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Al Jarreau: Seven-time Grammy winner listens to the voices from his past

Lessons from Ripon College still matter

World famous musician Al Jarreau makes his living with a microphone in his hand. But as a young boy in Milwaukee in the 1950s, he was much more likely to be holding a baseball glove.

Like many local kids in that era, he grew up watching a young Henry “Hank” Aaron play baseball for the Milwaukee Braves. The 1957 season, in which the Braves won the World Series and Hank Aaron was the league’s Most Valuable Player, inspired the first of many dreams that have driven Jarreau to the height of success – which continues today on musical stages across the globe.

“By the time I was 15 or 16, I had fairy-tale dreams of playing professional baseball,” Jarreau said. “I couldn’t help it. I should have learned how to play piano because my mother was a piano teacher and would have been the greatest help in my life as a singer.

“But I couldn’t get that baseball glove off my hand,” he continued. “Some of the most important times of my life were with a baseball glove on my hand, at the side of my house, with me and my younger brother throwing the ball on the ground, like infield practice, then picking it up and making the turn to second base.”

His early love of baseball sowed the seeds of a lifelong love of sports. And later, after spending his college years as an NCAA student-athlete, the lessons he learned from coaches, teachers and teammates would pay off in the form of a set of values and strengths that have led him to the top of the entertainment world.

Jarreau first began to develop his athletic skills in high school, where he earned three varsity letters, one each in baseball, basketball and cross country. That success led him to Ripon College, nestled in the Green Lake Region of Wisconsin, where he joined a student body of about 800. He also became a member of three Redmen sports teams. 

At Ripon, the athletics came easy to Jarreau, but he’s the first one to admit he struggled in the classroom, especially in the beginning. But his coaches believed in him.

“I was a bad student. I almost quit.  But my coaches reached out and dragged me along,” is how he recalls it today. And he is thankful they did.

Although he began his college career playing baseball, basketball and running cross country, he eventually narrowed it down to just basketball, in part because he needed the study time.

Jarreau did not win any titles or awards at Ripon, but says the Redmen basketball team won a few conference titles after he left. “I taught them everything they knew,” he jokes.

Playing sports at Ripon, he now believes, gave him experiences that have paid off many times.

“I learned so much,” he said. “Getting in there and playing the game … losing sometimes, winning sometimes, but always loving the activity.

“Picking an activity that gives you joy is what can drive you throughout life.  It can be anything from rearranging furniture to planting seeds in a garden.  Finding the joy is the lesson of life.”

Eventually, with the constant urging of his coaches and professors, Jarreau started to succeed in the classroom as well. He would end up graduating with a degree in psychology and would later earn a master’s in vocational rehabilitation at the University of Iowa.

One of his brothers was a social worker, and so Jarreau decided to do the same. From 1964-68, he had a good career in San Francisco working as a rehabilitation counselor for war veterans and others who needed help. He recalled earning a pretty good salary, “better than most young professionals at the time.”

In the background of this career track, however, Jarreau could not deny the passion he had for music. Even in college, he had been part of a group performing at parties on campus. He knew he wanted to be around music all the time.

While working his day job as a rehabilitation counselor, he began singing in a trio with American jazz icon George Duke. After tasting some success in singing, Jarreau decided to step out in the musical world.

“When I left social work, a steady job, I started out on my own to do music … full-time, sink or swim,” Jarreau said. His goal was to produce records “that people could enjoy in their living rooms.”

But unlike many kids who chase dreams, Jarreau believes he was better prepared than most. Back at Ripon, he learned success didn’t happen overnight. Winning was not easy. And to succeed, he had to learn how to lose.

He was 35 when he got his first recording deal, and it was not without some pain. But as he puts it, “struggling produces some of the most wonderful successes.”

Jarreau would go on to a career that includes seven Grammy Awards for his music, international recognition as one of music’s biggest superstars and his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But he has never forgotten Ripon, returning to perform benefit shows in support of the college endowment. He has also been a positive voice for many fans inspired by his upbeat and cheerful music.

With his smooth, jazz vocals and rhythmic bounce on the stage, Jarreau makes music look easy.

His numbers are amazing – nearly two dozen albums, thousands of concerts and millions of fans during the past 40 years – speak to Jarreau’s musical talent.  Even today, fans around the world continue to flock to his concerts.

But behind that golden voice is another voice – the one that constantly plays in his head when the doubts about continuing the energetic pace of a superstar pop up. It’s a voice from the past, from his days at Ripon, where his coaches hammered home lessons that have stuck.

Like a broken record, the mantra plays: “Stay Al … don’t quit. Stay Al … tough it out. Gut check, Al.”

“Most of my performing years and living years are behind me,” Jarreau said, “but hey, man, I still got a lot in me. I’m picking up the pace. I’m heading down the backstretch. I’m about to lean into this curve and come out of it smoking to the finish line.

Much like the runner who pours it on when the finish line is in sight, he has a vision for himself.

“Kick. You know that word? I have it in mind all the time. And I have a kick that should be seen. Somebody’s got to watch this geezer. And they are … by the thousands every night.

Biography

Alwin “Al” Lopez Jarreau
Singer, entertainer

Hometown: Born in Huntsville, Alabama; raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Current City: Los Angeles

Education: Bachelor’s degree in psychology, 1962, Ripon College; master’s degree in vocational rehabilitation, University of Iowa

Sport: Baseball, basketball, cross country

Fun Fact: One of his Ripon College classmates was Hollywood A-list actor Harrison Ford.