Local Obituaries

Miami Beach High Rock Ensemble founder Doug Burris dies at 73

In 1972, Doug Burris founded the Rock Ensemble at Miami Beach Senior High. Forty years later, he’d retire after helping students find careers in the music business, scoring national honors and landing them a gig at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland.
In 1972, Doug Burris founded the Rock Ensemble at Miami Beach Senior High. Forty years later, he’d retire after helping students find careers in the music business, scoring national honors and landing them a gig at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland. Miami Herald file/2003

Roberta Flack’s somber The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face was the year’s No. 1 hit. Gilbert O’ Sullivan’s sad suicide song Alone Again (Naturally) and Don McLean’s American Pie, a lengthy pop ode about the death of rock and roller Buddy Holly, nipped at Flack’s heels for playing time on eight-track machines.

But a 30-year old (“Don’t trust anyone over 30?”) music teacher heard the clarion call of a Bryan Adams song yet to be written that would scream to ’80s teens: “Everywhere I go/The kids wanna rock.”

So Clark Douglas Burris, a guitarist, ventured into the halls of Miami Beach High School in that year of AM radio soft rockers, denim and bell-bottoms and announced he was there to start a rock ensemble class. Administrators raised eyebrows. “It’s just rock and roll, not legitimate music,” Burris recalled of the sentiment at the time in a 2007 Miami Herald article that celebrated the Rock Ensemble’s 35th anniversary concert at the 700-seat Lincoln Theatre.

Burris, who left Highland Falls, New York, in 1968, to earn his master’s degree in music at the University of Miami, knew differently. He was on the performance side of rock and roll until multiple sclerosis steadily robbed him of mobility. But he knew his stuff and he knew how to impart that knowledge. And even if no one but him knew it yet, Kids Wanna Rock.

Over the next 40 years Burris, who died Thursday at 73 of complications from multiple sclerosis, led the Miami Beach High Rock Ensemble to national prominence. The students, under Burris’ steady, stern, loving direction received top honors, won the New York Music Festival and featured on CBS, CNN and MTV. More than 600 students passed through the ensemble’s ranks — from the AM pop years to disco to punk, through New Wave, ’80s synth-pop, hair band pop metal, hip-hop, country and the birth and rise of Adele and Taylor Swift.

His students were blessed to have had him in their lives. We are all members of a VERY SPECIAL CLUB. He was a father figure to many and everyone felt that they were his favorite.

Ida Safirstein Lang, a Rock Ensemble member in 1982.

Among his students: David Chesky, class of 1973, who founded his own namesake jazz label; Ann Curless, class of 1982, who, as a member of Miami pop/R&B trio Exposé, scored eight Top 10 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 in the 1980s, including the 1987 No. 1, Seasons Change; active session musician Fernando Perdomo, Class of 1998; and Los Angeles composer Adam Chester, Class of 1981, who works as Elton John’s rehearsal pianist.

“It’s rare that a student would stay in touch with their high school music teacher 34 years after graduation, but this is no ordinary teacher. He's a Superpower if I have ever seen one. A man so incredibly in tune with all that is hip and relevant, that he bypasses trend. He's the definition of music and has to this day been my inspiration to succeed in entertainment. I’ve always kept him aware of what I was doing. My journeys, victories, my struggles, you name it, Mr. Burris was a quick phone call away. And I could make him laugh that beautiful hearty laugh. The one that would make him go so silent, you'd wonder if he was still on the line,” Chester wrote in dedication on his Facebook page.

Without hesitation, Chester, author of the 2011 memoir, S’Mother, rattles off Burris’ phone number. “That’s from memory. From 1978 to 1981.”

Says a lot. How many still remember, let alone have, their teacher’s private line because they’ve touched base regularly for decades?

Classmate Astrid Voxx calls Burris “a father figure, a mentor, a tormenter, everything.” She spun off her experience with Burris into a singing career, landing gigs singing backup for Jimmy Buffett and still gives concerts around South Florida. Burris, she said, took a shy girl who auditioned with a flute solo to a fiery rocker who won best performer in 1979 and 1981 for her renditions of Heart’s Barracuda and Pat Benatar’s Heartbreaker.

At the 40th anniversary concert Voxx, who picked up on the drums under Burris’ direction, insisted on becoming the first member of the Rock Ensemble to sing a Kiss medley.

Diana Hernandez was there, having played trumpet in the ensemble through her 1981 graduation. “The 40th reunion concert was magical,” she said. “Students from such a wide span all coming together and playing together as if we had all been there at the same time. He did that. He made us a family. … He touched so many lives.”

Rehearsal day was a bit chaotic and I wondered how it was all gonna come together. The concert was the next day and it just came together like magic. It always amazed me how this man never had to raise his voice while we were in class. All it took was a look and everyone would just shut up and get their part done.

Diana Hernandez, Class of 1981 Rock Ensemble member, on the 40th anniversary concert held in 2012.

Changed them for the better, too.

“My first year I was really shy and didn’t make a lot of friends but I heard about Rock Ensemble and was curious so in 10th grade I auditioned on flute and he doesn’t say anything. A boy is playing the Beatles’ Yesterday on piano and I go up to him, harmonizing, and this guy in a wheelchair rolls up and shouts, ‘Who was that? What’s your name?’ and I shyly said my name. Meantime, I’m peeing my pants. He said, ‘Here’s what I think. You should get rid of the flute. You’re singing. You have a great voice, young lady.’ So that started my career as a professional singer,” Voxx said.

“He was very tough. A good disciplinarian,” she added. “At the moment you don’t realize it, but years later you realize you need your butt kicked at 15, 16, 17. He became my mentor, my father and, at that time, he was already in his wheelchair and that was a great learning experience. He took away the stigma and fear and it was very inspiring to see someone in such a bad physical state forge ahead as a teacher who taught instruments just by telling you ‘Put your finger here, put your finger there.’ He taught you to make the best out of adversity.”

Burris, born in Paterson, New Jersey, and like many who came of age in the 1950s, grew up listening to Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. He sold the idea of teaching rock to a skeptical administration and was like a proud father when his kids pulled off major feats, like playing the whole of Pink Floyd’s complex The Dark Side of the Moon album and the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, while decked out in costumes from the iconic album cover.

Learning can be fun, he believed. A highlight came in 1999, when his young Beach High musicians were tapped to play at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland — some 15 years before Voxx’s beloved Kiss and Rush managed the same feat. A memento of the show hung in the ensemble practice room for years: “The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum commends the Miami Beach Rock Ensemble for Rockin’ the Planet since 1972.”

She said, ‘You know Mr. Burris, we’re very excited about what you’re doing and we’d love to have you perform here.’ I was like, ‘Wow!’

Doug Burris, in a 2003 Miami Herald article, recalling a conversation with a director from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland after his Beach High Rock Ensemble landed a gig there.

Burris, who had delivered a heartfelt pitch to the museum to score the gig, was moved. “That’s one of my most valued possessions,” he told the Herald in 2003.

At 17, Fernando Perdomo was an ensemble member cranking Jethro Tull’s Living in the Past on guitar on a Rock Ensemble CD, the first commercial release for a local high school. At the time, in 1998, he told the Herald, “How many kids our age get to play music we actually listen to?” Burris, noting that the more styles and tastes change, the more they stay the same, said, “The kids are still talented and mostly the same. These are young artists with an outlet to do what they love the most.”

Today, Perdomo said of Burris’ lasting impact: “Twenty years ago, I learned One Headlight by The Wallflowers in his Rock Ensemble class. Now I play guitar with Jakob Dylan. I owe my whole career to him. No teacher has had a more unique and influential career. He will always be my mentor.”

Burris is survived by his sister Priscilla Gay Janks and brother David Dicks Burris. A memorial will be at 3 p.m. Feb. 21 at Miami Beach Senior High, 2231 Prairie Ave. The Clark D. Burris Scholarship Fund has been established to promote musical education for Beach High music students. Checks can be sent to Miami Beach Senior High Alumni Association, 2000 NW 150th Ave., Suite 2106, Pembroke Pines, Florida, 33028 with memo line directed to Burris fund.

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen

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