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ęDel Mar Times 2003

 

 

 

Del Mar doctor's path from
Woodstock to the ER

Sha Na Na circa 1969.

Talk about your long strange trip.

From garage bands in Brooklyn, to a prim and proper Ivy League glee club, to the stage of rock's most famous festival, to a current gig as an emergency room physician in one of San Diego's busiest hospitals, the professional journey of Dr. Joe Witkin has been anything but a natural progression. Suffice it to say, a canvassing of local hospitals will not find many staffers who were lead-ins to Jimi Hendrix, but this Del Mar resident and original member of pioneering nostalgia group Sha Na Na has always considered music a driving force in his life.

"Music has really been more a part of my life than medicine," says Witkin. "My mother swears I was singing the Hallelujah Chorus in my crib."

Witkin's crib stint led to piano lessons at the age of six, through to the teen years where the Beatles inspired Witken and a generation of garage rockers, and on to Columbia University where an off-shoot of the University's prestigious men's glee club would improbably lead to the beginning of an oldies craze that continues to this day.

The glee club's sub-group which consisted of friends and roommates, was called The Columbia Kingsmen, and one night in 1968 according to Witkin, at a scheduled performance at the University's "Lion's Den" club, the group traded their coats and ties for gold lame and greased back hair, and Sha Na Na was born..

"Just for fun we decided to sing all these old doo-wop songs," says Witkin, "and the place went absolutely nuts. Afterwards the brother of one of the guys had us over and said, 'You guys are going to be stars, and this is how you are going to do it.'"

"He was a pretty savvy business guy," continues Witkin, "and the first thing that was arranged was an outdoor concert on the steps of Columbia that ended up drawing 5,000 people. Then we had a gig for a couple of weeks at a club near Broadway where a lot of theater and music types would hang out. It turns out the producers of Woodstock were there one night. They really liked us, and after the show they told us they were doing this thing in August somewhere in upstate New York, and would we like to play it."

Of course that "thing" at Yasgur's farm turned out to be a defining moment in music and popular culture, and keyboardist Witkin remembers vividly when he and his band mates were flown by helicopter into the festival.

"We flew in over the crowds and I remember thinking how unbelievable it was," recalls Witkin. "We all had our Sha Na NA costumes on and we were supposed to play that Sunday Afternoon. The acts were backed up and we ended up just waiting around off-stage. We didn't go on until first-thing Monday morning, but the good thing was, we missed the rain. We went on between six and seven o'clock in the morning and we were followed by Jimi Hendrix with his rendition of the National Anthem."

This was only Sha Na Na's seventh public performance and already their place in music history was cemented.

Witkin admits he was awe struck, both at the concert and at the motel where concert organizers housed performers. He remembers hearing Joan Baez paged over the intercom system and eating breakfast at a table next to Crosby, Stills, and Nash. "I still have my Woodstock pass," he says proudly.

But despite the heady early success of Sha Na Na, it was still a side-job for Witkin and some of his fellow university students (The group was paid $300 for the Woodstock performance, and Witkin, who didn't see a cent, says he was told the check bounced).He went on to earn his degree while still performing and eventually left the group as he pursued medicine.

Sha Na Na added another Columbia glee club member John "Bowser" Bauman the gregarious bass baritone who would become so identifiable with the group during their success in the Seventies, which included a network television show.

"Bowser was actually a really brilliant guy," says Witkin of his fellow Columbia alumni. He was a Rhodes Scholar who turned down an offer to sing for the Met."

Witkin meanwhile was applying for his medical internship ending up locally at U.C.S.D. and eventually buying a home in Del Mar. He says he originally went into internal medicine to "stay afloat" but says being an emergency room doctor (he currently works the ER at Grossmont Hospital) fit better with his lifestyle, allowing him time to pursue his first love - music.

In the late-Eighties he helped form the "Legends Revue" which became an extremely popular local oldies cover band. That group has recently become "The Corvettes", an eight-piece show band that bills themselves as, "Southern California's most authentic doo-wop and Motown show band." To get that authentic Motown sound, the group features a trio of female singers, one of whom is Witkin's wife Carol.

Music is definitely a family affair in the Witkin household, the couple's 17 and 15 year-old sons also have their own band, and their proud father reports them to be "incredibly talented."

While it still remains to be seen whether the siblings will experience the neophyte success of their father, Witkin still marvels at what his first group accomplished, establishing a trend that spawned the musical "Grease" and made vintage rock and roll a staple on radio.

"Nostalgia is something that is just taken for granted now," says Witkin, "and I believe we actually started it."

"Sha Na Na is alive and well with two of my roommates still in the group," marvels Witkin. "They actually play a hundred dates a year, and make more money than they ever did."

"We were really in the right place at the right time."

(For information on booking "The Corvettes" for a party or event, call Carol Witkin at (858) 481-4380, or go to www.the corvettes.com.)

Dr. Joe Witkin traded tie-dye for scrubs.

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April 18 -
April 24, 2003 issue

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