Summer’s over and that means school is back in session, or has been in some parts of America. My cousin’s kids started school in the first half of August, it’s mad! School starts earlier and earlier now it seems. Back when I was a kid school started at the end of August. For some university students in Europe, school isn’t starting until mid-late September or even October! Wow! Lucky you!
On The Diversity of Classic Rock, I’ve never written a back to school special. Because for its early history, I was in school and too busy to write and because frankly, I didn’t want to think about school for the past couple of years.
But now, I feel ready to write something education related, all about the most educated classic rockers. Many articles have been written about this topic, but are they as complete and thorough as mine? You be the judge. Some of these you’ll know about, but others will come as a surprise.
Advice and thoughts about school
First, to make this a real back to school post, I’ll share some thoughts I have about school. I was always someone who cared about education and always wanted to do my best. My mum always has high expectations for me, just like her father had for her, and she always pushed me to do my best, sometimes it would get really competitive though. My mum’s favourite compliment for me was she’d say how smart I was all the time. I don’t think of myself as that smart though. No, I just developed quickly when it came to basic skills like reading and I’m good at school.
I think that even I had higher expectations for myself and I pushed myself to be one of the best and it paid off. I was getting straight As all throughout secondary school, pushing myself through 4 years of required classes in only 3 years so I could graduate early and I did it! What a flex, graduating at 16. But I was burnt out and it definitely affected my mental health.
Just some of my advice for university:
- Rankings are not a good way of thinking. Think about the quality of the course and what other things are important to you instead.
- Don’t pick a university because your friends are going there. This is about your future. You can maintain those friendships.
- Don’t be too hard on yourself.
- Be organised. Work hard, but more importantly, work smart.
- Take advantage of any opportunities you get. Study abroad, internships, guest lectures, join clubs, try new things.
- Get work experience while you’re in school. This is the most important thing. Most workplaces would rather take a B student with experience than an A student with no experience. Worry about getting straight As if you want to go into academia, but there are ways of getting in without having a perfect GPA.
- Get to know your professors and actually talk to them. Don’t just be a face in the classroom. They’re human beings, often with interesting lives. Usually during office hours, they’re bored.
- It’s not a race. It’s okay to take a semester or year off. It’s okay to switch courses or drop out if you’re not happy. It’s also never too late to go back. Look after your mental health! That’s arguably more important than what marks you get.
- Know your rights and stand up for yourself. If a professor/instructor is treating you poorly or unfairly, talk to your student’s union, they’re there to help.
A short intro
Now onto the rock stars! You might think of classic rock as having a lot of drop outs. And that is true. A lot of classic rockers dropped out of secondary school or university. However, there are many who are high achievers in education. Of course these rock stars aren’t the only smart rock stars and there are many others who are very educated, but this list is of those at the very top.
Classic Rockers with Masters/Postgrad Degrees
Art Garfunkel: Half of Simon & Garfunkel. Besides that, he’s a poet and an actor. Both of his degrees were earned while Simon & Garfunkel were at their peak. He was planning to get a PhD, but he dropped out.
Education: BA in Art History, MA in Mathematics Education, Columbia University
Dean Torrence: Half of surf rock/California Sound duo Jan & Dean. The group were at their peak in the early 60s, but their career came to an end when Jan Berry got into a car accident near Dead Man’s Curve. Besides being a musician, Dean Torrence is a graphic artist and he started his own company, Kittyhawk Graphics. His masters thesis was about the history of flight, hence that name.
Education: Studied graphic design at USC
Frederick “Dennis” Greene: Member of Sha Na Na, the most educated classic rock band. The band got their start at Columbia University as the Columbia Kingsmen in New York City.
Besides music, he worked as Vice President of Production and Features at Columbia Pictures and President of Lenox/Greene Films. He also taught at Florida A&M University, University of Oregon School of Law, and University of Dayton School of Law.
Education: BA, Columbia University; MEd, Harvard; JD, Yale Law School
George Frayne: Founder of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. His stage name was Commander Cody.
He taught at the University of Michigan and University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. He also has a video called Two Triple Cheese Side Order of Fries in the MoMA’s permanent video archive.
Education: Bachelors in Design and Masters in Sculpture and Painting, University of Michigan
John Fair “Jocko” Marcellino: Founding member of Sha Na Na.
Education: BA, Columbia University; Master’s degree, Drama, NYU
Kris Kristofferson: Singer-songwriter and actor. During his undergrad he wrote prize-winning stories. He earned a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford, where he tried to launch his music career as a Yank at Oxford, but this wasn’t successful.
Education: BA, Pomona College; B.Phil – English Literature, Oxford
Mark Volman: Founding member of The Turtles and member of The Mothers of Invention. He is also known as (Professor) Flo, short for Phlorescent Leech. He went to university at the age of 45, after a couple of decades as a musician. It shows that you’re never too old to go back to school.
He was the class valedictorian speaker and led the graduates singing “Happy Together”. He has taught classes in commercial music at Los Angeles Valley College and is an Associate Professor and Coordinator of the Entertainment Industry Studies Programme at Belmont University. You can check out his website here.
Education: BA, MFA Screenwriting, Loyola Marymount University
Ray Manzarek: Co-founder and keyboard player for The Doors. Before The Doors were famous, he got his undergraduate degree at DePaul University in Chicago. While in university, he played piano in a jazz band and organised a charity concert with Sonny Rollins and Dave Brubeck.
Originally at UCLA, he wanted to study law, but he transferred to a cinematography programme. He dropped out and enlisted in the army for a short time before coming back to UCLA to get his degree. When he came back, he met his wife, Dorothy, and bandmate Jim Morrison.
Education: BSc Economics, DePaul University; MFA Cinematography, UCLA
Tom Scholz: Founder of hard rock band Boston and only continuous member of the band. Before “More Than A Feeling”, he worked for Polaroid as a senior product design engineer and started his own Research & Development company for his music technology inventions. Even while working at Polaroid, he wanted to be a musician and recorded some demos, which attracted the interest of Epic Records.
Education: BSc, MSc Mechanical Engineering, MIT
Wendy Carlos: Before this electronic music pioneer was famous, she studied physics and music at Brown University and studied music composition at Columbia University. Two really big achievements!
Education: Physics and Music double major, Brown University; Masters in Music Composition, Columbia University
Classic Rockers with Professional Degrees
Dave Rowntree: Drummer for Britpop band, Blur, known for the songs “Song 2”, “Girls & Boys”, “There’s No Other Way”, “The Universal”, and “Parklife”. He is currently a councillor in Norfolk County Council. He’s been a member of the Labour Party since 2002 and is very much into activism.
He trained to be a solicitor in 2006, when Blur took a hiatus. He works for Kingsley Napley, an internationally recognised law firm in London. If you want to learn about the law side of his career, you can read this article.
He is also a computer animator and owns an animation company called Nanomation. He also has a pilot’s licence. He’s a radio presenter at XFM too. Seriously, what a legend!
David Fenton: Lead singer of one-hit wonder, The Vapors, known for the song, “Turning Japanese”. In the late 70s, he qualified as a solicitor, but took what was supposed to be a year’s sabbatical (turned out to be 15 years) to pursue a music career when Paul Weller’s father and Bruce Foxton of The Jam discovered them and got them a record deal.
In the early 90s, he returned to practising law. Thanks to his music industry experience, he knows a lot more about it, and he worked as an in-house solicitor for the Musicians Union. You can find out more about him and what he does in this interview.
Jackie Fuchs (Jackie Fox): Original bassist of The Runaways. She got early admission to UCLA to study maths, but those plans changed when Rodney Bingenheimer discovered her dancing and introduced her to Kim Fowley, who formed The Runaways. Her time in the Runaways was not happy. Allegedly, Fowley assaulted and bullied Jackie Fox (he didn’t allow her to play on the first album) and she wasn’t happy with the band members always arguing and not getting along. It makes sense why she requested to not be mentioned/included in The Runaways 2010 biopic.
So she went back to education and studied linguistics at UCLA, summa cum laude and she went to Harvard Law School and was a classmate of President Barack Obama. She now does business and legal affairs consulting.
She’s incredibly smart and strong and competed on The Chase, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, and Jeopardy.
Education: BA in Linguistics and Italian, UCLA; JD, Harvard Law School
Peter Garrett: Lead singer of Midnight Oil. Besides that, he was President of the Australian Conservation Foundation and was a politician.
Education: Studied politics (BA) at the Australian National University and law (LLB) at University of New South Wales
Richard Joffe: Member of Sha Na Na. Now works as a class-action litigator in New York City.
Santiago Durango: Guitarist for Chicago punk bands Naked Raygun and Big Black. Besides that, he’s an attorney. His first case was recovering Cynthia Plastercaster’s bronze casts of various rock stars’ genitals.
Tom Rapp: Leader of psychedelic folk group Pearls Before Swine. Retired from the music industry in 1976. Before practising civil rights law, he worked as a theatre receptionist and projectionist.
Education: Studied Economics at Brandeis University, Studied law at University of Pennsylvania Law School
Joe Witkin: Original keyboard player for Sha Na Na. Sang on the song, “Teenager in Love”. After that, he worked as an ER physician.
Ric Wilson: One of the founding members of funk rock band Mandrill. Ric Wilson studied biology at Harvard and earned a medical degree from State University of New York, Downstate Medical Center in 1970. He specialised in internal medicine and cardiology. You can find more information about him and his brothers here.
Scott Powell: Founding member of Sha Na Na. After that, he took pre-med courses at Columbia and became an orthopaedic surgeon.
Classic Rockers with PhDs
Alan Cooper: Singer in Sha Na Na. Sang the lead vocals on “At The Hop”, performed at Woodstock. He works as the provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, which teaches Jewish Studies and is one of the centres for Conservative Judaism. Before that he served on the faculties of McMaster University in Canada and Hebrew Union College.
In 1998, he was appointed Professor of Bible at Union Theological Seminary. This is huge because it’s building a bridge between Judaism and Christianity.
(Note: Conservative doesn’t mean politically conservative. The simplest way to explain it is it’s somewhere between Reform and Orthodox).
Education: PhD in Biblical Studies, Yale University
Bill Bruford: Former drummer for Yes and King Crimson. He also drummed for Genesis for a time and a supergroup called UK. In 2009, he retired from performing and released his autobiography, but didn’t he leave music entirely. In 2016, after 4 years of study, he earned a PhD in Music at the University of Surrey. His thesis is called Making it Work: Creative music performance and the Western kit drummer. He also writes journal articles and books. On doing a PhD he said:
“It’s a privilege to be able to put down the sticks, step back and examine drummers’ motivations, intentions and behaviours from a calmer perspective.”
Education: PhD in Music, University of Surrey
Billy Taylor: Jazz pianist, composer, broadcaster, and educator. He originally studied sociology at Virginia State College before switching to music because of the encouragement of pianist and professor Undine Smith Moore.
In 1949, he published his first book about bebop piano styles. In the 60s, he started music outreach organisation Jazzmobile in New York City to promote jazz through educational programmes.
He taught music at East Carolina University in Greenville. He also taught jazz courses at Howard University, Long Island University, Manhattan School of Music, and University of Massachusetts Amherst – where he earned his PhD in 1975.
Education: PhD in Music Education, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Brian Cox: I know what you’re thinking, wait he’s a musician? Yes, he played keyboard in the bands Dare and D:Ream in the late 80s and early 90s.
Carl Sagan’s book, Cosmos, inspired him to become a physicist. He’s a great example of “if at first you don’t succeed, try again”: when he did his A-Levels, he got a D in maths.
While he was playing music, he was working on his BSc and MPhil in physics. The hard work paid off and he got a 1:1 in his BSc. In 1997, he completed his PhD. His thesis was called Double Diffraction Dissociation at Large Momentum Transfer. Don’t know what any of that means but I like the alliteration! He has won many awards for his contributions and his efforts to make science cool and popular like the Kelvin Prize, OBE, and Michael Faraday Prize.
He’s a Royal Society University Research Fellow and PPARC Advanced Fellow and does work with CERN. He has written some books about physics like Why Does E=mc2?, Wonders of the Solar System, Wonders of the Universe, The Quantum Universe, and more. He also presents the programmes Wonders of the Solar System, Stargazing Live, The Science of Doctor Who, and The Planets.
Education: PhD in High Energy Particle Physics, University of Manchester
Brian May: Probably the most obvious rock star on this list. A PhD is one of many of his accomplishments. Other ones including: building the Red Special, being the guitarist of Queen, helping revive the art of stereoscopy, and helping badgers and hedgehogs.
He was an excellent student in secondary school and that earned him a scholarship to study maths and physics at Imperial College. He went straight into a PhD after his BSc and studied Astrophysics. While working on his PhD he was writing songs, playing in Smile and Queen, and teaching maths. When Queen were beginning to skyrocket to stardom, Brian May dropped out of his PhD, disappointing his father for a few years. Hey, you only have one shot at fame, education can wait.
Decades pass by and in 2006, he returns to Imperial College to finish his dissertation, A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud. The following year, he graduated with his PhD.
Has an asteroid named after him, the 52665 Brianmay. He also co-founded Asteroid Day with filmmaker Grigorij Richters and Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart. At the beginning of 2019, he released an updated version of “New Horizons” in honour of New Horizons flying by Ultima Thule, a trans-Neptunian object in the Kuiper belt.
Education: PhD in Astrophysics, Imperial College London
Bruce “Bruno” Clarke: Member of Sha Na Na. Played bass and was a vocalist in the band. After Sha Na Na completed their set at Woodstock, Jimi Hendrix shook Bruce Clarke’s hand and told him, “You got soul, man.” After four years of being in the band, he left to go to grad school.
Is a Professor of Literature and Science at Texas Tech University. His research is focused on 19th-20th century literature, with special interests in systems theory, narrative theory, and ecology. In 2010-2011, he was Senior Fellow at the International Research Institute for Cultural Technologies and Media Philosophy, Bauhaus-University Weimar and in 2015 he was Senior Fellow at the Centre for Literature and the Natural Sciences, Friedrich Alexander University Erlangen Nürnberg. He also edits the book series Meaning Systems.
Education: PhD, SUNY Buffalo
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Native American folk musician, Oscar-winning composer, artist, activist, and educator. All her work focuses on issues that Indigenous people face. She studied education and Oriental philosophy at University of Massachusetts Amherst and graduated in the top 10 of her class. And she has a PhD in Fine Arts!
Since 1969, she has operated the Cradleboard Teaching Project to educate students on Native issues from a Native perspective and properly represent Native Americans and dispel myths taught in white-centric history classes.
Education: PhD, Fine Arts, University of Massachusetts Amherst
David Grubbs: Founding member of Louisville bands Squirrel Bait and Bastro and Chicago based band Gastr del Sol (a combination of the name of a race horse named Gato del Sol and Grubbs’ previous band Bastro).
Worked as a part-time instructor in the Liberal Arts and Sound departments at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Now is a Professor of Music in the Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College, CUNY.
Education: PhD in English, University of Chicago
Dexter Holland: Lead singer, rhythm guitarist, and songwriter for punk band The Offspring. So while The Offspring were recording albums, he was working on his studies.
He graduated from secondary school in 1984 as class valedictorian and was the best student in maths that year. He described maths as just as exciting as punk rock. He studied biology at USC, and did his MSc there too in molecular biology. He also went to USC for his PhD, but as soon as The Offspring got famous, he took a break from his PhD to focus on music. He returned to work on his PhD and graduated in 2017.
Besides molecular biology and punk rock, he has a pilots licence and he established a hot sauce brand called Gringo Bandito.
Education: PhD in Molecular Biology, USC
Graeme Downes: Member of New Zealand rock band The Verlaines. He is now a senior lecturer at the University of Otago, teaching songwriting and musicology. His PhD, completed in 1993, was on the music of Mahler and 19th century symphonic antecedents.
Education: PhD in Music, University of Otago
Greg Graffin: Lead vocalist and songwriter of punk band Bad Religion. He went to UCLA for his bachelor’s and master’s and Cornell for his PhD. The title of his dissertation is Evolution and Religion: Questioning the Beliefs of the World’s Eminent Evolutionists. He also taught natural science courses at UCLA and did co-teaching at Cornell for a semester.
In an interview with NPR, he said this about punk rock and science:
“I think there’s great misconception in that -you know, if you ask the average person what a punk rocker is, they think of some nihilist who’s out there burning buildings. And likewise, if you ask them what they think of a typical scientist, they think it’s some nerd in a lab coat somewhere who doesn’t, you know, have any dates and is kind of an antisocial.
“And I think the reason for that is because both of these worlds, they do suffer from lack of public personalities who can talk about them and offer a different viewpoint. I mean, in the 1970s, we had Carl Sagan, and he was so suave with his turtleneck and his tweed jacket. And he was, you know, he made science look cool. And in punk rock, we haven’t had that. We haven’t had the Carl Sagan of punk.”
As well as science and punk, he is an educator and author of naturalism and atheism. In 2008, he received the Rushdie Award for Cultural Humanism from the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy. He wrote books like Is Belief in God Good, Bad, or Irrelevant? A Professor and a Punk Rocker Discuss Science, Religion, Naturalism & Christianity (co-written with Preston Jones, historian at John Brown University) and Anarchy Evolution (co-written with Steve Olson) – in this book he mentions being an atheist, a lifelong one. His most recent book is Population Wars, published in 2015.
Education: PhD in Zoology, Cornell University
John Tichy: Guitarist and vocalist of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers called him the Elvis of Engineering.
He went to University of Michigan to study engineering and that’s where Commander Cody started. By the end of the 60s, he graduated with a PhD. In 1970, he had to make a choice between music or a job at Georgia Tech. He turned down the job and chose to go to San Francisco with his band Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. This was the right decision money wise because the band made good money and they were in the right place at the right time musically.
In 1976, the band broke up and John Tichy decided to go back to academia, getting a job at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he worked as a professor, teaching mechanical aerospace and nuclear engineering. He is also an ASME Fellow and former technical editor of the ASME Journal of Tribology.
Education: PhD in Engineering, Georgia Tech
Milo Aukerman: Lead singer of punk band The Descendents, considered pioneers of pop punk. The title of their 1982 album Milo Goes to College refers to his decision to leave the band to pursue higher education, studying biology at UC San Diego. Milo Aukerman rejoined the band in 1995.
He worked as a postdoctoral researcher in molecular biology at University of Wisconsin-Madison and University of Pennsylvania and as a plant researcher at DuPont.
In 2016, Milo Aukerman decided to retire from science and return to music full time.
Education: PhD in Molecular Genetics, University of California San Diego
Phil Alvin: Leader of roots rock/rockabilly/blues rock band The Blasters. Before the band were famous, he taught maths at California State University, Long Beach.
The band broke up in 1986 and he decided to go to grad school, going to California State University, Long Beach, graduating with a masters degree in mathematics and artificial intelligence.
Education: PhD in Mathematics, UCLA
Robert Leonard: Member of Sha Na Na. Well known for his work in forensic linguistics. This work involves analysing legal materials like notes, audio and video recordings, contracts, and confessions.
He left Sha Na Na in 1971 when he got offered a fellowship at Columbia University Graduate School. He studied in Nairobi during his Fulbright Fellowship in 1974-1975. He is qualified as an Expert Witness in Linguistics in 12 states and 6 Federal Courts.
He can read and speak Swahili, French, and Spanish. He can read Italian and he has some knowledge of Giriama, Kamba, Rabai, Pokomo, Shona, Thai, and Arabic. He is a member of the editorial board of the Oxford University Press series Language and the Law.
Education: PhD in Linguistics, Columbia University
Rose Simpson: Multi-instrumentalist who played bass, violin, and percussion for the Incredible String Band. She studied at University of York for her undergrad and was president of the mountaineering club there.
She has lectured at University of Aberystwyth on the work of 1930s authors Ina Seidel and Vicki Baum.
Education: PhD in German Literature, University of Aberystwyth
Sterling Morrison: Founding member of The Velvet Underground and multi-instrumentalist who can play guitar and bass. Before joining The Velvet Underground, he was studying English at the City College of New York. He last performed with The Velvet Underground in 1971, leaving the band to study Medieval Literature at University of Texas at Austin. His dissertation was titled Historiographical Perspectives in the Signed Poems of Cynewulf.
Education: PhD in Medieval Literature, University of Texas at Austin
Steven Friedson: Played keyboards for garage rock band The Kingsmen in the late 60s. He is a Distinguished Research Professor of Music and Anthropology and head of the ethnomusicology programme at the University of North Texas. He did research projects in Malawi and Ghana and wrote ethnomusicology books.
Education: BFA in Composition/Piano, Cornish College of the Arts; PhD in Ethnomusicology, University of Washington, Seattle
Unknown – couldn’t find much information on their education?
David Aguilar: Grammy nominated lead singer of garage/psychedelic band The Chocolate Watchband. After the band broke up in the 60s, he worked as an astronomy professor. Later, he worked as the Director of Science Information and Public Outreach at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the world’s largest astronomical research organisation. He also writes books and creates space art that has been used in many different TV shows and movies. He was also part of the New Horizons media team for the historic fly by of Pluto and the fly by of Arrokoth, formerly known as Ultima Thule. Brian May was also part of that team and the two met!
He jokes that whenever he enters a room, people say “The eagle has landed”, which is an Apollo 11 reference and a reference to his surname, Aguilar, deriving from the Spanish word for Eagle, águila.
He also has an asteroid named after him, 1990DA. He said it’s an earth-crossing asteroid, yes one of those that we fear could hit the earth and cause a mass extinction event.
Musicians with PhDs by David Richeson
Did I miss a classic rocker? Did you learn something new about a musician? Planning to go to grad school or get a PhD or have any stories about your masters degree or PhD? Share them in the comments section below!
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Interesting. And while neither of them, to my knowledge, have any sort of advanced degree, I’ve always found Elton John and Pete Townshend to be a couple of really bright guys.
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Yeah! They both sound really smart. Speaking of The Who, I think Roger Daltrey is bright too. Can’t say I like his politics, but he is really smart and is a gifted actor. He was at the top of his class when he sat his 11 plus exam and his parents were hoping for him to go to university, but he wanted to be a rock star instead and dropped out of school when he was about 15.
Interesting. I knew he had been a sheet metal worker and so maybe that was more of a function of needing a job than anything else. Tough guy too as I recall. Funny – he used to call Townshend a “nose on a stick.”
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Great read! Knowing about their past can be helpful in understanding the music and lyrics.
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Thank you! It definitely gives an interesting insight into what they were thinking when they wrote and performed their music.
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