Thursday, May 29, 2003

Woodstock Alum Set To Perform at Scripps Park


San Diego is known as one of America's, if not the world's, finest vacation spots. Millions of people come each year to enjoy the sun, surf and people of our fair city.

Naturally, a few like it so much, they decide to make San Diego their home.

Since the late 1950s, this has been particularly true of entertainers. Desi Arnaz, George Harrison, Burt Bacharach, Barry White, Janet Jackson and Ravi Shankar are just a few of the many celebs that have set up residence here, but many more unsung heroes of rock 'n' roll can also be found roaming our streets.

It's now not an uncommon thing for members of the Surfaris, Electric Prunes or even the Cascades to be spotted at shows or music shops.

Even among such illustrious names, it's safe to say that Joe Witkin has achieved things most musicians would only dream of.

An area resident since 1975, Witkin got his start in the mid 1960s playing the New York area as keyboardist for a group dubbed the Columbia Kingsmen, who would soon rise to fame as retro pioneers Sha Na Na.

The group was a huge favorite in New York, but at the end of the decade they were still unknown to the rest of America.

That would quickly change change on Aug. 17, 1969, when the group performed at the legendary Woodstock Festival.

Speaking from his home in Del Mar, Witkin remembers the event vividly.

"It was cold," he said. "It was amazing though. We were helicoptered in from the next town. You see it in the movies, but it's an experience you never get over. We came over the hills and see all these little dots, and it keeps growing into a mass of people. The audience was huge."

Crowd estimates put the crowd at the festival in the hundreds of thousands for what was likely the greatest music gathering in history.

"We were supposed to play Sunday evening, but we kept getting pushed back later and later," Witkin said. "And it really was cold. You have to remember we were in the mountains, and we were wearing our 1950s clothes, T-shirts and so on."

Despite the seeming setbacks, fortune was actually smiling on them. They ended up literally warming up the crowd in the wee hours for festival closer Jimi Hendrix, at arguably his most famous performance.

"We went on right before Hendrix. It was great, but we were also just in the right place at the right time."

They were the only group to perform that didn't have a recording contract, but that was a situation remedied in the concert's aftermath.

Witkin left the group not long after, settling on a career in medicine, but always performing.

"Music isn't the main thing I do, actually I'm an ER doctor, but it is the most fun," he said with a laugh.

Since he's been a San Diego resident, he's spent time with Beatles tribute act, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah and for the past 15 years he was a key member of popular oldies act the Legends, but these days he fronts a brand new 8-piece oldies group, the Corvettes.

"I believe in nostalgia," he said. "I really enjoy playing songs that people remember, that were big hits. With our shows, it's definitely about the audience, we play what they want to hear."

Amazingly, the Corvettes also feature two more music legends in Don Baskin and Carl Scott, who play saxophone and drums respectively. Both were members of garage rockers the Syndicate Of Sound, who in 1966 scored a massive hit with "Hey Little Girl," which the band includes in their set.

It's noted that the original audience for such admittedly great songs as "Rock Around The Clock," "Dancing in the Streets" and "The Twist" is aging. Witkin's comments that many songs are often reborn through soundtrack use, such as "Twist and Shout" in "Ferris Buellers Day Off" or "Unchained Melody" in "Ghost."

"These days, a big part of the way kids learn about the older songs is through their use in movies."

Witkin said music just a part, albeit the crucial element, of the total Corvettes experience.

"We have a very entertaining show, regardless of age. It's very family friendly, with an Elvis act, props, and skits. We love to play gags on each other on stage, we have a lot of fun. And then of course there's that great selection of tunes."

Lucky local music fans will have an opportunity to take in an afternoon of great music and plenty of our patented surf and sunshine when the Corvettes perform this Sunday as part of The La Jolla Concerts by the Sea series. Whether you go for the music, the camaraderie of the crowd or the stunning scenery, this show should be a fun filled old fashioned good time and the perfect way to kick off the summer in La Jolla.

The Corvettes are scheduled to perform June 1 at La Jolla Concerts by the Sea at Scripps Park. The show starts at 2 p.m. Admission is free.

Copyright 2003 La Jolla Light