August 23, 2009 in City

Woodstock performer still rocking to oldies

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Jesse Tinsley photo

Donny York, one of the founding members of Sha Na Na, a classic rock show band that played at Woodstock and had its own TV variety show in the late 1970s and early ’80s, now lives in Spokane Valley.
(Full-size photo)

Talk about baby boomer bragging rights.

Donny York doesn’t have to make up tales about being at Woodstock. He was actually rocking out at the mammoth festival of peace and mud.

Now 60, York recently moved to the Spokane area to be near his sister and other family members. One day last week, he sat down over coffee and told me about his 40-year adventure as an original member of Sha Na Na.

Remember Sha Na Na?

The band was (and still is) a gang of pompadour-wearing hipsters who pumped new life and major drama into oldies such as “Teen Angel” and “Rock ’n’ Roll is Here to Stay.”

In its heyday, Sha Na Na toured the planet, appeared in the smash movie musical “Grease,” and even had a popular TV variety show.

Of course, none of the sleepy flower children still camped out on Max Yasgur’s field that Monday morning in August 1969 knew anything about the dozen costumed college kids who called themselves Sha Na Na.

The juxtaposition of a ’50s revival act playing psychedelic Woodstock still strikes me as a hallucination from a bad acid trip.

But Sha Na Na got the masses moving. As York pointed out, the innocent roots of rock ’n’ roll were a common ground loved by squares and peaceniks alike.

Sha Na Na finished its 30-minute set with Jimi Hendrix looking on appreciatively from the wings.

Then the guitar god took over. Hendrix closed the show with his signature tunes and one of the most pyrotechnic, soul-stirring renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” ever performed.

York admitted he wasn’t paying close attention. He and his mates were busy loading gear and making a getaway.

Sha Na Na received a check for $350 for playing Woodstock.

“It bounced about a week later,” York added with a laugh.

The real payoff came with the release of the movie “Woodstock,” which included the group’s ramped-up version of “At the Hop.”

Sha Na Na took off like a souped-up ’57 Chevy.

Not too shabby for a group that evolved out of an extracurricular activity at New York’s Columbia University just six or seven months before Woodstock.

York, a Columbia sophomore from Boise, was a member of a university-sanctioned vocal ensemble called the Kingsmen.

The Kingsmen “were a far cry from being greasers,” York stated in the information packet of Sha Na Na’s new 40th anniversary CD.

“We liked to mention that Art Garfunkel was among our past members. Our concert performances included madrigals, Christmas carols, and the school fight song.

“When we added a cappella versions of classic ’50s doo-wop, everything changed.”

And how.

At the urging of the enthused older brother of one of the Kingsmen, the group added choreography and instruments. They greased their hair and donned retro outfits.

(York, by the way, is the Sha Na Na member who always wears a striped tank top and dark shades.)

The band took its Sha Na Na name to distance itself from Columbia. Plus rockdom already had the Kingsmen of “Louie Louie” fame.

After playing to enthusiastic crowds at Columbia, Sha Na Na was soon booked into a trendy NYC nightclub.

The band became the buzz of the Big Apple. Stars like Hendrix and Janis Joplin were seen bouncing to the oldies.

One night, Artie Kornfeld and Michael Lang dropped by. They offered Sha Na Na a chance to play at an outdoor festival they were planning.

None of the band had a clue about what they were signing up for. But when they heard about the rock megastars who would be there, “we sure as hell wanted to be there, too,” said York.

Nobody could have dreamed what was coming. The college kids from Columbia were astonished as they gazed down from the helicopter during their flight into the concert area.

“It looked like Cecil B. DeMille’s depiction of Napoleon’s army,” York said.

Sha Na Na has experienced times both lucrative and lean over the decades. Members have come and gone, but the band has kept on, performing with community orchestras and at special events such as the 1998 America’s National Independence Day celebration in Washington, D.C.

The current Sha Na Na lineup includes three original members and five performers who have entered the band at varying times.

All the recent hype surrounding the 40th Woodstock anniversary has helped renew interest in the bands that took part. But York is convinced that there will always be a place for a 1950s nostalgia act like Sha Na Na.

“Going out of style is not a danger,” he said. “Being out of style is what it was all about in the first place.”

Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman- Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or dougc@spokesman.com.


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