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Shawnee News Star Web posted Wednesday, July 1, 1998

Sha Na Na star trades gold lame suit for pinstripes

EUGENE, Ore. (AP) -- Growing up in Harlem and the Bronx, Dennis Greene wanted to be a lawyer like Perry Mason on TV. Instead, he became a rock 'n' roll star.

Through 15 years as lead singer of the 1950s revival group Sha Na Na, Greene never forgot his boyhood aspirations or his Ivy League education.

After the group's television show folded, he traded in his gold lame suit for gray pinstripes and is now a law professor at the University of Oregon.

"Being a rock star was never something that was particularly interesting to me," Greene says. "It was a great job. I loved the singing part. The byproducts, unfortunately, were exhausting -- travel, and the ongoing-forever politics of being in a business controlled by young adults that were sort of self-managing."

Though Greene breaks the mold for rock stars, his life is not unusual for the 12 founding members of Sha Na Na, which has its roots in an a cappella singing group at Columbia University. Two became physicians, two lawyers, one an entrepreneur and four went into academia.

Only two are still in the latest incarnation of the group and one is playing guitar in Nashville, Tenn.

Just as performing "Let's Go to the Hop" at Woodstock never swayed Greene from earning a degree in English from Columbia, his current day job does not keep him from pursuing other interests.

This summer he is returning to Harlem with a video camera to shoot the latest installment in a series of law review articles he calls "The Harlem Debates," written in a dramatic format with two law professors meeting for lunch.

"It will be, hopefully, the first law review article broadcast over the Internet," he says.

Greene's life and career were always anything but ordinary.

His father was a postal worker with a Screen Actors Guild card who appeared in commercials and movies in New York City. His mother taught grammar school.

When Greene was a teen-ager, the family left Harlem for a blue-collar Bronx neighborhood where, after a week of fistfights, he found a way to fit in at a Catholic high school.

During his freshman year, Greene, who is black and played basketball, was recruited to broaden the racial diversity at the Hotchkiss School, an elite prep school in Connecticut.

"I decided to do it," he says, "because I knew anything that expensive had to be good."

His three years at Hotchkiss were rigorous academically and a time of discovery socially, for him and the rich white boys who made up the bulk of the student body.

"I had grown up in the Harlem that had Adam Clayton Powell and Malcolm X," Greene says. "It made me be quite different than many of the students who had been there before, and diametrically opposed to many of the people of color they encountered in their personal lives, who were largely service people for their families."

Greene spent summers acting in a street theater group and sang in an a cappella group patterned after Yale's Wiffenpoofs. When he went to Columbia, he joined a similar group called the Columbia Kingsmen.

Historically, the group had just two gigs a year: The Yule log lighting ceremony at Barnard College, and the mental ward at St. Luke's Hospital.

"You were singing to older people and also to young guys who were classmates sitting in bathrobes who had a bad trip," Greene recalls. "I will never forget having this bizarre experience having an a cappella group singing 'Going Out of My Head' ... in a mental ward."

Breaking out of their traditional mold, they greased back their hair, rolled up the sleeves on their T-shirts, and put on an oldies show at the campus cafeteria. People liked it so much they added costumes and instruments and called it "The Glory That Was Grease."

The only one in the group with any formal dance training, Greene did a lot of the choreography, devising moves that could be done by guys who couldn't dance.

"The jocks and the pukes were both coming with their hair greased back and rolled-up T-shirts, hugging and singing along to 'Run Around Sue."' Greene says. "We realized that wherever there was this kind of brotherhood, there had to be money."

Joe Witkin, who played piano and went on to become an emergency room physician in San Diego, had the only car in the group. Alan Cooper, who sang bass and went on to teach the Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, joined him and they drove around Manhattan with a map of all the nightclubs. At the last one on their list, Steve Paul's Scene, they got an audition.

"Before we could get through the first song, the guy said, 'OK, you can start tonight. You get $50,"' Greene says. "We had 12 guys being paid $50."

But the group had stepped into the perfect place at the perfect time. The club drew an extraordinary mix of promoters and stars, including Jimi Hendrix.

Their gig there lasted just two weeks, but during that time they got a record deal and bookings at Fillmore East and Woodstock.

After the movie "Woodstock" hit theaters, with Sha Na Na on screen for 52 seconds doing "Let's Go to the Hop," things started to change. They got booked on "The Tonight Show," "Merv Griffin" and "David Frost."

Instead of college girls in poodle skirts pretending to scream and swoon over them, girls were grabbing for their legs on-stage for real.

But they didn't succumb to the glitz; members of the group stayed true to their schoolwork. Greene remembers walking through a crowd of fans after the "Woodstock" movie premiere, getting on the subway and going to astronomy class.

"It enables you to keep a sense of balance, to not become completely immersed in the rock 'n' roll life and not be immersed in middle-class bourgeois aspirations," he says. "It also enables you to keep a certain big-picture view of the possibilities."

Cooper was the first to leave the group, and was replaced by another Columbia student, Jon "Bauzer" Bauman, who picked up Cooper's shtick of turning profile to the crowd and making a muscle.

Greene stuck with the group through its television variety show, from 1977 to 1980, and their appearance in the 1978 movie "Grease," where he sang lead on "Tears on My Pillow."

He went on to earn a master's in education from Harvard University in 1984, then moved on to Yale Law School, graduating in 1987.

From there he became a vice president at Columbia Pictures, working on, among other projects, Spike Lee's 1990 film "School Daze."

Greene was teaching a course on the entertainment industry at City College of New York and performing a two-man play he had written, "Harlem Exchange," when a Yale classmate teaching at Oregon's law school suggested he bring his play to Eugene and think about teaching at the law school.

Now he is an assistant professor, teaching torts, entertainment law and a course titled "Law, Mass Media, and Race."

At 49, his rock 'n' roll years are a footnote. But Greene says they have taught him an important lesson about life's uncertainties:

"There's always a land beyond the river."

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