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Oration honouring Alexander Wayne Morris

It's a small world!

That is how some people choose to describe social networks or the web of human interactions. Mathematicians use their interconnectedness with Paul Erdős, the itinerant mathematician who is the most published mathematics scholar in the world.

In moviedom, all actors are said to be within six degrees of separation of Kevin Bacon. An actor who appeared with Kevin Bacon has one degree of separation, and another actor, who appeared in a movie with a person who appeared with Kevin Bacon, has two degrees of separation.

In the music scene, Sandy Morris is at the centre of the collaboration graph. In describing Sandy Morris, musicians will say: "He's played with everybody."

"Everybody," in this sense, ranges from the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra to dozens of other combos performing musical genres ranging from classical to pop, rock, show tunes, jazz, blues and traditional.

His collaborative success, however, is only partly explained by his superb musical talent and creativity. Artists from around the globe seek him as an accompanist because he makes them sound great!

Sandy Morris, a self-taught guitarist, thrives on showcasing others. In the mid-to late '60s, the Memorial University Dramatic Society was a loose-knit group of students interested in music and drama. The society headquarters, a dressing room below the Reid Theatre stage, was a magnet for creative talent that had an enormous pull on the young Morris.

In the MUDS room, as it was affectionately called, music and humour were cross-pollinated. Talent began to sprout with the emergence of the Philadelphia Cream Cheese Band a vibrant student combo that rocked Memorial University with its psychedelic concerts. They survived on "pass-the-hat" donations just sufficient to score a feed or two of fish and chips for the band members.

Early MUDS successes eventually blossomed into CODCO and the Wonderful Grand Band, groups that have come to define the best of Newfoundland entertainment, and groups that have helped spawn the entertainment industry in this province.

Sandy Morris was the driving force in the musical element of these groups and many more.

By now, many attending this convocation are wondering: "Isn't he the guy from Land & Sea?" Sandy Morris is much more than that. He is a true music pioneer, and is one of the first in this province to put music on local television programming.

In his teens, he started working in television. Small gigs led to more work and eventually Morris was asked to assemble a band for a short-lived weekly television series where he composed, arranged, performed and led.

The Wonderful Grand Band, of which he was again the multi-tasking leader, evolved out of The Root Seller, and when turned into a television series, the WGB show achieved the highest TV ratings ever recorded in this province. For these episodes, half of all Newfoundlanders and Labradorians were watching, listening, laughing and enjoying.

Through these, and many more experiences, Sandy Morris taught himself the art of scoring music for television. For Morris, "scoring" includes composition, orchestration, performance and recording of original music, often laying down multiple tracks on different instruments. He is credited by many as the first in this province to do so. His early efforts in television have transferred to film and through this, Sandy Morris created a small local industry.

Listen for the way his music magically catches you the next time you tune in to Land & Sea.

Starting as an underage youth playing as a sideman in coffee houses, bars, on radio and television, Sandy Morris was one of the busiest and most sought after musicians in the province. After decades in the business, about the only thing that has changed in his active career is that when he plays, he is no longer underage.

To truly understand the outstanding musical career of Sandy Morris, one must realize that he has held centre stage for more than 40 years, but he has done this by standing to its side.

By my calculations, Sandy Morris has performed with more honorary degree recipients of Memorial University of Newfoundland than anyone in its history.

So vice-chancellor, were you to whistle a happy tune, or sing a little ditty, by virtue of sharing this stage with Sandy Morris, you could boast of two degrees of contact from Dame Vera Lynn and many more incredibly gifted performers and musicians.

Anyone beyond three degrees of contact from Sandy Morris simply has not arrived on the music scene. Vice-chancellor, it is my distinct privilege to present the self-styled "easternmost guitar player in North America," Alexander Wayne Morris for the degree of doctor of letters, honoris causa.

Donald W. McKay,
University orator

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