Obituary: Chico Ryan

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The Independent Culture
DURING HIS 25 years' tenure as singer and bass-player with the American revival group Sha Na Na, Chico Ryan became one of the torch-bearers for a musical style that combined doo-wop, rock 'n' roll, homage and pastiche in equal measures. So successful was the Sha Na Na recipe that, in the Seventies, they hosted their own syndicated television show and appeared in the film Grease.

Born in Arlington, Massachusetts, in 1948, David-Allen Ryan first came to prominence with the Happenings, a New Jersey vocal quartet who specialised in reviving older songs for a Sixties audience. With Bob Miranda at the helm and under the guidance of the former Neil Sedaka sidekicks the Tokens, the Happenings covered "See You In September", a catchy teenage love-song which had been a Top Forty hit for the Tempos in 1959. Seven years later, the Happenings' rendition reached No 3 in the American charts.

In 1967, the group repeated the trick, taking the George and Ira Gershwin standard "I Got Rhythm" and the Al Jolson "My Mammy" into both the US and UK Top Forty. Recreating these and other tracks like Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers' "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" stood Ryan in good stead when he auditioned to join Sha Na Na in 1973.

Formed at Columbia University in 1968, the original 12-strong Sha Na Na line-up had stolen the show at the Woodstock Festival where their brilliantined quiffs, shiny lame costumes and teddy boy attire contrasted with the laid-back hippie audience. The saxophonist Lennie Baker had come up with the Sha Na Na formula of high-jinks, satire and rock 'n' roll while playing alongside the original Danny and the Juniors and soon incorporated his old cohorts' "Rock 'n' Roll is Here to Stay" into the new band's repertoire. It became the title track of their first album issued in 1969 on the Kama Sutra label.

Having released a further three LPs, Sha Na Na had along the way acquired some heavy-duty fans such as the Who's drummer Keith Moon (a keen compere at some of their shows) and John Lennon, with whom they played a benefit concert at Madison Square Garden in August 1972.

The following year, after The Golden Age of Rock 'n' Roll double album, Sha Na Na slimmed down to a 10-piece orchestra now comprising, alongside Baker, Scott Powell (alias Tony Santini), Johnny Contardo, Frederick "Denny" Greene and Donny York (all on vocals), Screamin' Scott Simon and John "Bowzer" Bauman (both on piano), Vincent "Vinnie" Taylor (on guitar), John "Jocko" Marcellino on drums and David-Allen Ryan on bass and vocals. Upon joining as a replacement for the original bassist Bruce "Zoroaster" Clarke and in keeping with the Italian-American lineage of some of the members and the Fifties New York rockers they were lampooning, Ryan adopted Chico as a stage first name.

Live appearances had always been the band's forte and in 1974 they decided to issue From the Streets of New York, a recording of a concert in Central Park, complete with the Greaser Olympics, a jiving competition for the audience. This and other antics didn't quite work on vinyl. Later the same year, greater things were expected of Hot Sox, the next studio offering, and Jack Douglas and Bob Ezrin's lavish production helped Sha Na Na to shine on their own compositions like "Stroll All Night", "Dreams Come True" and "Too Chubby to Boogie" which still didn't quite match up to their covers of The Crew Cuts' "Sh-Boom (Life Could Be a Dream)" or Huey "Piano" Smith's "Don't You Just Know It" for excitement.

Five years of heavy touring had begun to take their toll on the group. In April 1974, Vinnie Taylor died of a heroin overdose, Screamin' Scott Simon had a nervous breakdown and John "Bowzer" Bauman underwent surgery to repair collapsed lungs. Sha Na Na soldiered on, recruiting the guitarist Elliott Randell (renamed Enrico Ronzoni) and releasing Sha Na Now the following year.

By the mid-Seventies, Fifties rock 'n' roll was in the ascendant again thanks to the American sitcom Happy Days which made Fonzie, played by Henry Winkler, a household name. In Britain, Showaddywaddy touted a teddy- boy revival act not a million miles removed from Sha Na Na's, while in the US, Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids trod a similar path and appeared in the 1973 George Lucas film American Graffiti. Seeing big bucks in bequiffed nostalgia, television chiefs offered Sha Na Na their own syndicated show, which ran from 1976 to 1981. While the programme relied somewhat on corny greaser jokes and moody posturing a la Arthur Fonzarelli, it gave a whole new audience the chance to discover timeless classics such as "Duke of Earl" and "Alley Oop". It also helped sales of The Best of Sha Na Na (1976) and Rock and Roll Revival (1977).

The film Grease provided the ultimate boon to Sha Na Na's career. The musical started life as a show written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey in 1971. When the entertainment mogul Robert Stigwood and the impresario Allan Carr saw it on Broadway, they instantly knew it was the ideal follow- up vehicle for John Travolta, then fresh from his triumph in Saturday Night Fever. By the time shooting started under the director Randal Kleiser in mid-1977, the producers had assembled a starry cast comprising, alongside Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, guest stars such as the comedian Sid Caesar and the former teen heart-throb Frankie Avalon.

Even more interesting for the rock 'n' roll cognoscenti was the choice of Sha Na Na, who easily metamorphosed into Johnny Casino And The Gamblers, the headlining act at the dance competition. In essence, Sha Na Na were reprising what they'd been doing for the last 10 years. They were heavily featured in the film, adding their own versions of Elvis Presley perennials ("Hound Dog", "Blue Moon") to favourites from their stage shows (Little Anthony and the Imperials' "Tears On My Pillow") and cutting original songs written by Jacobs and Casey. Scott Simon's own composition, "Sandy", became a No 2 hit for John Travolta in the UK.

Grease proved an instant smash when it opened in 1978, going on to gross $350m and becoming the most successful musical of all time. Having spawned four transatlantic hit singles, the soundtrack album sold like hot cakes and earned Sha Na Na several platinum awards. Sha Na Na remained a popular concert attraction, appearing in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, Nashville, Disneyland, Paris, London and Tokyo and travelling with nearly 200 pieces of costumes and props to enhance their mock doo-wop and rock 'n' roll revue.

A Sha Na Na line-up still sporting Lennie Baker, "Jocko" Marcellino, "Donny" York, Screamin' Scott Simon and Chico Ryan alongside recent recruits Reggie De Leon, Rob Mackenzie and Jimmy Waldibillig recently performed at a party in Los Angeles to celebrate Grease's 20th anniversary re-release.

On the surface, Sha Na Na might have seemed a novelty act. Indeed, Chico Ryan's speciality was wailing his way through Dion's "Teenager In Love" while fellow band members handed him handkerchiefs. But, far from becoming an anachronism, Sha Na Na had a deep understanding of the rock 'n' roll medium which explains why their tongue-in-cheek appeal never faded.

Pierre Perrone

David-Allen (Chico) Ryan, singer, bass-player: born Arlington, Massachussetts, 9 April 1948; died Boston, Massachusetts 26 July 1998.

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