Living the rock 'n' roll fantasy - Graduate continues education while pursuing on-the-road success

To his professors and classmates, he’s Billy Richards. To his fellow musicians and fans, he’s Billy YoungBlood. Put them together and you have a band leader whose graphic design skills are helping launch a debut album.

Richards received an associate degree in Design Technology from Ivy Tech Community College–Northeast in May 2012. He returned to the classroom this past January to pursue an associate degree in Computer Information Systems with a concentration in web development.

“In today’s market you have to be versatile,” Richards said of his decision to get another degree. “The one constant in a world of change is going to be computers and design.”

Richards’ hiatus from the classroom was well spent. He and the band he founded, Billy YoungBlood and the Smokin’ Gorillas, toured the Midwest and nearby states, playing small clubs and festivals in Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin and Tennessee. The band’s music, which Richards calls “organic, bluesy rock ’n‘ roll,” combines old-school classic rock with new-school alternative. In addition to playing their own shows, The Smokin’ Gorillas have backed up other musicians, including Hugo Ferreira of Tantric.

The Smokin’ Gorillas are comprised of Richards and session musicians from Fort Wayne, Illinois and Michigan.

“Our interpretation of songs varies based on the creativity of the musicians,” said Richards, who plays electric guitar, bass, drums, percussion and occasionally cello and acoustic guitar. His friends add vocals, tambourine and horns.

The band’s first full-length album, “The Show Must Go On,” was released April 20, which is also National Record Store Day. Richards diligently used his design skills to produce the album’s artwork and publicity materials, including posters and fliers.

Richards credits several of his instructors with equipping him with the computer design skills he’s put to use marketing the album. He mentions Barry Sullens, “the Gandalf of the web”; Joan Heise, who teaches database design and management; Ben Stonebraker and John Knight. “They work so hard to have a quality program at Ivy Tech,” he remarked. 

TRiO Student Support Services also played a role in Richards’ college success. “Billy earned my respect,” TRiO Director Timothy Ross commented. “He learned to balance working in a band, being a single parent and his education. He never lost sight of his goals. He is truly one of my heroes.”

Richards said he loves the fact he can mesh his computer design talents with promotional work for his band. “What’s pretty awesome is the career I’ve chosen in school and how it works so well with my music.”

It’s also a career that gives this single father time to spend with David, his special needs son. Born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, David has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and autism. Richards home schooled David five to six hours a day for first and second grade. This year, David’s a third grader at Adams Elementary School in Fort Wayne, where he’s “doing really well,” according to Richards. “He’s socially active and has made a lot of progress.”  

David’s also “very, very musical,” Richards noted. He received a much-coveted violin as a Christmas present, and his dad reports that David’s serious about practicing and improving. “I’m excited to see the evolution of that,” Richards said. When his school schedule permits, David tours with The Smokin’ Gorillas. “He joins us onstage from time to time, which is pretty cool,” Richards commented.

In addition to his band and parenting duties, Richards has done freelance graphic design and web development work. He’d eventually like to put together a “multimedia team with multiple skills that can be employed on different levels (of design projects).” Richards’ freelance projects have included design and marketing work on a compilation album for Essente Music Group, “web tweaking” for independent artists including Modern Superstar and T-shirt designs for Chavis Records.

Looking ahead, Richards anticipates more Smokin’ Gorillas albums and possibly a third associate degree—in Visual Communications—that he believes, “would make me employable in different areas that are identifiably separate.”

Photo/poster credits: TRiO, Billy Richards, Lana Mabbit

Left: Ivy Tech–Northeast TRiO Director Timothy Ross and TRiO Assistant Director Beth Clemens with alumnus Billy Richards at the college’s 2012 Commencement ceremony. Richards credits TRiO academic support services with helping him complete his first associate degree.

TRiO assists students through academic support

TRiO Student Support Services is a federally funded program that offers services to first-generation, low-income students and/or students with a disability. Funding from the U.S. Department of Education provides personalized support each semester to approximately 160 Ivy Tech Community College–Northeast students, who are seeking to complete a degree or certificate program within a three-year timeframe.

TRiO students receive individualized educational planning, academic advising, tutoring and mentoring. Workshops and seminars on topics ranging from financial planning to study skills are offered every semester.

Students in the TRiO program also have access to a computer lab and a quiet study environment. TRiO staff members pride themselves on delivering motivation and encouragement to students who may be facing challenges, both in and out of the classroom. A monthly newsletter offers helpful tips and reminders and highlights a TRiO student who has had a successful college experience at Ivy Tech–Northeast.

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