Mentoring Plays a Significant Role in Contemporary Music Part I

Virtually anyone can benefit from having a mentor. And most well-known, accomplished and successful people can identify people in their lives who acted as mentors. The mentor pairings that are described in this section of the Peer Bulletin were identified from a variety of sources including autobiographies, biographies, newspaper articles, personal interviews, and diligent historical research.

An extensive list of additional well-known mentor pairings, including those from TV, motion pictures and fiction, can be found on the Peer Resources website at In addition to the list of mentor pairs from the world of entertainment, business, creative arts, sports, politics, history, and science available in the Peer Resources listings, a few historical facts or humorous references to the term mentor are also included.

Many well-known artists are revered for their talent and creativity, and those two characteristics are often considered as solitary or individualistic activities. However, in his recent book, Keith Sawyer, Associate Professor of Education and Psychology at Washington University of St. Louis, advances the idea that almost all creative endeavours are based on collaboration with others.

In examining the biographies of people in the music business, they often make reference to those individuals who inspired them or assisted them in some practical way to become the creative and successful artist they are today. Here are just two examples.

189_JW-PepperJohn Wilfred Pepper (1919-2009), born in Saskatchewan, left school in grade nine to support his parents during the Depression. Although he didn’t finish school, he had a life-long passion for music. He received a violin when he was a boy and fell in love with classical music. He was also an expert with his hands as he learned to do many repairs on his parent’s farm. He also started to craft violas and violins.

He moved to Victoria, British Columbia and played with the Victoria Symphony and local chamber groups. Like many other musicians, he needed to supplement his love of music with paid employment from another area. He used his Saskatchewan farm experience to establish a career in the grocery store business.

Mr. Pepper’s determination and compassion touched everyone who came into contact with him; and according to a story in the Victoria Times Colonist, one young boy who was strongly influenced by Mr. Pepper was Canadian and Grammy-award winning music producer David Foster (born in 1949), who lived next door to Mr. Pepper.

189_David-FosterMr. Foster recalls, “This was a guy that was so dedicated to practicing. I was just a kid, practicing classical piano, and he had that work ethic that just filtered down to me. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, so that’s what you’ve got to do to be good.'” While Mr. Foster acknowledges the influence of Mr. Pepper’s musical mind, what he remembers most is the “gentleness of the musician.” Mr. Pepper died peacefully in his sleep with his family at his side at age 90.

Mr. Foster has gone on to be a mentor to Celine Dion, Michael Buble, Philippine singing sensation Charice Pempengco, Josh Groban, Whitney Houston, Faith Hill, Christina Aguilera, and dozens of other highly successful artists.

Townes Van Zandt

Townes Van Zandt (1944-1997), a Texas poet, songwriter and folk hero, was a mentor to   a wide variety of recording artists. Although Mr. Van Zandt struggled with bipolar   disorder and died from alcohol addiction at age 52, his power as a songwriter attracted   singer-songwriters from Bob Dylan to Willie Nelson as part of his legacy. He was a   mentor to many other musicians including Steve Earle, who, according to online   biography, said Van Zandt was ‘the best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.’ Van Zandt responded, the online bio continues, saying: “I’ve met Bob Dylan’s bodyguards and if Steve Earle thinks he can stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table, he’s sadly mistaken.’

Some of the other artists who described Townes Van Zandt as a mentor (and the songs he wrote that they sang) include: Mickey Newbury (“For the Sake of the Song”), Guy Clark (“Old No. 1”), Cowboy Junkies (“Black Eyed Man”), Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard (“Pancho and Lefty”), Emmylou Harris (many different hit songs), Lyle Lovett (“Step Inside This House”), the Flatlanders (pioneered the Texas brand of country-folk created by Van Zandt), Norah Jones (“Feels Like Love”), and Neil Young (“Harvest”).

Sawyer, K. (2010). Group genius: The creative power of collaboration. New York: Basic Books.

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