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MPH ‘rocks’ with the best of them

October 13, 2010

Duane Hitchings sat perched in a director’s chair looking out into a sea of young faces that anxiously waited to hear his life story. He’s performed with the likes of Alice Cooper, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis and Janis Joplin, yet this gig was quite different from what the musician and songwriter was accustomed to.

On Oct. 8, the South Onondaga-native was asked to speak at the Manlius Pebble Hill School, the descendent of his high school alma mater, The Manlius School.

Hitchings was in town for the Music Industry Conference and the Syracuse Area Music Awards (SAMMYs), where he received the lifetime achievement award, and agreed to make a stop at the school to talk about his successful career.

During the lecture, Hitchings started from the beginning: Having grown up on a dairy farm with a wonderful mom, dad and sister, he learned to play piano at age 5. By 15, he was playing in rock bands with 19- and 20-year-olds, and failing his junior year at Onondaga Central High School. It was then that he was sent to the Manlius School, a military academy for boys. By the time he graduated from the Manlius School in 1962, Hitchings knew music was his future, so he attended the San Francisco Conservatory before transferring to Syracuse University, and finally the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music, where he studied music composition.

One student asked what drove Hitchings to become a musician.

“I had no choice,” he said with a laugh. “You just go by your heart.” He then added that much of his inspiration came from his Manlius music teacher, the late David Bahner.

Once Hitchings entered the music industry, he had run-ins with numerous high-profile artists and collaborated with some of the greatest musicians of their time. As he peppered the names of artists such as The Who, Carlos Santana and Hendrix into his story, excited whispers washed through the student audience. Hitchings was also nonchalant about the Grammy he won for collaborating on the “Flashdance” soundtrack, and his hit songs “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” and “Young Turks” with Rod Stewart.

As the lecture wrapped up and time was left for one last question, a student asked, “Can you play something for us?”

“Oh, I don’t know… I don’t know any songs,” he said with a laugh, before sitting down at the old piano. After a brief pause, he played “The Lord’s Prayer” to end the lecture.

In addition to the student audience, David Bahner’s wife, Sue; a former classmate from the Manlius School, Ken Gillis; and Hitchings’ sister also attended the lecture.

After lunch in the MPH cafeteria and a tour of the campus, Hitchings headed over to the OnCenter in downtown Syracuse, where he hosted the Songwriter’s Workshop alongside fellow writers Loren Barrigar and Bob Halligan Jr.

A piece of advice he had for aspiring musicians of all ages that day: “Play from your heart. You have to be emotional as an artist, and always be willing to go back to the kid [inside] … And be sure to always listen to your lawyers,” he added with a laugh.