Jon Bauman stood in front of about 40 people gathered at a “Hands Off Medicare” rally Wednesday and said his reason for joining their fight involved singing “Rama Lama Ding Dong” at Carnegie Hall in the early 1970s.
“I was classically trained on the piano, but when I got to Carnegie Hall it was (for) singing rock ‘n’ roll,” said Bauman, 69, bass singer of the group Sha Na Na. “But to my mother, it didn’t matter how I made it. She was there, the only one in the audience standing, yelling ‘Jonathan, you made it.’ She is the reason I’m here today. Her quality of life (as a senior citizen) was so much greater than anything my grandparents experienced, because of Social Security and Medicare.”
Bauman, known as “Bowzer” when he sings, runs a California-based political action committee called “Senior Votes Count.” He was at the First Parish Church in Portland on Wednesday with representatives from the Washington, D.C., group Social Security Works.
They made Maine their first stop on a tour of about 10 states, asking people to call their senators and representatives in Congress and urge them to vote against any proposals by Republican leaders to weaken Medicare – particularly Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican who has said she has some reservations about such changes.
Bauman talked to the group for about half an hour, using the goofiness of his “Bowzer” persona to make some points, but sounding like the activist he is when talking about how Congress works and the power of grassroots organizing.
He struck his trademark “Bowzer” pose – right arm up, bicep flexed, mouth wide open – and told the audience “that’s what we’re all gonna look like” once the fight to save Medicare is over.
“Can you believe I’ve made a living for more than 45 years doing this?” he said after striking the flamboyant pose. “God bless America.”
‘I DON’T WANT TO GO BACK’
Bauman gained famed in the late 1960s and 1970s with Sha Na Na, which performed rock ‘n’ roll songs from the 1950s and early 60s. With slicked-back hair, rolled-up blue jeans and gold lamé jackets, the group at once celebrated and lampooned 1950s America and spawned a long second wave of popularity for the era’s music. Sha Na Na appeared at the famed Woodstock music festival in 1969 and in the 1978 film “Grease.” The group also had its own syndicated TV show from 1977 to 1981.
The band’s name comes from the refrain of the 1957 Silhouettes’ doo-wop hit “Get a Job.”
“You know me as somebody who really loves the music of the 1950s and ’60s, but I don’t want to go back to the 1950s,” Bauman said Wednesday, wearing a blue suit and necktie. “Before Medicare took effect in 1965, about 35 percent of all seniors lived in poverty.”
After he left Sha Na Na in the mid-1980s, Bauman hosted TV game shows, including a version of “Hollywood Squares.” In recent years he’s hosted several old-time rock ‘n’ roll specials on PBS. Bauman continues to tour with his “Bowzer’s Rock ‘N’ Doo-Wop Party” shows. He did one Sunday at the Mohegan Sun casino resort in Connecticut, along with Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon, Lou Christie and The Flamingos.
AN INTEREST IN SOCIAL ISSUES
A native of New York City, Bauman played piano as a youngster and attended the Juilliard School. He majored in music at Columbia University but was always interested in politics and social issues. He thinks Sha Na Na became popular in the politically turbulent ’60s and ’70s because a generation of Baby Boomers felt a need to “go back to the music of their childhood.”
But Bauman didn’t become politically active until after the 2000 presidential election. Because the election of George W. Bush was so close and left the nation so divided, Bauman decided he “couldn’t sit out another election.” He began working seriously as an advocate for senior citizens around 2004. By then, he said, his two children were grown, and he and his wife of 46 years had more time to do other things.
Although the crowd Wednesday applauded when he struck his “Bowzer” pose and when he played a couple classical selections on the piano, most didn’t come because of Bauman’s fame. They came because of the issue he is working for. Several said they were impressed with his grasp of the issues.
“I just want to be involved,” he told the crowd, “the way every American should be involved in what’s going on.”