Up from Sha Na Na

We had a prominent speaker with an unusual backstory as the scholar in residence at the Temple of Aaron in St. Paul over the weekend. Dr. Alan Cooper is a Biblical scholar who is both learned and distinguished. As his professional bio has it: “Alan Cooper is the Elaine Ravich Professor of Jewish Studies and provost of The Jewish Theological Seminary. He joined the faculty in 1997 as professor of Bible, and has served as chair of the Bible Department and director of publications at JTS. In 1998, he was appointed professor of Bible at the Union Theological Seminary, a nondenominational Christian seminary, becoming the first person to hold professorships at both JTS and Union.”

During services yesterday, Dr. Cooper spoke on issues of Jewish continuity. In a lunch-and-learn session following services, Dr. Cooper led the group in a close reading of the Noah text in Genesis. Why did God flood the world, according to the Bible? Drawing on centuries of rabbinic commentary on the text, Dr. Cooper’s reading arrived at a somewhat surprising (to me) conclusion.

Dr. Cooper gave the first of his three presentations over dinner at temple on Friday before services, and this was full of surprises as well. This presentation gave the personal story I had been waiting for. His weekend at the temple was advertised with an allusion to Woodstock as “2 days of Torah and music.” Dr. Cooper was a founding member of Sha Na Na who performed at Woodstock and appeared in the film. How did he make the transition from Sha Na Na to his career as a Biblical scholar and institutional leader? This was the subject of his dinner presentation.

Dr. Cooper told his story in detail without a note. He is a compelling speaker, smart and funny. As for the humor, he can’t help himself. He is naturally funny. I think he could have had a career in stand-up comedy if the gig in Biblical scholarship hadn’t panned out.

His story was full of surprises. Every step of the way I said to myself, “I didn’t know that.” I also didn’t take notes; I am writing from memory, so this account will be both abbreviated and garbled.

Sha Na Na grew out of the Kingsmen, a Columbia University a capella group. Cooper joined the group in 1967. After the ferment at Columbia in 1968, the administration gladly provided them a large campus venue to perform a show including oldies that spring. The group’s theory was that rock music had become serious and unfun. They thought there might be an opening for fun.

One of the members of the group was Rob Leonard. Leonard, incidentally, is now a professor of linguistics and has made a name for himself in the forensic application of linguistics. Despite their stage personas, the men of Sha Na Na were no dummies.

Leonard’s older brother George thought that the group needed costumes and choreography. They were to do the oldies with a Motown veneer.

Their first performance with the oldies at the large Columbia venue was hugely successful. Students asked where they came up with such great material. (Cooper referred several times to “In the Still of the Night.”)

The response encouraged them to market themselves. One of the backing musicians drove them to every club with live rock music in Manhattan, starting on the Upper East Side and tracing a “U” south through Greenwich Village and over to the West Side. He said they didn’t know at the time that acts were booked into clubs by record companies; the group didn’t know what it was doing. They were rejected at every stop until the last one on the West Side: Steve Paul’s The Scene, at 301 West 46th Street. The Scene booked them for two shows a night — midnight and 2:00 a.m., $50 on weeknights and $75 on weekends, to be split 12 ways among the members of the group.

The Scene drew a show business crowd as the Broadway productions nearby let out. In 1969 concert promoter Michael Lang saw them at the club and flipped; Lang asked them if they would perform at the concert event he had scheduled that August in Woodstock. Signing away all the rights to their performance, the group agreed to to appear for $750.

Sha Na Na was the penultimate act to perform at Woodstock. You can see Cooper in the sliver of their performance that made it into the film; he sang the lead on “At the Hop.”

Jimi Hendrix followed Sha Na Na at Woodstock on Monday morning and closed the event. Cooper estimated that the crowd had thinned out to about 25,000 by this time.

Cooper stayed behind backstage to listen. “It was absolutely mesmerizing,” he said. At this point, the promoters had run out of potable water for the performers backstage. They were down to several cases of champagne. He thought the champagne might have contributed to the sensations he experienced as Hendrix performed.

When the movie opened in 1970, he was invited to the premiere. Still a Columbia student, he found that the premiere opened up new possibilities in dating for him. He successfully used the line: “How would you like to go to the Woodstock premiere?”

Cooper continued with the group through 1971, performing at the Fillmore East as well as the Fillmore West and opening for the Kinks, among others. He still has the original Fillmore posters advertising Sha Na Na’s appearances.

How did he manage a professional career in music as a Columbia undergrad? He said that he maintained a perfect academic record during his years as a professional performer. The music forced him to focus and manage his time. He left the music business behind, however, when he undertook his graduate studies at Yale, which led to the story of his life in Biblical scholarship.

On the way out I asked Dr. Cooper if he had spoken much about his previous life with Sha Na Na. He said that he had spoken about it recently in Merion, Pennsylvania. He mentioned another time or two as well. I found that a surprise too. It’s a great story of the “what a long, strange trip it’s been” variety, complete with a happy ending and the lessons of a life well lived.

JOHN adds: Wow! That’s one of the most interesting stories I’ve ever read.

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