February 2010 Issue
University of Dayton law professor Dennis Greene’s résumé includes Harvard, Yale — and Sha-Na-Na.
Plenty of college students have dreamed of becoming rock stars, but how many could imagine being both at the same time? That is, being a rock star while still a student? How would you get any studying done?
Dayton’s Dennis Greene, however, remembers the hectic, heady days when that was his life — when, as a student at Columbia University, he was also one of the founding members of the famed retro-rock band Sha-Na-Na. “There were times I’d be downtown to do a variety show or some performance, and grab the train to get back to campus for a night class,” he says. “I was in the band full-time, and balancing a normal life.”
Normal being relative, of course.
Remember Sha-Na-Na? The gold-lamé jumpsuits, the biker jackets, the pompadour hairdos, tight harmonies and the goofy sense of humor that kept the ’50s rock-and-rolling right up into the ’80s and beyond? They played at Woodstock, had an enormously popular TV variety show in the 1970s and sang in the hit movie “Grease.”
Greene was there for all of it, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Janis Joplin and Curtis Mayfield and performing all over the world. Today, he looks back on those days from the pretty campus of the University of Dayton, where he is a professor of law and communication — teaching, among other subjects, entertainment law.
That’s a long way from New York City, where he was born in 1949. At Columbia, he studied theater and thought he’d be an actor. In 1969, he and three other freshmen formed an a capella group they called the Columbia Kingsmen. Since there was already a band called the Kingsmen — you know, the guys who did “Louie, Louie” — they changed to Sha-Na-Na, taking the name from the chorus of the 1957 hit “Get a Job,” by the Silhouettes. The appeal of doing oldies with a hip, sassy twist was too great to pass by, and the band was quickly popular.
Sha-Na-Na originally had a dozen members, and “Denny” was one of several vocalists. He took the lead on “Duke of Earl” and “Tears On My Pillow,” among others, and spent 15 years with the band. He recalls them as both exhilarating and frustrating; the thrills came from the music and the fans, and knowing that Sha-Na-Na brought happiness to a lot of people. “I was walking down the street on a winter day in Charleston, West Virginia, when this wizened, little old lady ... stopped me and told me how watching my show made her so happy — that it was the most important thing in her life. For me, as a young African-American man, to have made that kind of heartfelt, human connection with this elderly white lady in a place like that — that was a very touching moment.”
The frustrations, however, also grew from race. Sha-Na-Na was at its biggest from 1977 to 1981, when its TV show was on the air, and when top-name performers from Milton Berle to the Ramones appeared as guests. But Greene found that the writers of the skit-based program had no idea what to do with him, the only black member of the band — and all too often cast him in roles he considered racist. “Like, the band would be big-game hunters, and I’m the
native. I said, ‘No way am I doing this.’ I was non-negotiable on it.” The tensions made him consider leaving the band, but he stayed until new producers addressed his concerns the next season. He recalls it as “the most isolated period of my life,” but still is pleased by how “the show connected with the heartland of America in a wonderful way.” Later, when Sha-Na-Na played at the famous Sun City resort in South Africa, Greene made headlines for his deliberate and very pointed criticism of apartheid. “It was pretty controversial,” he says.
Today, issues of racial justice are still part of his professional life, as he teaches classes on “Mass Media, Law and Race” and “Politics, Race and Gender in Hollywood Films,” as well as constitutional law, torts and conflict management. The unusual combination of skills, interests and experiences he brings to the classroom includes the master’s degree he got from Harvard after leaving Sha-Na-Na in the mid-1980s, a law degree from Yale after that, and his time as a vice president of production and features at Columbia Pictures in Hollywood.
The law drew him back, and a series of teaching stints eventually led him to the University of Dayton in 2004. Single, Greene stays very busy with his work, and lives not far from UD’s campus in Dayton’s downtown Oregon District of elegant, restored, historic homes.
Sha-Na-Na continues today with a mixture of old and new players — its list of alumni includes dozens of performers — and Greene doesn’t stay in touch with any of his old bandmates. He thought his days of being asked about the group were over until a few years ago, “when YouTube exploded, and this life that was behind me suddenly re-emerged and made it as vibrant as it seemed 30 years ago.” Last summer’s 40th anniversary of Woodstock resulted in a bit of publicity, too, as UD’s media office proudly sent out a press release reminding folks that they had a prof who performed at the legendary music festival. Like, how cool is that?
Greene says it was indeed pretty cool — the memory of a lifetime. “They flew us in on a military helicopter, no doors on it. It was me, Joe Cocker and two guys from our band.... It looked like a mountain of people...” Sha-Na-Na took the stage at 5:30 a.m. on Monday, the last day of the festival, right before Jimi Hendrix closed it. Greene recalls how cold it was, and how they’d run out of food backstage — and yet how, despite the awful conditions, the crowds were congenial. “It was amazing how much sharing and giving there was among people caught in the most adverse conditions.”
Today, his creativity comes out not through music, but through writing. He’s working on a novel that draws upon the political turmoil of the 1960s, and is studying and writing on the Harlem Renaissance of the early 20th century. “Keeping up my artistic side is vital for me,” he says.
And, there’s his teaching career.
“Teaching is a lot like stage performing, but it’s more transitory. I have a lot of enjoyment teaching, but the impact you can make on someone as a writer is amazing.” Or, to recall that elderly lady in West Virginia, as a singer.
“Life is short,” he notes, “but art is long.”
Web Extra Content:
Sha-Na-Na's Ohio Connection