President Chopp's Charge to Vaneese Thomas '74
Vaneese Thomas, your talents as a singer, songwriter, producer, and actor have made you a much-sought-after solo performer, as well as a back-up vocalist for projects by top-name artists and directors in the music and film industries. Your rhythm and blues and gospel music has been heard around the world and continues to be both a delight and an inspiration to people everywhere. You are a great singer whose music reaches the hearts and souls of all who hear it.
You were born in Memphis, Tennessee, the daughter of the legendary musician and entertainer Rufus Thomas. You grew up in your father's musical world and in the St. John Baptist Church in Memphis, where you began a life-long Christian witness as a minister of music. You came to Swarthmore in 1970 and immediately reshaped the musical world on campus. In 1971, you were one of the founders of the Swarthmore College Gospel Choir. In 1974, graduating with a major in French and a concentration in Black Studies, you began your professional career.
Since your graduation you have led an extraordinary life as a singer, songwriter, and actor. You recorded with the renowned producer Phil Ramone and sang with an astonishing array of internationally known performers, including Luciano Pavarotti, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin, and performed at the Michael Jackson & Friends concerts with Luther Vandross.
In 1987, Geffen Records released your first major recording, Vaneese, which included two Top Twenty R&B hits. In 1999, your own Peaceful Water Music label released your gospel crossover recording, When My Back's Against the Wall, which was hailed by Billboard magazine as "a small label masterpiece that begs for attention from savvy majors." In 2003, Segue Records released A Woman's Love, which combined R&B and silky-smooth jazz vocals and in 2009 released Soul Sister, Vol. 1: A Tribute to the Women of Soul, a collection of seminal soul classics.
You have also worked extensively in film and television as an actress and singer in roles such as the voice of Grace the Bass on the PBS series Shining Time Station and Clio the Muse, Goddess of History, in Disney's full length feature Hercules. You have sung on numerous film soundtracks including Anastasia, Mighty Aphrodite, and The First Wives' Club.
You have produced recordings, created vocal arrangements, and written songs for Patti Austin, Freddie Jackson, Bob James, and Diana Ross, who scored a top ten hit in the U.K. with your song, "One Shining Moment."
In 1986, you returned to Swarthmore with other alumni to sing with the Gospel Choir for a reunion concert, which to our great joy and good fortune led to the formation of the Alumni Gospel Choir. It has performed since then under your leadership on campus and around the world. In 2000, you led the Choir and produced its CD, Star Gazer.
You have developed music education programs at colleges and secondary schools. You also founded a professional singers' group in New York to minister at hospitals, nursing homes, and prisons. Your music has always been a part of your deep faith and your commitment to those who are in need.
Vaneese Thomas, your music is a joy. You have combined the influences of your background and experience - R&B, blues, jazz, and gospel - to create a soul-stirring style that's all your own. Your singing and song writing, your productions and work in film, and your faith and commitment to those in need of musical uplift reflect the values of your alma mater and are an inspiration to us all.
Upon the recommendation of the faculty, and by the power vested in me by the Board of Managers of Swarthmore College and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, I have the honor to bestow upon you the degree of Doctor of Arts.