It’s not every university president that can greet incoming freshmen at a special party by playing guitar in his own rock band, but Pepperdine University President Andrew Benton has done just that for 19 years. His fellow musicians include Senior VP & Chief Investment Officer Jeff Pippin and visiting assistant professor Chris Stivers, who have also been in the band for the long haul. Various other musicians and vocalists, mostly from Pepperdine, have rotated in and out over the years.
While Benton and Pippin both grew up in Kansas about 30 miles apart, the two never met until they both worked at Pepperdine.
Their band was originally called Mid Life Crisis (MLC) when it formed in 1989 to perform at a going-away party for a colleague. Over the years, the band changed its name to The Mesa Peak Band—named after the tallest point on Pepperdine as officially determined by the US Geological Service.
“I’ve always made friends through music,” Benton said in an interview. “The band’s main program every year is to play for the students.” The band’s repertoire consists of well-known classic rock tunes mainly from the ‘60s to the ‘90s, including hits like “Surfin’ USA,” “Mony Mony,” “Mustang Sally,” “Black Magic Woman” and “Soul Man.” They’ve played at annual parties for graduating seniors and incoming freshmen for the past 19 years.
During the last week of August, Benton traditionally hosts a party for 850 to 900 incoming freshmen at his on-campus house and grounds.
“He shook every freshman’s hand and would then start playing with the band,” Pippin said. “The students really respond to that, and the students know the songs we play and love to dance.”
It’s also Benton’s tradition to host a party and play with the band at his house the first week of September for graduating seniors. “The freshman show excitement and enthusiasm at their party,” Pippin continued, “but the seniors are a little cooler before they warm up.”
The band has also played for alumni events, fundraisers, faculty and the Malibu Arts Festival, as well as events in Washington DC and LA. Sometimes celebrity guests have shown up, including Glen Campbell, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (guitarist for Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers), and Don Galluci, original keyboardist for the Kingsmen, who performed “Louie, Louie.”
From time to time, the Mesa Peak Band transforms into the Mesa Peak Ramblers and takes on a different kind of music. For four years in a row, 2016-19, for the annual Pepperdine Bible Lectures event, they played a bluegrass music program, bringing in outside musicians to play specialized instruments like fiddle, banjo, mandolin and steel guitar.
Andy Benton does vocals, rhythm guitar and keyboards for the band. He began playing keyboards at age 14. Then, because he “was always fascinated by the guitar,” began learning that instrument at age 17. He’s played in several bands and plays the piano at home.
“It’s therapy,” he said. At home, he goes for standards and show tunes and is influenced by ballads and harmonies.
Jeff Pippin, the band’s lead guitar player, started playing at age 10, when his family ordered him a guitar for Christmas from the Spiegel catalogue.
“It was a branded Kay guitar,” he said. “By the end of the first day, I learned three chords—G, C and D.” He’d always been a big Elvis Presley fan and, at that time, the Beatles and Beach Boys were inspiring. He was further influenced by his father’s love of classic country artists like George Jones, Ernest Tubbs and Porter Wagner.
At Pepperdine, besides the band, Pippin has also played for the Songfest Orchestra, the jazz ensemble and the orchestra for the production of “West Side Story.”
Benton is retiring and will be moving out of the area at the end of July. The new Pepperdine president is not a musician, so traditions will likely be changing. “There will be a big hole without Andy being there,” Pippin said. He and Stivers plan to continue the band in some form.
The band’s last performance with Benton will be Friday, July 12, next to the Vintage Market at Trancas. To make it special, they’re planning to bring a full contingent of 12 musicians and vocalists, which includes a five-piece horn and saxophone section and a big song line-up.