With fists turned askew, a mouth elongated into a yawn-yell and a classic greaser look, Jon Bauman was“Bowzer,” the centerpiece of the doo-wop-rock group Sha Na Na.
Though they emulated New York street culture in the 1950s, Sha Na Na reigned from the late-‘60s into the ‘80s, when a string of hard work and luck brought them hits (“Get a Job,” “Charlie Brown,” “Rama Lama Ding Dong”), a featured role in “Grease” (they were integral to the “Born to Hand Jive” scene) and the syndicated variety TV series, “Sha Na Na,” which ran from 1977 to 1981.
Bauman, a classically trained musician who attended The Juilliard School and graduated from Columbia University, parlayed his visibility into decades of appearances – hosting game shows, appearing on “Miami Vice,” tackling serious social issues on talk radio and producing TV specials about the “golden age” of rock ‘n’ roll.
Now 70, Bauman is still hitting the stage to perform several times a year, and also investing his energy in social and political causes. He co-wrote and advocated the Truth in Music Bill, legislation that mandates that the name of a famous musical group cannot be used by a group of performers unless it includes at least one member of the original group; it’s effective in 34 states. And he is a spokesperson for the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.
On Friday, Bauman will visit Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre with a lighter agenda – hosting and performing as part of Bower’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Party.
Earlier this week, the gregarious Bauman, a Brooklyn native who has lived for decades in southern California with Mary, his wife of 47 years, chatted about his colorful career.
On the format of the show:
“It’s very upbeat and lively, like Sha Na Na always was. I’m the host and we’ll do a few numbers with Bowzer and the Stingrays and will bring out Johnny to do some stuff together. I’ll do my little classical music segment - a lot of people still don’t know I went to Julliard, and in fact we did play at Carnegie Hall, but we were singing ‘Rama Lama Ding Dong’ instead of performing Chopin, but (my mother) didn’t care! Then the show moves to the guests. Freddy Cannon, these are people who are theoretically up in years, but you can’t believe it. Freddy is just a rocker; Shirley (Reeves), who sang some of the greatest classics of all time- she still sounds the way she sounds; Jay Siegel of The Tokens… in a way that’s the craziest of all. He sings ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight,’ which is falsetto and not an easy thing to do at any age. But you can close your eyes and think it’s the record playing. He even sings it in the same key.”
On the types of fans who usually come to the live performances:
“What’s really the most fun is some people at the show will be in their 40s and you run into them and they say they remember watching when it they were 4.
I’m on PBS right now (with) ‘Doo Wop Discoveries.’ It seems like I’m always out there somewhere. But the ‘Sha Na Na’ TV show was really the main thing, so the most gratifying thing is to be around long enough that people who watched the show when they were kids are still coming out. I want to always understand and be responsive to people who grew up with our show.”
On maintaining stamina:
“If you want to have a decent older life you have to keep yourself in shape and stay healthy and not abuse and push your body. We’re all kind of like that. Everybody on this show, the reason they can do this at this level is because they paid attention and took care of themselves.
I’ve been very lucky, to be blunt about it. We were lucky to be very successful pretty young and it took some skill to not have that all go away in some kind of crazy lifestyle, but it was very fortunate to be successful right out of college and then have a long career and still have people showing up when we still do a show.
Music, of all the things I’ve done professionally, there’s a certain beauty to the music world because you can continue in a different way; the music world, once you’re established and there is an audience still willing to come to your show, you can do it for as long as you want to be out there.”
His memories of “Grease,” as the movie celebrates its 40th anniversary this year:
“For us it was fantastic. No one had any idea it was going to be what it became. We sang every song in that scene at the hop. We were really only there for a week shooting, but it was a lot of fun. It was a congenial cast, and this is a cast that gets together a lot. But we don’t think the director liked us because he didn’t show us very much! (Laughs) There’s one famous shot of me and I’m singing ‘Born to Hand Jive’ and my head is cut off at the neckline, and I’m a torso! (The soundtrack) was two-record set and we had one whole side of what would become the biggest-selling soundtrack of all time - until it sunk by ‘Titanic.’”
“I never do shows with groups that don’t have the rights to the name. Shirley (Reeves) left the group in the ‘70s, and she was the lead singer of The Shirelles; so since she’s the voice of those records, she doesn’t need the name. It was very important to me… I wanted to make sure the identity and, consequently, the legacy and, consequently, the income wasn’t taken by imposters…Truth in Music is, at its heart, a consumer law to stop the public from being ripped off from not seeing the real thing and thinking they’re seeing the real thing. Knowing (these acts) really well as friends, it wasn’t so much as loss of revenue as much as the theft of the legacy, that other people were getting their standing ovations for a style of music that changed an entire culture.”
Bowzer’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Party
With Jay Siegel’s Tokens, Shirley Alston Reeves (original lead singer of The Shirelles), Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon, Bowzer & The Stingrays and Johnny Contardo (formerly of Sha Na Na). 7:30 p.m. Friday. July 27 $35-$65. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta. 1-800-745-3000, www.ticketmaster.com.
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