School of Hard Rocks

From his wheelchair Doug Burris runs the show, loud and proud, at Miami Beach High

On Saturdays Burris is at Beach High by 9:00 a.m. to teach classical guitar as one of a dozen or so teachers in the Miami Beach Performing Arts Academy. Some of his more dedicated weekday students attend. He often spends his evenings overseeing public appearances by his Rock Ensemble or Classical Guitar Ensemble.

Recently the classical guitar troupe played a Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce mixer at the Radisson Deauville Resort. The Rock Ensemble performed an afternoon gig in early February at the University of Miami as part of a Grammy in the Schools program. (Both groups are for hire, and average a half-dozen public performances per month between them.) Once or twice a year Burris takes the students farther, to Orlando, Atlanta, New Orleans, or New York for major music competitions, from which they usually return with obnoxiously large trophies.

Burris and company just returned from the biggest event so far this year. This past week the Rock Ensemble pulled into Chicago for yet another competition, then landed in Cleveland for a performance at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The concert's playlist, which included "Pretty Woman," "Respect," and an encore performance of "I Saw Her Standing There," had prints from the ensemble's pro-genitor stamped all over it.

Clark Douglas Burris was born on March 21, 1942. His father Willard was a carpenter, his mother Phoebe a nurse at her son's elementary school. Doug was the oldest of four children. The Burris family lived in the small town of Monroe, New York, less than two hours from New York City, but worlds away in character. Today Monroe is home to less than 7000 people. During Burris's childhood, it was even smaller. "It was a good place to grow up," he remembers.

By fifth grade Burris had developed an interest in music. He quickly learned his way around a trumpet and, later, the baritone horn (a kind of smaller, higher-pitched tuba), the trombone, and guitar. "I had a very good band director," he says. "He took me all the way through high school. I owe a lot to him."

In fact that teacher was a little like Burris would become later in life. "It was a very formal education, but when we started playing some rock music in the late Fifties he said, 'You guys can do it. It sounds real good. Just go all the way down at the end in that last practice room,'" Burris recalls with a chuckle. "But he was very understanding, and I think he actually liked some of the stuff we were doing."

After graduating from Monroe-Woodbury Central High School in 1960, Burris enrolled in the local community college, where he continued his music education. At night he played guitar and trombone and sang tunes such as Joey Dee and the Starliters' "The Peppermint Twist" and Ray Charles's "What'd I Say?" in a rock band called the Variations.

"I paid my way through college in club bands, almost 100 percent. When I was in junior college I played three nights a week," he says.

Itching for adventure after two years, Burris hit the road. He accepted a scholarship to Florida State University in Tallahassee, where he would play in the university's marching band. "I thought I was going to be attending some inferior Southern college. I didn't know it, but FSU at that time was ranked in the top ten in the country for music. It was like going to a conservatory, something I hadn't counted on."

Burris found it hard to concentrate on his studies the first couple years at FSU. He met his future wife Susan Brinkman from nearby Live Oak, Florida; he joined the Kappa Sigma fraternity, and then a group he refers to as the "hottest rock band" on campus. "I played in a band called the Embers. We played the fraternity and sorority parties. There weren't very many bars in those days, except for one called the Cave, which we played. That was great. And then somebody from the Safari motel in Daytona Beach called." The year was 1963. People, particularly young women, were starting to pay a lot of attention to young rock and rollers. The Safari gig would quickly change the 21-year-old Burris's world view, and not necessarily to the benefit of his higher education.

"They told us we could come play for a week, for two hours a day out on the patio, and we'd get free rooms, free food, and free beer," he says. That was my first introduction into what it was really like to be a rock and roll guitar player. There was plenty of everything. The band left, but I stayed three weeks. I was having too much fun."

After the Safari Burris took a break from FSU and returned to his junior college in New York. A year later, when he was ready to get serious again, he re-enrolled in Tallahassee. The second time around he worked harder on his studies, and on his role in the university's 200-member marching band. "It was such an awesome big band," he enthuses. "We had 25 trombones. It was incredible."

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