President Roger H. Brown's 2017 Commencement Remarks

Berklee College of Music’s honorary Doctor of Music degree was established in 1971, following the college’s 25th anniversary, to recognize those musicians and industry figures who have earned the overwhelming respect of their peers for outstanding professional achievement and enduring contributions to the world of contemporary music. 

Duke Ellington was the first recipient of the honorary doctorate and was followed by such artists as Sarah Vaughan, George Martin, Quincy Jones, Dizzy Gillespie, Bonnie Raitt, Pat Metheny, B.B. King, Paul Simon, Sting, Alison Krauss, Harry Belafonte, Placido Domingo, Aretha Franklin, and other jazz, pop, and industry figures representing the wide range of musical interests of Berklee’s students, faculty, and alumni.

Shin Joong Hyun 

Shin Joong Hyun is known as “the godfather of rock” in his native South Korea, having created a new direction of pop, rock, and soul music impacting South Korea through today. 

Born in 1938, he lived all over Asia with his parents before settling in Seoul in 1950. He taught himself to play the guitar, and in1957 at age 19, Shin won an audition to play at different U.S. Army bases stationed around the country, raising his profile among music fans. He released a solo guitar album under the stage name “Hiky Shin,” after which he started Add4, South Korea’s first rock band, in 1961. 

Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, Shin gained notoriety as a producer, working on superstar sister act The Pearl Sisters’ commercially successful album Nimah. He wrote and produced hit records for additional artists during this time period, changing the landscape of popular music in South Korea from Japanese-style teurot to psychedelic and hard rock. Eothen (Eōhthan) Alapatt, the owner and president of Now-Again Records and an NPR Music contributor, lauds Shin with creating “music for the masses, but also for the eons.” He says, “His run of solo albums and productions from the late '60s until the mid '80s are amongst the greatest in the global music canon… His music will always stand alongside that of recognized geniuses like Brian Wilson and Jimi Hendrix.”

In the 1970s Shin began to face challenges in South Korea when he was asked to create and perform pro-government music; when he refused, he was politically blacklisted—and his music became outlawed. After years of government oppression, Shin experienced a renaissance in the 1990s when a new generation discovered his music. His influence on music in South Korea and throughout the world continues to grow. 

CJ Group Vice Chairwoman and Berklee Trustee Miky Lee calls Shin “a pioneer of Korean rock, soul, and funk. He's the godfather behind the growth of Korean pop music.” And pop music superstar PSY calls him “the founder of rock and roll music in Korea.” 

In 2009, Fender honored Shin with a Custom Shop Tribute Series guitar, making him the first Asian musician to ever receive a tribute guitar from the renowned brand. Calling Shin “an absolute legend,” Richard McDonald, Fender’s chief product strategist says, “An ever-evolving artist, his body of work spans 1960s psychedelic rock to '80s power pop—all done with a serious dose of guitar virtuosity on his Fender Stratocaster.” 

For his pioneering virtuosity and lasting influence on Korean popular music, it is my pleasure to present a Berklee honorary Doctor of Music for the first time to an artist from South Korea, Mr. Shin Joong Hyun. 

Neil Portnow

If the Grammy Awards are “music’s biggest night,” then Neil Portnow might have music’s biggest job—one that extends far beyond the industry’s most prestigious event. 

Over the course of Neil’s 15-year tenure at the Recording Academy, the organization has transformed into a powerful arts advocacy group that works year-round to update music laws, protect music education, and provide critical assistance for artists and music professionals in need.

A passionate supporter of creators’ rights, Neil has amplified the music industry’s voice in Washington, forging an alliance with the Recording Artists’ Coalition, and establishing the Grammys on the Hill initiative, which bring artists and music professionals to the Capitol to lobby congress on issues critical to the industry’s future.

Clive Davis said, “Neil has represented all of us with sensitivity, dignity, and know-how. We have been very fortunate that he’s been the industry spokesman, our representative, and the leader in fighting 24/7 for musicians and music everywhere.”

Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi added, “There is no more fitting recipient of this honorary degree. Neil’s tremendous leadership at the Recording Academy strengthens and supports the recording artists, songwriters, and producers who give voice to our democracy.”

Launching the MusiCares 20th anniversary giving campaign, Neil has overseen record-breaking revenues for an initiative that’s become known as “the Red Cross of the music industry,” with programs offering both vital assistance to music people in times of crisis, and recovery treatment for those struggling with substance abuse and addiction.

Taylor Swift writes, “Neil is the heart and soul of the Recording Academy. He is an advocate, an ally, a champion, a sounding board, a friend, and a comrade to musicians everywhere. He cares about us and our well-being so passionately because he's one of us.” 

And in fact, Neil is one of us. Above and beyond his work at the Grammy Foundation, he is also an accomplished bassist and guitarist. His high school band, The Savages, recently did a 50-year reunion and recording.

Quincy Jones added, “Neil has always understood the vitality of our music and the importance of protecting it and its creators, and in so doing has proven himself to be one of the best friends music could have.”

A prominent spokesman for music education, Neil has promoted the importance of keeping music alive in our schools by expanding the Academy’s Grammy Camp, Grammy Career Day, and Grammy Signature Schools programs.

He led the effort to open the Grammy Museum at L.A. Live, and last year oversaw the museum’s expansion to new branches in Mississippi and Nashville. And in January he announced a new cultural exchange program in China set for 2020.

And let’s not forget music’s biggest night, the Grammys, which have enjoyed stellar ratings under Neil’s leadership, averaging 28 million viewers over the past seven years. 

For his steadfast advocacy for musicians, music education, and the industry as a whole, I am pleased to present Berklee’s honorary Doctor of Music to Neil Portnow.

Lionel Richie

Lionel Richie has earned his spot among America’s greatest songwriters. Hailing from Tuskegee, Alabama, Lionel got his start in the 1970s with the funk-soul band the Commodores, with whom he wrote and sang such hits as “Easy,” “Three Times a Lady,” and “Sail on.” He became a solo artist in 1981 and released a dozen albums. Those recordings yielded 13 consecutive top 10 singles, including the No. 1 songs “Truly,” “All Night Long,” “Say You, Say Me,” “Hello,” and “Dancing on the Ceiling,” among others. 

Stevie Wonder says, “This man wrote songs for the country and the world. He penned R&B and pop songs that were appreciated from Harlem to London. And let us not forget “We Are the World,” the anthem he cowrote with another great: the late Michael Jackson. It was a call for humanity to help a starving people. Lionel, on this day, May 13th—which happens to be my birthday—I celebrate you.” 

“The best songwriters write songs the whole world knows,” says producer David Foster. He continues, “Lionel Richie writes songs the whole world sings. You must include his name with those of Rogers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Lennon and McCartney, and Elton John. Lionel lives in rare air and if he had not been born, pop music would most definitely sound different in 2017!”

Producer, rapper, and singer-songwriter Pharrell Williams writes, "Lionel is the ultimate musical alchemist! Any time you hear a Lionel Richie song, it takes you back to the moment you first heard it.”

Lionel has won five Grammys, an Oscar, a Golden Globe, 16 American Music Awards, and five People’s Choice Awards, among others. In 2016, he received the Songwriters Hall of Fame’s highest honor, and was named the Grammy MusiCares Person of the Year. 

Renowned producer Quincy Jones says, “[Lionel,] you are a master songwriter, musician and performer, and the epitome of the standard which today’s graduates should aspire to. But more importantly, you are a wonderful human being who has always understood the importance of using your God-given talents for the betterment of mankind.”  

And Berklee Trustee and entertainment attorney Joel Katz explains, “Lionel Richie has helped many people. His heart is pure and he is a very charitable man. Lionel is indeed a musical superstar, but he is also a 'real-life' superstar.”

Having sold more than 100 million records, Lionel is also one of the top-selling artists in music history. And he will share his music with fans around the world this summer on his “All the Hits” tour with guest artist Mariah Carey. 

For his contributions to contemporary culture, his humanitarian efforts, and the joy his music brings to so many, it is my pleasure to present Berklee’s honorary Doctor of Music to Lionel Richie.

Lucinda Williams

It’s not enough to call Lucinda Williams a trailblazer. For over three decades, the folk/rock siren’s career has been driven by literal and figurative travel to new musical territories. Those roads have led her to Grammy Awards and accolades from national media, including Time magazine, which deemed her “America’s best songwriter.” 

It’s no surprise, then, that her albums contain titles such as Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, West, and most recently, The Ghosts of Highway 20. The gravel roads of Williams’s music have prompted fans and critics alike to rethink the meaning of genre classifications such as “country,” “folk,” and “rock,” as her work never seems to hang comfortably in one camp. Her uncompromising artistic vision often left the industry wondering what to do with her powerful expressions at a time when Americana and alternative country did not yet exist. 

Given the impact those genre descriptors have had on contemporary American music, Williams was clearly blazing trails for a new kind of American songwriter. 

And her legions of admirers rush to affirm her place as a songwriting pioneer. Legendary jazz/rock bassist and production titan Don Was says, “If Berklee ever launches a degree program in Raw, Soul-Stirring Interpretation of One’s Own Riveting and Poetic Songs, I nominate [Lucinda] to chair the department.” 

Even before he had the opportunity to join Williams in the studio, guitarist and Berklee alumnus Bill Frisell knew that she brought something rare to the table. From the first time he heard her, he says he “felt like she was speaking directly to me. She is the real deal, one of a kind—her own voice, speaking to us, for us.”

Chair of the Berklee Songwriting Department, Bonnie Hayes writes, “Even Lucinda’s simplest songs are rich in literary detail and the voices and stories of her flawed characters ring true. Listening to her is like going to songwriting school and church rolled into one.” 

Lucinda’s first of her three Grammy Awards came to her in 1997 as the songwriter of “Passionate Kisses,” as interpreted by Mary Chapin Carpenter. According to Carpenter, the song has become a touchstone of not just her career, but also her identity as an artist. “When I sing [it],” Carpenter says, “I feel that I am inhabiting a perfect song. So you can imagine how much it has meant to me to have it on the set list nearly every night for the last 25 years."

With a slew of major awards under her belt, perhaps one of the most intriguing is a lifetime achievement award from the Americana Music Association—an organization, it’s safe to say, that wouldn’t exist as it is had it not been for the many, lesser-known highways Williams has boldly opened through her music. 

For her trailblazing songwriting and her impact on American music I am pleased to present Lucinda Williams with an honorary Doctor of Music.

Todd Rundgren

To the uninitiated, Todd Rundgren is the pop songwriter known for 1970s hits “I Saw the Light,” “A Dream Goes on Forever,” “Hello It’s Me,” and “Can We Still Be Friends,” as well as the 1980s sports-arena anthem “Bang the Drum All Day.”

But his talents and influence run so much deeper than the memorable songs with which he’s most commonly associated. He’s a guitar virtuoso and multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, recording artist, producer, pioneer of multimedia and computer technology, and business innovator and entrepreneur. He is a visionary who’s made a lasting impact on both the form and content of popular music, making and shaping music that spans genres from pop to prog rock and from electronic music to bossa nova. 

The longhaired musician from outside Philadelphia has earned a reputation as one of the hardest working people in the industry. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, he produced up to two albums a year. His 1972 double album, Something/Anything?, on which he played all the instruments and sang all the vocal parts, as well as self-produced, was ranked as one of the 500 greatest albums of all time by Rolling Stone. He has produced albums for Patti Smith, Cheap Trick, Psychedelic Furs, Meat Loaf, XTC, Grand Funk Railroad, and Hall & Oates. And as an innovator he is credited with producing one of the first music videos on MTV, developing a computer graphics tablet with Apple, and creating an Internet music-delivery platform.

Rundgren has made a lasting impression on those with whom he has worked. Eagles’ guitarist and vocalist Joe Walsh said, “Todd is one of the most complete musicians I have ever met.” Ringo Starr, who tours with Rundgren, sees him as a multidimensional talent. “Besides being a fab singer, writer, producer, and performer, it’s always cool to have Todd on stage with me.”

Rundgren’s latest album, White Night, includes a track featuring Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Reznor calls Rundgren a “hero.” “His records, his songwriting, his production, and his musicianship…all played a huge role in shaping who I am.” 

Allan Chase, chair of the Berklee Ear Training Department says, “The excellence and huge variety of Todd Rundgren’s life’s work as a songwriter, producer, and performer makes him one of the most inspiring figures in popular music. [And] his appetite for learning is an inspiration to all of us.”

Whatever Rundgren churns out next is bound to be expectedly unexpected. For his musical versatility and innovative spirit, and for his unconventional approach to making and shaping great music, we are pleased to present Todd Rundgren with an honorary Doctor of Music.