youngest person to play Woodstock
While college students were a big part of the audience at Woodstock in the summer of 1969, John "Jocko" Marcellino – then both a freshman at New York's Columbia University and the drummer for Sha Na Na – was among the very few who actually performed at the now-legendary three-day music festival.
"At 18, I was the youngest person to play Woodstock," recalled Marcellino by telephone recently from his home in La Jolla, Calif.
"Janis Joplin, The Who, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix were just a few of the amazing people who gathered at Max Yasgur's Bethel, N.Y., dairy farm that August. After the assassinations of John and Bobby Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, the ongoing Vietnam War and the trouble at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Woodstock marked the end of a very volatile decade," said Marcellino.
It also signaled the beginning of a very long, lucrative music and acting career for Marcellino. He and his classmates-turned-bandmates from Columbia – some of whom would eventually leave music behind for medical school – first performed under the name The Kingsmen before donning leather jackets and greasing back their hair to form Sha Na Na.
Marcellino recalls that it was some early club dates which led the doo-wop-style band to be invited to perform at the seminal rock concert of the 1960s counter-culture movement.
"In those very early days, we played a club in Hell's Kitchen called Steve Paul's Scene. It was a real hangout for rock ’n’ rollers like Joplin and Hendrix. We were playing the club's closing night when we were approached about Woodstock. I found out pretty recently that it was Hendrix who recommended us to the promoters, Artie Kornfeld and Michael Lane. It was just our eighth public gig and we were the only act without a recording contract, and probably the only real unknowns, invited to perform. We kept getting bumped, but finally they put us on just before Hendrix, who closed the show."
A documentary film of the event titled "Woodstock: Three Days of Peace and Music," directed by Michael Wadleigh and edited by Academy Award winners Martin Scorcese and Thelma Schoonmaker, was released in 1970 and went on to win an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. While the film focused on the best-known performers, it also included footage of Sha Na Na singing "At the Hop." The group soon had a recording contract and a permanent place in the annals of American pop music.
"We had a sense of history even then. We knew we were playing the culmination of Woodstock Nation and as young as we were, we knew how momentous that was," recalls Marcellino, who played in bands like the Mil-tones and the Pilgrims while in high school. "We were paid exactly $350 for Woodstock and the check bounced. It was the greatest money I never made."
It was just the first in a series of career-defining moments for Sha Na Na. The group's catchy moniker also became the name for their successful television variety series which ran in syndication from 1977 to 1981. It was during the run of the show that the band was cast to play the fictional rock group Johnny Casino and the Gamblers in the 1978 feature film version of "Grease," starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John.
"It was funny when we landed the film, because we had turned down the show when it was first being developed off-Broadway in the early 1970s. We ended up with more songs on the ‘Grease’ soundtrack – including ‘Rock & Roll Is Here to Stay,’ ‘Blue Moon,’ ‘Tears on My Pillow’ and ‘Sandy,’ co-written for Travolta by our own Screamin’ Scott Simon – than any other group."
Over four decades after Woodstock, and almost 35 years since they shared a soundstage with Travolta, Sha Na Na – complete with original members Marcellino and Donny York, plus Simon, who joined shortly after the band was formed, and five other members, each with more than 25 years of service – is still going strong with no plans to slow down. Whitman native and current Halifax resident Lennie Baker – a saxophonist and vocalist with Sha Na Na from 1970 to 1999 – will make a special appearance with the band in Waltham.
"Part of what keeps us going is that multiple generations of the same family share a love for what we do. Families don’t sit down together to listen to heavy metal, but they do gather around to enjoy classic rock and doo wop. And, when they come to see us in concert they get to sing and dance along, too" explains Marcellino. "It is nostalgic for some, of course, but it’s also very much now for others."