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Sha Na Na founder helps hunt criminals

Bassist now specializes in forensic linguistics
/ Source: The Associated Press

As he walks to the stage of a Hofstra University lecture hall, Robert Leonard’s attire is every bit the college professor: blue blazer and shirt, charcoal slacks, yellow tie, glasses.

He’s a long, long way from the summer of 1969 when the uniform of the day was a gold lame jumpsuit. Leonard was a founding member and bassist for Sha Na Na, a zany doo-wop group that played one of its first gigs at Woodstock.

Leonard’s specialty today is forensic linguistics — employing the science of language to help identify the writers of ransom notes, threatening letters and other correspondence. Leonard directs Hofstra’s forensic linguistics program while also consulting for law firms, advertising agencies, TV networks, police and government agencies.

He recently advised the NYPD in a case where someone was sending threatening letters to celebrity interracial couples and assisted on a Pennsylvania homicide probe.

“To understand law, one must understand language,” Leonard tells a gathering of law enforcement officials at a Hofstra seminar on his techniques.

Robert Leonard
In this 1969 publicity photo supplied by Robert Leonard, a founding member of Sha Na Na, Leonard is shown standing, at right, with other members of the group in New York. Leonard's specialty today is forensic linguistics - employing the science of language to help law enforcement identify the writers of ransom notes, threatening letters and other correspondence. (AP Photo)ROBERT LEONARD

“Who wrote a ransom note? Who called in a bomb threat? What is the meaning of a phrase in a contract? ... Could a fourth-grade dropout actually have written a confession with the phrase: ‘He approached the vehicle and I raised my weapon?’

“All of these questions address aspects of language.”

People who intentionally try to disguise their identity in ransom notes or threatening letters are usually done in by their own words, Leonard says. The way people speak or write often reflects their age, gender or upbringing.

“Even when people try to disguise their speech, there are still characteristics of their own speech,” Leonard says.

For investigators trained to analyze language, those characteristics serve as verbal fingerprints.

From glee club to ‘Grease’Although he only spent two years as a “rock star,” the 57-year-old Leonard says his involvement with Sha Na Na “really got me into thinking of applying linguistics to legal matters.” The group, which later went on to have a successful TV variety series in the ’70s and appeared in the classic film “Grease,” was formed by Leonard and classmates who performed with the glee club at Columbia University.

“He as much as anyone personified these Ivy League guys doing this theatrical thing,” says “Screamin” Scott Simon, who still tours with Sha Na Na. “Robby performed songs like ‘Teen Angel’ and ‘Tell Laura I Love Her,’ and he really toed the line between satire and playing it straight. He’d fall to his knees and let out one tear. It wasn’t done with a wink or a smirk. He did it straight.

“He really was a defining persona at the start of the group.”

In his current field, Leonard has little opportunity to draw upon his musical roots, although he quoted Paul Simon while instructing law enforcers about interpreting the contents of an audio tape.

“A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest,” says Leonard, citing the lyric from Simon’s “The Boxer.”

Leonard says the invitation to play at Woodstock was engineered in part by one of the festival’s biggest stars.

The group was performing in early 1969 at Steve Paul’s The Scene, a New York City club where bands like the Doors, Pink Floyd and Traffic played. Jimi Hendrix was a regular visitor.

“The whole place was like a small living room and I look up and there’s Jimi Hendrix 10 feet away from me, standing on a chair waving his arms, going, ‘Great, great,”’ Leonard recounts. “He got us booked to Woodstock out of that.”

The band, which played just before Hendrix closed the show in the early hours of an August Monday, also appears in the Oscar-winning documentary about the festival.

“That was truly amazing,” Leonard says. “To go out on stage and see this ocean of people, most of whom thought they were hallucinating: these guys in gold lame jumpsuits and greased back hair.”

Like many of his generation who attended the legendary festival, Leonard’s recollections of the weekend are mixed.

“It was muddy, it was messy, it was awful,” he says, quickly countering, “But it was really wonderful because what they were so proud of at the time, and it’s very true, is they had all those people there and there was no violence. There was no dissent, everybody really was as if they were one tribe.”

He spent two years with the band before being offered a fellowship at Columbia.

It was a difficult decision.

“I wanted to do both, but I was afraid if I stayed in the group I couldn’t do Columbia,” Leonard recalls. “So I said I’ll retire at 21 from the music business. I’ve been on the Johnny Carson show, what more do I need? I’ve been at Woodstock, I’ve drunk with Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix.

“OK, let me go on and go back to school.”

And he still hasn’t left.