University of Richmond

Platinum record producer and alumnus tells University of Richmond grads to have confidence, think big, sometimes fail

May 13, 2007

University of Richmond alumnus Steve Buckingham told a commencement audience of some 5,000 people at his alma mater Sunday he is "proof that a guitar player from Richmond can work hard, think big thoughts, have faith, and amazing things happen in life."

The four-time Grammy winner and producer of 27 number one singles in 11 different categories, six motion pictures soundtracks, two CBS television specials, 11 platinum and 19 gold albums advised 756 undergraduate and 70 graduate students that the music industry holds life lessons they should take with them along with their degrees.

"Believe in yourself, think big, be positive and swing for the fences, and always look for the different voice, the different cure or the different way of doing things," Buckingham said.

At various stages of his career, the senior vice president of Vanguard and Sugar Hill records and former vice president of A&R¿scouting and signing talent¿at Columbia Records met and learned from some of the legends of the music business.

Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantics Records advised Buckingham, "Find what you love and have a passion for, and success follows." Ertegun convinced him that "we can all listen to that small, still voice inside of us that plants the seed of creativity, and we can all make a difference in the world."

While living and working in New York, Buckingham attended the church of the late Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, who coined the phrase "the power of positive thinking." Peale preached that self believing in oneself is essential to succeeding. Buckingham adopted Peale's advice that "If you don't these qualities, act as if you have them."

Producing his first recording session in Los Angeles with 60-piece orchestra, Buckingham told an older, experienced recording engineer that he was truly scared. The wise old engineer put his arm around Buckingham and told him, "Just don't let them see you sweat." He acted with confidence and success followed.

But belief in self is not sufficient, he said.

"Whatever field you choose to enter¿science, politics, business, education, or even the entertainment business¿I think that along with belief in yourself, it's essential to believe in something bigger than your occupation. What works for me is a belief in God," Buckingham explained. "If you have faith in something more than your job, the chance are you are going to make it through the tough times. And tough times come¿that's life."

Finally, Buckingham told the graduates that the music business, like many others, has changed dramatically over the past five years, both in technology and in business models. He told them they must stay on the cutting edge of their chosen professions, "because if you don't stay on the cutting edge, you'd better believe somebody coming up behind you will."

"Just because they reach a level of success, they (the world-famous musicians he works with) never stop practicing" Buckingham said.

He reminded the graduates of the career of A&R executive John Hammond, who in the 1940s discovered Billie Holliday, Count Basie and Benny Goodman but hit a cold streak in the 1950s. Most of his colleagues said Hammond had lost his touch. Hammond never lost his confidence in tough times, going on to discover Bob Dylan in the '60s, Bruce Springsteen in the '70s and blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan in the '80s, having "phenomenal impact on American culture."

Hammond told Buckingham, "I believed in myself and my ability, and I always looked for the different voice, whether it was the clarinet of Benny Goodman, the voice of Billie Holliday, the guitar of Charlie Christian or the words of Bob Dylan."

"Believe in yourself, think big, be positive and swing for the fences, and always look for the different voice, the different cure or the different way of doing things, Buckingham concluded.

In addition to undergraduate and graduate degrees, the university awarded six honorary doctorates, as well as seven honorary bachelor of letters degrees to alumni who left the university before completing their degrees to serve in the Korean and Viet Nam wars. All but one of the veterans were from Richmond.

Receiving honorary doctorates were: Alfred H. Bloom, president of Swarthmore College; John Fahey, president and CEO of the National Geographic Society; William E. Cooper, president of the university; Brian Lamb, president and CEO of C-SPAN; Jorge Ramos, anchor of the news program "Noticiero Univision"; and Lila Harnett, founder of ArtTable.