On Sunday, Mark Katz, the chairman of UNC-Chapel Hill’s music department, helped secure a Carolina-blue mortarboard to the head of the man who sang “Yellow Submarine.” Ringo Starr, in town to play a show that evening at DPAC with his All-Starr Band, arrived on campus to accept a proclamation from the music department in recognition of his contributions to music, culture and life at large.
The idea of issuing such academic proclamations originated with the music department’s entrepreneur-in-residence, Ken Weiss, a music business veteran who Katz appointed to the position he created in 2010. Weiss sought to make meaningful connections between the university and notable musicians performing in the region. Having once worked with the former Beatle, Weiss contacted him, and Starr warmed to the idea.
“When we agreed to meet, he said, ‘Bring me one of those graduation hats,’” offers Katz. “And it was very Ringo-esque, in that we put it on backward and we were fumbling around and finally we got it on right.”
To paraphrase Starr’s first solo hit, the finding of the hat didn’t come easy.
“I went to the student stores on campus to get one,” says Katz, “and they said we only sell them at graduation time. And I said, well, it’s a special occasion; we want to give one to Ringo Starr. And the woman said, ‘Let me call the warehouse.’”
Unlike his colleague—who was Stephen Stills’ manager and has worked in Broadway, film and TV—Katz is not so used to meeting legends. “It was more than being in his presence,” he says. “It was hearing that voice that is so distinctive, that I’ve basically been hearing all my life.”
Katz says Starr’s warm reaction seemed heartfelt. “At first, I was thinking, ‘Well, why would he care?’ He probably has a house full of plaques that people have given him. But he did seem to be gratified by this, because it’s different from the sort of self-congratulatory awards from the music industry—peers awarding peers.
“This was all different,” Katz continues, “an institution of higher education recognizing that he’s more than just an entertainer, and he seemed to take that seriously. And he was genuinely excited with the ‘graduation hat.’”