Robert Leonard: From fame to forensics
Imagine becoming a part of a hit rock ‘n’ roll band during the Woodstock era and playing alongside some of the most famous artists in rock ‘n’ roll history at just 19 years old. Imagine starting a trend that inspired the famous Broadway musical “Grease” or working with the FBI to solve criminal cases.
Professor Robert Leonard has done it all. In addition to all of these accomplishments, Leonard teaches Swahili, is the director of the graduate program in Linguistics and is one of the world’s leading experts in forensic linguistics
Leonard’s career began as an undergraduate student at Columbia University where he and his brother George were members of the school’s a cappella group. From there, the 1969 band Sha Na Na was formed and his brother changed the group’s look to the greaser style.
“My brother said, ‘I have a great idea for a rock group. The a capella group that you lead, why don’t we transform that into a ‘50s oldies group?’ We did. He choreographed us and dressed us in gold outfits and greaser outfits and we were an instant hit,” Leonard said.
Leonard was Sha Na Na’s bass singer, and he sang the lead for the song “Teen Angel” when the band opened for Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock.
“We wound up opening for Jimi Hendrix, who really liked us very much, at Woodstock. [We played with] Janis Joplin, Santana, Grateful Dead, everybody in the world,” Leonard said.
With such an eventful past, it can be hard to even remember how many icons he played with.
“It’s funny, my brother-in-law was a dead-head and I said, ‘Gee, I never had anything to do with them,’” Leonard said. “But then I found some old programs; I had played with them 10 to 15 times. Then I saw movies of me with them.”
Sha Na Na also went on to be the dance band in the movie “Grease.”
“We invented the whole concept of Grease. It didn’t really exist before us. They would invite us to go to the Broadway show because they were ripping us off completely, with our blessing!” Leonard said. “We got on the [“Grease”] album, which was a quadruple-billion platinum album, and in the movie.”
Despite his hectic schedule as a rock star, Leonard decided that he wanted to learn a new language. That was when he took up Swahili.
“At Columbia, out of 55 languages, guess which one was not taught Monday through Friday? Swahili,” Leonard said. “The first day I walked into Swahili class, I could not have found Africa on a map. But I fell madly in love with the language and the culture. I wound up applying for and getting a full-ride fellowship to do my doctoral dissertation research in East Africa for one year, and lived there for six years.”
For someone with such great fame and talent, one would expect Leonard to stay in the music industry. However, though Leonard loved being a musician, he had his reasons for straying from the business.
“I have to pinch myself now to imagine myself hanging out with Jimi Hendrix and performing at these enormous venues. We played with The Beatles, for gosh sakes! As well as all the ‘50s people like Chuck Berry, Little Richard and B.B. King,” he said. “But I had a choice. I was offered a full fellowship at Columbia to go right through my doctorate, and everybody I knew was dying of drug overdoses. It was a hard decision, but it was a good one.”
Leonard’s profession as a linguist has given him a devoted passion for the world of language.
“Being a linguist is what really made me fall in love with Swahili and many other languages. I’m so interested in language; the way language works, the way people do or don’t communicate through language, the way language creates groups and splits groups,” Leonard said. “Language is the single most important way we communicate.”
His past as a musician actually ties into his change in profession.
“A lot of linguists are musicians because so much of it is communication. And also, it’s structured communication. I was always a linguist, and I was always interested in language,” he said.
Leonard’s mentor, Roger Shuy (now a distinguished research professor at Georgetown University), played a key role in guiding him into the field.
“[He] really invented forensic linguistics in the United States. He took sociolinguistics and used it to analyze cases. I was doing cases just every now and then, and after a while, Roger [Shuy] invited me to be his partner because he wanted somebody else to go around and do all of the testifying.”
However, before working with his mentor, Leonard worked alongside the Pennsylvania State Police.
“Before I partnered with Roger Shuy, I got a call from the Pennsylvania State Police out of the blue,” he said. “They asked me to look at two documents: one, a letter that a woman’s husband found on his windshield accusing her of infidelity. Then she was found strangled to death in her car outside a supermarket. As the investigation progressed, another letter came from a guy who said he was the one who killed her. So the police wanted to know what intelligence I could extract from these documents that might help them in their investigation.”
His work with the Pennsylvania State Police got Leonard acquainted with the FBI.
“On the basis of this, I got to know the head of the FBI Forensic Linguistics Program at the Behavioral Analysis Unit,” he said.
Leonard was recruited to Quantico by James Fitzgerald, who is now also a Hofstra professor, to help train the Behavioral Analysis Unit agents.
“Here I was, a linguistics professor here [at Hofstra], and all of a sudden I’m training the Behavioral Analysis Unit. It’s very similar to what happened to me in show business,” Leonard said. “One minute I’m in an a cappella group at Columbia, next minute I’m playing with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.”
Leonard continues to work for the FBI when needed, while also working as a professor.
“It’s so funny, sometimes I get a call in class and I actually have to walk out because I recognize that [the FBI] are calling me for something.”
With a fascinating past, Leonard recounts his most impactful experience.
“You can imagine how much fun it was being a rock star,” he said. “As much fun as that was, I used to say when I was in Kenya, it was more fun being in Africa speaking Swahili, researching Swahili, living in a vast variety of cultures in Africa. That was just so rewarding and interesting, that may be the best.