Berklee Today

Berklee Beat:

Commencement Honors for Herb Alpert, Patti Austin, and John Sykes


Commencement 2000: The doctors are in. From the left, Herb Alpert, Patti Austin, John Sykes, and Lee Eliot Berk

 

David Balfour and Rhea Dummett sing "Baby Come to Me."

 

John Sykes: "There is nothing more gratifying than defying conventional wisdom and achieving success on your own terms."

Photos by Bob Kramer
 

Berklee's 2000 Commencement weekend was a celebration of past high watermarks and dreams for the future of the music industry.

Representing the hopes for the future were 567 graduates who aspire to shape the music industry in years to come. On hand to give encouragement and share their insights were honorary doctorate recipients trumpeter/producer Herb Alpert, r&b and jazz diva Patti Austin, and VH1 CEO and Save the Music champion John Sykes.

Events kicked off on Friday, May 12, in the Berklee Performance Center with a concert celebrating the contributions of the honorees. Twenty-seven student singers and instrumentalists presented a stylistically diverse program that featured pop, r&b, rock, and jazz renditions of music written, performed, or brought to the public by the honorees.

The show opened with Steve Mazur playing a solo acoustic guitar version of "Think About It," cowritten by Herb Alpert. Trumpeter Rashawn Ross came out and made it a duet until the curtain went up and a stage full of musicians joined in. Among the many highlights of the evening were Meezanne Hanna's soulful vocal rendition of "It's Gonna Be Special," a tune made famous by Patti Austin. Rhea Dummett turned in a provocative vocal performance of "Diamonds" penned by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

Later, singer Julie Mahendran and the band deftly navigated the twists and turns of Orville Wright's arrangement of "Fool on the Hill" as it alternated between 5/4 and 3/4 time. Kevin Bachelder sang a lesser-known gem titled "Morning" from the Wings album by composer Michel Colombier, which Herb Alpert produced. John Sykes was saluted with selections from Stone Temple Pilots, John Mellencamp, Mariah Carey, and others whose careers he aided. Tenor saxophonist Bob Reynolds received a huge round of applause for his searing solo on "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," which was sung by Akemi Iida. The concert closed with everyone onstage for an energetic send-up of "The Dude," from the Quincy Jones CD of the same name.

The next morning, over 3,600 people filled the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center for the Commencement exercises. Provost Harry Chalmiers welcomed the audience and introduced everyone seated on the dais. After speeches by Board of Trustees Chair William Davis and student speaker Michael Sean Harris, a video salute to the graduating class was shown.

President Lee Eliot Berk introduced each of the honorary degree recipients before bestowing the degrees upon them. He spoke of John Sykes as "one of the leading music industry figures of our time," and went on to chronicle Sykes's efforts in launching MTV, his leadership at Chrysalis Records and EMI Publishing, and his current role as president of VH1. Berk made special mention of the VH1 Save the Music initiative that Sykes established in 1997 to restore support for public school music education. The program has improved opportunities for 200,000 children and has become the VH1 Foundation that generates $25 million in financial support.

Delivering the Commencement address, Sykes told the graduates, "Every great idea flew in the face of conventional wisdom. Originality is about new ideas. The one thing that will never change is that just when you think you know it all, things will change. There is nothing more gratifying than defying conventional wisdom and achieving success on your terms. Ask Quincy, Elton, Madonna, Herb Alpert, or Patti Austin. They listened politely to the establishment, and then did it their own way. It's your turn now."

President Berk introduced Herb Alpert as "a musical visionary and entrepreneur." As an artist, Alpert has sold 72 million records, received seven Grammy Awards, and founded A&M Records, which became the world's largest independent label. After receiving his honorary degree, Alpert told the audience, "The real world has its limits, but the world of imagination is boundless. If you believe you can do something, or if you believe you can't do something, you're right on both counts, so believe in yourself. Connect what you feel with what you play, with what you say, with what you write."

Before presenting the degree to Patti Austin, President Berk described her as "one of the music world's most distinctive vocal stylists." He highlighted her musical work with Quincy Jones, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and James Ingram, and her pursuits as an actress and a writer. Taking the microphone, Austin told the graduates, "Take all of this incredible technique that you have acquired here, and put it into that mixer called your soul, and always send it out with love, and with joy, and with passion. Always work from love, and whatever you do on this planet will always work out right."