We spoke with Sha Na Na’s Screamin’ Scott Simon and Cidny (formerly Cindy) Bullens on their contributions to the Grease soundtrack and their careers. We preview an interview segment with Juliana Hatfield on her new album of Olivia Newton-John covers.
By Warren Kurtz
Forty years ago, 1978 was the peak year for Robert Stigwood’s RSO label. Beginning in January, as Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours left the number one spot, the Saturday Night Fever double album soundtrack, on RSO, stayed on the top of the charts through early July. By the end of that summer month, we saw RSO’s next double album soundtrack, Grease, reach number one and stay there through the end of October, interrupted just twice in two non-consecutive weeks by Boston’s second album, Don’t Look Back, while they were on a big U.S. tour. When Grease debuted in the theaters in mid-June, the number one single in the U.S. was “You’re the One That I Want” by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. The title song “Grease,” written by Barry Gibb and performed by Frankie Valli, ended the summer of ’78 as the second number one single from the soundtrack. In addition to multiple songs from John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, there were also multiple songs from Sha-Na-Na and Cindy Bullens on this double album, which would sell over 14,000,000 copies in the U.S.
PART ONE – INTERVIEW WITH SHA-NA-NA’S SCREAMIN’ SCOTT SIMON
GOLDMINE: Scott, on June 30th, Sha-Na-Na will be performing at the Hollywood Bowl for the Grease sing-a-long.
SCREAMIN’ SCOTT SIMON: This will truly be a 40th anniversary as we were the opening act at the Hollywood Bowl in 1978 for the Grease film debut.
GM: In addition to the five singles from the film released in the U.S., there was an additional single released in England, which reached the UK Top 10, the one you co-wrote for John Travolta, “Sandy.” My family does sing-a-long to that one, “Stranded at the drive-in. Branded a fool. What will they say Monday at school?”
SSM: I remember talking with John at a spa in L.A. Olivia Newton-John had with “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” written for her for the film. John also wanted a song. The director, Randal Kleiser, was responsible for the visual finale for “Sandy,” that everyone loves, when the hot dog jumps into the bun.
Sha Na Na
Flip side: Rock ‘n’ Roll is Here to Stay
A side: Greased Lightnin’ – John Travolta
Top 100 debut: September 30, 1978
Peak position: 47
GM:The first time I heard and watched Sha Na Na was in the summer of ’70, seeing the group in the Woodstock film, with the energetic cover of Danny and the Juniors’ “At the Hop.” On the flip side of the “Greased Lightnin’” single and kicking off Side 3 of the double album, you do another Danny and the Juniors cover that you are known for, “Rock ‘n’ Roll is Here to Stay.”
SSM: You mention the summer of ’70, that is when we were on the Festival Express tour in Canada. What a tour that was, hanging out with The Grateful Dead and others. In the movie you can see me singing “Rock ‘n’ Roll is Here to Stay.” The film also captures some of Janis Joplin’s final performances.
GM:The Festival Express bonus disc includes what would become my favorite Janis Joplin flip side, “Move Over,” which Doc Severinsen later covered, too. Sha Na Na went from being the act at Woodstock before Jimi Hendrix to sharing the bill with Janis Joplin the following year. The year after that, in the spring of 1971, on our Cleveland AM station, WIXY 1260, I heard the debut of Janis Joplin’s “Cry Baby,” following her big posthumous hit “Me and Bobby McGee,” and the debut of Sha Na Na’s beautiful ballad “Only One Song,” which you wrote.
SSM: The album also included another original single, “Top Forty,” and the album was produced by Jimi Hendrix’s producer, Eddie Kramer, who also produced the Festival Express music.
GM:My favorite Sha Na Na albums are the ones that mix originals with oldies covers. The album Sha Na Now includes your highest charting single, a cover of The Reflections’ “(Just Like) Romeo and Juliet,” which I actually heard on our FM rock station WMMS in Cleveland in 1975, played by DJ Kid Leo, who is now on Sirius XM’s Little Steven’s Underground Garage station. “Shot Down in Denver” and “You’re the Only Light on My Horizon” start off the album nicely and I am partial to “Don’t Want to Say Goodbye,” your cover of the first single from Cleveland’s Raspberries.
SSM: It was tough to succeed on the radio. Originals were looked down on as not being what we were known for and then getting covers on the radio was tough too.
Screamin' Scott Simon on the floor
GM:Your ‘70s television show was a great way to capture the oldies. Before going on our Saturday night dates, Donna and I would watch The Muppets and Sha-Na-Na. Can you think of a Top 5 list of TV guest memories to share?
SSM: Yes. One – standing inches from James Brown, watching him do his dance moves. Two – hearing the emotion in Johnny Ray’s voice as he sang, “Cry.” Three – the power of Ben E. King performing “Stand by Me.” Four – Freddy Fender keeping things current at the time with “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights.” Five – the biggest thrill, the band performing live with Chuck Berry, doing “Roll Over Beethoven” and other songs.
GM:In 1981, you released your solo album Transmissions from Space. The opening number, that you and fellow Sha Na Na member Jocko wrote, “Think About Me,” certainly seems influenced by Jerry Lee Lewis as does your energetic take on Floyd Cramer’s “Last Date.” A favorite from my cousin Bill Kurtz, who you have also performed with, is your cover of Clarence Frogman Henry’s “Ain’t Got a Home.”
SSN: My favorite is “Rockin’ At the Ritz,” a rockabilly cover of a Ray Campi song. He is known as “The King of Rockabilly.” He was also on Ronny Weiser’s Rollin’ Rock label, like me, and the most successful act on the label, The Blasters.
GM:In 1978, Donna surprised me with 4th row tickets to your outdoor show at Blossom Music Center, south of Cleveland. I was so impressed with the singing and musicianship of the band that you, Jocko, Donny and the others brought to the act in the ‘70s and continue to do so today.
SSN: Thank you. We try to do about fifteen to twenty shows a year. Please say “hi” to the family for me.
Scott, Jocko and Donny, Volusia County Fair, Florida, November 8, 2016
PART TWO – INTERVIEW WITH CIDNY (FORMERLY CINDY) BULLENS
GOLDMINE:Cid, your Grease songs recall the girl group era of the early to mid-'60s with “Mooning,” a bit more on "Freddy My Love" and especially on my favorite, "It's Raining on Prom Night." Which girl groups inspired you the most?
CIDNY BULLENS: The early "girl groups" which are reflected in the Grease movie were popular before I was a teen, but I had two older siblings who listened to records. I remember my sister, who was eight years older, listening to The Chiffons, The Shirelles, The Ronettes, and then came Martha & The Vandellas, who were just awesome.
GM:In February of 1979, when Suzi Quatro, who some knew from Happy Days, entered the Top 40, you had your first charting single with "Survivor" / "Finally Rockin'" from your United Artists album Desire Wire, that we used to play in the record store where I worked. The bridge on "Survivor" is so powerful, with the orchestra and female background singers. "Finally Rockin'" appears to be a personal anthem about not giving up on your musical dream.
CB: My first single "Survivor" was kind of a phenomenon for me. Not that it became a national number one hit, but it was headed that way before my record company folded, as the single was surging up the Hot 100. The song itself ironically became the anthem of my life, having survived the loss of my eleven year old daughter in 1996 and the aftermath of that, along with other personal triumphs and tragedies. "Finally Rockin'" was, at the time, a statement of defiance, in a way. "Girls" weren't respected or believed to be capable of being true rockers, only folk and pop singers. It was tough to break through, even then.
GM:Speaking of labels folding, by the end of 1979, like the Captain & Tennille that year, you switched to Casablanca for your Steal the Night album, and the single "Trust Me" charted in very early 1980. It shared the musical drama we enjoyed on Ellen Foley's debut album for Cleveland International. Its flip side, "Holding Me Crazy," is another favorite, with a bit of an edgier pop sound.
CB: Thank you for the compliments. Steal the Night is probably my least favorite album that I've done. I was trying hard to be "of the times" and not so much to be true to my own musical instincts. By the way, on both Desire Wire and Steal the Night I sing in that high-pitched girl voice that one of my mentors, songwriter and producer Bob Crewe, known for his work with Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels and The Four Seasons, as we saw in Jersey Boys, encouraged me to use. It was not at all my natural voice. I have always had a relatively low voice. When I started working with Bob, singing background vocals on mid-70's productions, he made me sing higher than what was natural to me. He thought it brought energy to the records. I believed him and did that on my own two first albums. I recorded an album, just called Cindy Bullens, which was released in 1989 on MCA, then an EP in 1990 Why Not? where I started to use my natural voice.
GM:At the end of the following decade, the title song on your Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth album, I think would appeal to pop, country and Americana fans, with a delivery on par with that of Rosanne Cash.
CB: Since then, I have recorded three more CDs, Neverland in 2001, dream #29 in 2005 and Howling Trains and Barking Dogs in 2010, all of which are considered in the Americana genre. I also recorded two CDs, Unbound in 2009 and THREE in 2012 with my trio The Refugees including Wendy Waldman and Deborah Holland. In the time between Howling Trains and Barking Dogs and the present, I have transitioned from Cindy to Cidny, female to male, and wrote my one person show Somewhere Between: Not An Ordinary Life. I've been performing it around the country for the last 2 1/2 years. It's the story of my life between 1974, when I met Bob Crewe and then Elton John, and the present, as a man, a grandparent, and now a husband. I just moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico from Portland, Maine with my new wife. This year, I will be writing a memoir and new songs for my first CD as Cidny Bullens.
GM:We look forward to your new material, too.
CB: Thanks. I really appreciate Goldmine including me in this article.
PART THREE – PREVIEW OF INTERVIEW WITH JULIANA HATFIELD
GOLDMINE: You bring an edge to Olivia Newton-John’s music while still capturing the original beauty. At your suburban Boston concert at Once Somerville, a song that everyone knew, swayed to and chanted the chorus to at your concert was “Hopelessly Devoted to You”
JULIANA HATFIELD: That is a classic. The chorus hits hard. It is powerful and everyone does know this one, like an anthem.
GM:I love every song on your new Olivia Newton-John album. Congratulations. It is also great that a portion of the proceeds helps to fight cancer.
JH: Thank you. I am also pleased with Olivia Newton-John’s tweets about it.
Olivia Newton-John on Twitter: Very flattered that Juliana recorded this album of my music. Great job, Juliana. Thank you for the tribute and for donating a portion of the sales to my Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Center, which will help cancer patients on their journey. Enjoying her versions and grateful for her kind donation. Love and gratitude!
Warren Kurtz is a Contributing Editor at Goldmine, known for “Fabulous Flip Sides” along with giveaways, interviews, CD, DVD and book reviews. “Warren’s Fabulous Flip Sides” can be heard most Saturday mornings, in the 9 a.m. hour, Eastern time, as part of “Moments to Remember” at wvcr.com or iHeart Radio – search WVCR.