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Rock Stars Or College Professors?

(Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Quick!  What do Steve Miller, Mark Volman, Tommy James, and John Fogerty have in common?  …Besides hits on the Billboard charts, each has been busy teaching college-level courses.

Lately, it seems, a steady stream of rock ‘n’ roll icons are bringing their expertise into college classrooms. Tommy James, 63, who rose from obscurity when a Pittsburgh radio station played Hanky Panky in 1966, has spoken to students at several colleges near his home in New Jersey and is in talks to visit more campuses in the fall. Blues rocker Steve Miller (The Joker), 67, helped develop a curriculum for budding musicians at the University of Southern California. Melissa Manchester (Midnight Blue), 60, teaches a songwriting class there this semester. And Mark Volman (Happy Together), 63, of The Turtles, who began college at age 45 and holds two advanced degrees, chairs the entertainment industry studies program at Belmont University in Nashville.

If today’s college students don’t recognize the names, well, they probably know the songs. And while their parents and many of their professors grew up with the music, there’s more going on here than a trip down memory lane. For better or worse, rock ‘n’ roll is getting respect from academia. The ’60s and ’70s marked rock’s golden age, and these guys are the elder statesmen.

“There’s never been a time quite like it, and there probably never will be again,” says Indiana University music professor Glenn Gass, who arranged Rundgren’s visit. “It’s rock’s classical period, the same way Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn were classical musicians. We’ve got a chance, while the artists are still alive, to benefit from their experience.”

Artists such as Bo Diddley, Lou Reed and local boy John Mellencamp have dropped by Gass’ classrooms since he began teaching rock history in 1982. But in recent years, rock ‘n’ roll has been embraced more formally, particularly on campuses based in the heart of the nation’s music industry.


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