Des Henly's Rock and Roll Circus

music paper articles

Sounds
Feb 15, 1975

Robin Katz talked to Sha Na Na and Fumble and found that the music never died

Secondhand oldies - but goodies...

Sha Na Na are a ten piece American band who first made their presence felt when they woke up the drug laden Woodstock nation with the dazzling glare of gold lamé. Fumble are a five piece British band who earned themselves a place on David Bowie's first American tour by the impact of their groping first album sleeve. Regardless of where they move from this second in time, both groups got their initial start by reworking musical marvels from the great dusty vaults of oldie goldies.

Both groups earned their reputations from performing other people's hits. While Sha Na Na concentrate on the numbers most conductive to dramatic overplay, i.e. "Tell Laura I Love Her", "Teenager In Love", "Breaking Up Is Hard To Do", Fumble prefer to bring back some of those Bobby Vee and the all American Good Guys numbers.
Both groups write original material, and both claim to be completely different from one another. Keeping contrast in mind, I sat down with Fumble's singing drummer Barry Pike and singing bassist Mario Angelo Ernesto Ferrari (that's his honest to goodness name) and later Sha Na Na's guitarist Chico Ryan and gold lamé vocalist Johnny Contardo. Just for the record, Fumble's new album is called "Poetry In Lotion", and Sha Na Na's last release was titled "Hot Sox".

"We got together seven years ago," began Ferrari, "and the original idea was more bebop. We tried a period of all wearing white suits, but gave it up because we want to be individuals. At the time we started the Fumble idea, the market was not as wide open. Nobody had been talking about oldies, The Wild Angels were around, but we wanted to play the Carole King/Gerry Goffin stuff. We didn't want to do it note for note, but instead capture the feeling and the freshness. We wanted to sing it from the heart, not send it up."
"After being with Sha Na Na for four years and singing "Tell Laura I Love Her" for every one of them, you can't help but take on the attitude of an actor," explained soft spoken Johnny Contardo. "Before a show you get into character while you grease up. We may toss in the odd thing or two, but one of the priorities for us is that we can't be sloppy, and so with ten of us, we have to be rehearsed."
Finding the old songs was no problem for either group. Deciding whether they could be sung or arranged wasn't a challenge either. Deciding what is right for performance is perhaps the most notable difference between the acts. Both groups admit that their stage presence overrides their studio work in terms of reaction and success.

Competition
"In England," declared Pike, "there is this constant urge to smash, bang and stomp everything into being a rock number. Every British rock band has either 'Jailhouse Rock', 'Let It Rock' or 'All Shook Up' as part of a night's work. So when we sing 'Take Good Care Of My Baby', we're putting the competition at an arm's length.
"We don't really have any major league competition," said Ryan. "Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids don't have a record label any more. We keep going back to the genre of the fabulous Fifties for most of our stuff. We're visual and that's our greatest strength.
"More showbiz than show,"added Contardo, "And the audiences are getting younger. When we started out as college kids most of the audiences were older than we were. Now the age is about 15. But they know all the songs. There's total recognition."
Put that last point down to US radio. Fumblers (what else do you call them?) Pike and Ferrari agreed that their British audiences were also too young to remember most of the originals, but more often than not credited the band for composing them and even making them hits. With Sha Na Na the misguided credit happens less often.
"When it comes to gigs, you can't really compare us to a circus of ten guys doing hilarious things. We don't take it all overly seriously. To us, it's innocence and fun. We don't have choreography, and we don't approach it as a rock and roll revival. To us it feels natural. We don't feel embarrassed singing 'Ebony Eyes' sincerely. If we did, I don't think we'd get across to all age groups," explained Barry Pike. "In my mind, it's the singer and not the song. For that reason our audiences fo home feeling good, but not hysterical."
"There's a basic format to Sha Na Na," said Ryan. "and new members are brought in because they fit our style. But we try things. When Bowzer first joined he used to wear a complete baseball uniform on stage, and it took four or five months to get him into other stuff because it just wasn't working out."
Johnny Contardo rates Sha Na Na's best stage show as the one they initiated a year and a half ago. Divided into four parts the group sang their well known street songs, did an acapella section, their audience participation dance contest and finally ended up with all those rocking numbers that mods and rockers alike, loved.
Fumble's definitive show includes more of their own material, a step that Sha Na Na has yet to take in their stage act.
"We find people shouting out for our songs which shows we're writing in the right direction," said Mario Ferrari, "but all of our singles which we have written have flopped. 'Not Fade Away' has done well, but we're hesitant to put out other people's songs as records or that's all that will be expected of us."

Novelty
On the other hand, Sha Na Na's new British single, is 'Hot Sox', a cute novelty record featuring bass singer Bowzer slinging around his best Brooklyn accent, right down to the duh, duh, duh.
And it's theirs.
"We've just finished cutting three songs with Tony Camillo (composer of Gladys Knight's 'I Feel A Song')" Contardo said, "and we've cut a new version of 'Just Like Romeo And Juliet' which was a big hit 11 years ago for the Reflections. We cut a version near to the original, but it's too dated to be a single, so Tony's rearranged it as well."
As far as wondering how far into the future groups will exist by digging into the past, is anyone's guess. Fumble have been together under other names for seven years, and neither hell or high water will break them up. If things get impossible - they'll always be friends. Sha Na Na, because of their size, are much more restrictive but then all the group spemd nearly a fortnight of every month on the road, which doesn't leave much time for anything except staying healthy. Both groups have done two dozen songs in a show, which ain't chicken feed.
Although they'll always be criticised by true blue oldies freaks for 'ripping off' originals, and knowing that their success will continue if they never compose a note of their own, Fumble and Sha Na Na have proven, by their mere existence, that the artists may have moved on, but the music never died.