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Sha Na Na's Rob Leonard, now Hofstra professor, remembers Woodstock

Rob Leonard is a forensic linguistics professor at Hofstra University. But he was also a member of the group Sha Na Na. On July 17, Leonard talked about performing at Woodstock, as the 50th anniversary of the landmark concert approaches. Credit: Newsday / Shelby Knowles

Rob Leonard will never forget his moment in the Woodstock spotlight, when he delivered his dramatic solo in “Teen Angel” during his group Sha Na Na’s early-morning set on the festival’s final day.

It’s captured in the collector’s edition of the “Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music” documentary, so he knows Jimi Hendrix was watching his performance approvingly. And he can see the befuddled reactions of some fans to his emotional vocals delivered in the gold lame suit he was wearing without a shirt underneath. But Leonard — now 70, of Mill Neck, a professor and director of Hofstra University’s forensic linguistics program — says the footage doesn’t show the thing he remembers most about the performance.

“Imagine staying up all night and then having to get up in front of 150-whatever thousand people at 7 o'clock in the morning and sing,” he says. “Well, we did it. My problem was that it was dawn and the air was very, very still. As I walked up to do my solo, a veritable cloud that you could almost see of weed-and-hash-and-everything-else smoke wafted up — they were smoking these enormous cigar-size spliffs.”

“I could barely breathe,” he adds, laughing. “So that's my excuse for why I'm not exactly in tune on that song. But, luckily, on the internet, there's a good, in-tune version of my song, from the Fillmore West show with The Byrds and Joe Cocker and everybody. That was a good performance.”

The fact that Sha Na Na was performing at Woodstock at all was a miracle in itself. Six months earlier, Leonard and some friends were performing in Columbia College’s singing group The Kingsmen when his brother, George, had the idea for them to perform the ‘50s music that they loved.

“My brother’s older, he was 23, and he says, ‘Boys, I'm going to make you rock and roll stars,’” Leonard recalls. “You can imagine everybody's response, ‘Oh sure, you are.’”

But George’s plan — the gold lame suits, the Greasers look, the choreography — worked. “We were the first ones and it was a fabulous success,” says Leonard, adding that Woodstock was the group’s third public, professional performance. “And five months later, I was sitting in Steve Paul’s The Scene, the most insider nightclub in New York City and Jimi Hendrix has told me how fabulous we are and he is showing me how to drink tequila shots, you know, with the lime and the salt. And I thought back five months earlier to my brother telling us we were going to be rock stars. And I said, ‘Oh my god, he was right.’”

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Leonard won’t be marking the 50th anniversary of Woodstock in any way special. He is set to be testifying as an expert witness in a criminal trial in Portland, Oregon.

But Leonard says he does appreciate what Woodstock was able to accomplish.

“I guess things are defined very much by what they're not, as well as what they are,” he says. “Certainly, Altamont, which happened a few months afterward and during which people were beaten to death, really showed us what Woodstock was. I'm always astonished that after 50 years, I've still never heard of one intentional act of violence at Woodstock. There was no police force. There was certainly no supervision by an organizational team, only a bunch of volunteers.”

He said Woodstock’s spirit of generosity and peace was on display throughout the festival. “I know a guy, who I met way later, and he went up there with his buddies. Everybody was doing so much drugs and everything and they woke up naked on this incline to their astonishment and he started (to panic) and all the folks around them said, ‘Hey, little brothers, don't freak out. Everything will be OK.’ They actually took the clothing off their own backs and gave them to the guys. And that's just the greatest anecdote of Woodstock for me.”

Leonard says he’s not sure that can happen again. “Every time they tried to reprise Woodstock, it has not exactly worked,” he says. “Sometimes, there's just a moment in time that everything comes together — karma or whatever it was we were calling it back then. You just can't redo these things.”

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