Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
For decades, “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” has been sung by sports fans. Teams including the Chicago White Sox, Montreal Canadiens, and T.C. Williams Titans claim the song as their own, but followers of pretty much any squad from anywhere have been known to break into the tune once victory is assured or an opposing player is being removed from the field.
“I hope I’ll hear it this week, and I probably will, because of the [NCAA] tournament,” says Gary DeCarlo of the song he just calls “Na Na.”
For DeCarlo, hearing the song is part celebration, part taunt, too.
DeCarlo was the first guy to ever sing “Na Na,” a ditty about a breakup that he co-wrote and recorded with childhood friends Dale Frashuer and Paul Leka in a New York studio in 1969. At the time, DeCarlo was trying to jump-start a pop music career under the stage name Garrett Scott and was hoping Leka, already a producer with a track record, would be just the guy to get things going.
The song was released on Fontana Records by an act named Steam Featuring Garrett Scott and took off faster and went further than DeCarlo or his buddies ever figured.
“We were just making a record and trying to have fun doing it,” DeCarlo says. “It really was fun.”
Adds Leka, “Anything you do, it’s like a seed. You take a seed and throw it on the ground and push it in with your foot and spit on it, it’ll probably grow. If you leave a seed in the bag, it’ll just die. We threw this seed out there. If we didn’t create that, there wouldn’t be all the effects it had on so many games and other situations in life.”
“This song, now it’s like a tree that keeps growing branches,” he says. “But at the time, we were just having fun. Who has a crystal ball?”
While the song never went away, DeCarlo did. As “Na Na” went to the top of the Billboard pop charts, and Leka went on to help launch ’70s timepieces Harry Chapin, REO Speedwagon, and Dan Fogelberg, DeCarlo went home to Connecticut and back to making slipcovers for furniture. The song has been sung in gyms, arenas, and stadiums ever since he left the studio.
But DeCarlo’s performances of his all-time smash have been confined pretty much to the shower.
“I think about that and think, How could that happen?” he says.
Well, there’s the official version of what went wrong with “Na Na” and DeCarlo. This tale, which Leka subscribes to, has appeared in some form in compendiums such as the Billboard Book of Number One Hits and the All Music Guide. DeCarlo never liked the song, this version goes. He didn’t think it was the type of music that he envisioned for Garrett Scott and only recorded “Na Na” because the record label told him it needed to fill spaces on the B-sides of singles that it would soon be releasing.
“We weren’t trying to make a good record,” says Leka. “You don’t want to confuse DJs when you send them a single by having two good songs, one on each side.”
The original version of the song was more than four minutes long, Leka says, in an effort to further make the single untouchable for pop radio, where tunes clocking in at 2:30 were the most desirable. But as Leka was editing “Na Na” and playing the song over and over in the studio one day, a Mercury Records exec liked what he was hearing and decided on the spot that “Na Na” would be released as an A-side on Fontana, a label distributed by Mercury.
DeCarlo, alas, still wanted nothing to do with “Na Na.” Even after the single began ruling the airwaves under Steam Featuring Garrett Scottâ€”a band created by the label just to release this songâ€”the singer remained so peeved that he refused to participate in recording other material for a Steam album. DeCarlo also refused to tour behind the record or even perform the smash hit live anywhere.
Or so the official story goes.
Leka, who played most of the instruments on “Na Na,” arranged for studio musicians to help him record the rest of the LP. Leka then put together a band made up of people who had absolutely nothing to do with the hit or any other song on the album and sent them on the road to promote the smash single.
“Gary was the lead singer, and if he didn’t want to sing it anymore, well, what can you do?” says Leka. “He had this other career he was trying to build, and the music we recorded as Garrett Scott was, well, classier than [“Na Na”]. It was like comparing McDonald’s to caviar when you took his other songs and compared them to this song. But I kept saying, ‘Gary, think about it!’ But he was saying, ‘No, I don’t want to be in the group!’ He said this so many times, finally, I’d had it: ‘Gary, you’re out!’ The record company wasn’t happy, but they said just get somebody else, so that’s what we did.”
DeCarlo’s memory of his hit’s genesis has little in common with Leka’s, apart from the song’s origins as a B-side.
“Paul says we thought this song was a piece of crap, we were embarrassed by it, all that,” says DeCarlo. “That’s not true at all. But he gets out there and tells that story again and again for years, and that’s what’s written everywhere. He’s a producer; he’s in the business; people believe that story. Nobody ever asked me if it was true. I just ask this: Why would anybody go into a studio and intentionally try to make a lousy record? That didn’t happen.”
DeCarlo describes himself as a music-business novice to Leka’s Svengali, and he says that once “Na Na” took off, Leka told him his career as Garrett Scott would be doomed if he did interviews or toured behind the song.
“I didn’t understand why he was doing that, telling me that, but I listened,” DeCarlo says. “Now, I look back, and I feel so stupid. I still have no idea what plan he had for me.”
Garrett Scott’s solo career never took off. Leka and DeCarlo haven’t spoken to each other in 37 years.
“The hurt is too deep, I’m afraid,” says Leka. “It’s really sad.”
When Frashuer, the third member of the team that gave the world “Na Na,” died several years ago, Leka didn’t go to the funeral. DeCarlo did, and he says the priest gave the congregation an irony-free reading of the golden oldie during his eulogy.
“Let’s be honest, the lyrics to this song aren’t real serious,” DeCarlo says. “But the priest was very serious, reading, “ËœNa na na na. Hey hey hey. Goodbye,’ while everybody’s crying. It was like [Steve Allen] used to do, reading silly lyrics like they were serious. But there wasn’t any joke.”
Of course, by then, DeCarlo had heard the tune sung nearly everywhere. Despite what the Rolling Stones sang, it’s not always the singerâ€”sometimes it’s the song. Even with a roving cast of yahoos touring the country as Steam, the show-stopping tune’s popularity kept growing.
Leka says sports crowds fueled the boom from the start. Soon after the song was released, he says, he heard from the London offices of his music-publishing company that soccer crowds in England had adopted “Na Na” as a sports anthem. DeCarlo says he got a letter from Louisiana State University in 1970 asking for the songwriter’s blessing for the school band to play it at athletic events. The producers of Remember the Titans, a film about T.C. Williams’ 1971 football team, paid $200,000 for the right to use “Na Na” in the movie.
But perhaps the most insistent proponents of “Na Na” in the sporting realm are the Chicago White Sox and the team’s legendary organist, Nancy Faust.
“We were playing the Royals one night in July of 1977 for first place,” recalls Faust, “and the fans were really up on everything I was playing. I’d always liked [‘Na Na’], so without really thinking I started playing that, when they were taking the Royals pitcher out of the game. And all of a sudden, spontaneously, the crowd picked up on what I was playing and just started singing along.”
“It was a miraculous feeling,” she says, “having a whole stadium sing along. I’ve been playing it ever since. Over the years, when a new marketing guy comes in, there’s a suggestion that I find ‘something new.’ But this has stayed on. Traditions die hard in baseball, and you feel fortunate when you get tied to something like this.”
The 30-year anniversary of “Na Na” as a White Sox theme song is coming up this season. Faust says it’s become an important part of her team’s identity. DeCarlo has never had the chance to sing it in front of a big crowd. So why not bring the song’s original singer to Chicago to commemorate the occasion?
“That’s a wonderful idea! That would be fun!” says Faust.
DeCarlo sure sounds like he’d be up for that gig. He says that after all these years of not doing anything to exploit his ties to one of the biggest pop songs of all time, he’s thinking of contacting concert promoters to get on the occasionally profitable oldies circuit.
“I’m in my basement waiting for somebody to call about that song,” he says with a laugh. “But I guess everybody’s looking for Garrett Scott.”