His voice travels well

Rockapella singer Scott Leonard of Tampa has sung the world over."Stevie Wonder was like my Mozart."

Published February 9, 2007

Where in the world is Scott Leonard?

The singer of Rockapella, the a cappella group made famous on the Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? game show, has seen as much of the world as the show's villainess.

He's traveled from Tokyo to New York City and Europe to Canada.

But his heart remains in Tampa.

So does his home. Leonard, an Indiana native, first came here to attend the University of Tampa. Back then, he jogged along Bayshore and dreamed of living on one of the colorful avenues in South Tampa's Hyde Park.

After hitting it big with one of the most successful a cappella singing groups ever, Leonard brought his family to Tampa in 2001 to do just that.

"This place just feels really artsy and with the historic district and Ybor City, it seems like a lot could happen," Leonard said.

A child's voice

Leonard realized early on that singing would be important. The exact moment: his first performance, in a fifth-grade musical.

"I remember being backstage and being very nervous," he said. "And right before I stepped on the stage, I got this thought in my head that 'I'm not nervous.' At that point, I really felt at home on the stage."

He grew up singing along when his mother played piano. He was inspired by Stevie Wonder, Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim.

"Stevie Wonder was like my Mozart," he said.

But at first, Leonard's other childhood love, sports, seemed to offer more potential. He came to the University of Tampa in 1983 on a baseball scholarship.

He burned out on baseball soon after he arrived. To keep his scholarship money, Leonard joined the tennis team.

Then he discovered the university music program. He auditioned and scored a scholarship.

"The music program was small, yet it turned out to be so choice and perfect for me," he said.

When Leonard started, the music program was more about Bach than Stevie Wonder. Yet after a few lessons, voice instructors knew the direction that Leonard was headed in.

Leonard honed his skills with music professor Dr. David Isele, who now serves as the university's director of choral and vocal activities.

"He took a lesson, and I told him that he really had a voice," Isele said. "He gave the first, I call it, 'hybrid' concert at UT. Half of it was classical music, and the other half was musical theater singing."

In 1987, Leonard graduated as a vocal major, then got a job singing at Disney World. Next he landed a two-year singing stint in Tokyo.

Just a hobby

In the meantime, Rockapella had started as a group of guys at Brown University doing wedding and street performances with a heavy dose of humor.

"In the early days, it was sort of just a hobby because a lot of the guys had day jobs," Leonard said.

Then they sang on a PBS spot that featured a cappella music.

"From that," said Leonard, "the producers of Carmen Sandiego, which was a PBS series, asked Rockapella to be on the show."

Leonard got the chance to join when the original high-tenor vocalist left the group to pursue law school.

Just back from Japan, Leonard saw an ad in a New York performing arts newspaper and sent in a demo tape.

"It was kind of like a hobby when I started, and from then on it has been a career," Leonard said.

After working in New York City for five years with Carmen Sandiego, Leonard and his family came to Tampa.

Leonard and his wife, Lisa, have two children: Jesse, 13, and Natalie, 7. They like to spend family time attending Florida Orchestra concerts, eating at Hugo's Restaurant, exploring the streets of Ybor City, or enjoying ice cream at Bo's Ice Cream.

Natalie attends Gorrie Elementary School and is a dancer, like her mother. Jesse plays drums in a rock band and is involved in the music program at Wilson Middle School.

"I'm happy that Jesse loves music so much because I can kind of help him along," Leonard said.

"What better thing for a parent to do than to make real concrete contributions to what makes their child happy?"

Though many tend to limit a capella music to college groups and a few pros, Rockapella or Take 6, Leonard believes the field has more room.

"When we took a cappella to Japan, they really ran with it and it became a popular genre for record sales," he said. "They had an American Idol-type show that was just a cappella groups, and that was the No. 1 show there."

It's only a matter of time before younger U.S. fans bring the music more toward the mainstream, said Leonard, who plans to release a solo album soon.

In December, Leonard invited a Plant High School group to open for Rockapella's Christmas concert at the Tampa Theatre.

Such groups give him hope.

"If you can get a group that's able to go beyond the novelty and have an audience connect with the music and the hearts behind the guys, then it becomes more than just a novelty act," he said. "I think it's a big opportunity for someone that's got the talent and determination to do it."

Jonathan Milton can be reached at milton@sptimes.com or 226-3374.