The Golden Hours of Tom Sturges
With a background that includes a successful run as a music executive, an author, an instructor at UCLA and an impressive career as a mentor and public speaker, Tom Sturges is a man with many stories—and talents—up his sleeve.
- Written byZoe Alexander
When I met Tom Sturges for this interview, it was in his ideal habitat: a golf course. During our introductory handshake he asked me to putt a few balls. Although I am hardly a golfer, he instructed me briefly and was graciously supportive.
He explained why he liked to play golf with new acquaintances: It serves as a litmus test. He said that how a person golfs provides valuable insights into their character. And after our brief time on the putting green and a few cups of tea, I was given a glimpse into his inspiring life and character.
Whether he is sharing anecdotes about the music industry, how he met his wife and came to have his third son late in life, or preparing his mentees to sing for the president, he speaks with purpose and passion. “I’m always trying to do good things; it’s how I live my life,” he says.
Clockwise from top: Tom meets President Barack Obama; Poster for Preston Sturges classic film The Lady Eve; cover art for Tom’s book Every Idea is a Good Idea.
In addition to being a Renaissance man, Tom’s favorite role is that of father. He has coached numerous school sports teams and has written two books on parenting: Parking Lot Rules & 75 Other Ideas for Raising Amazing Children and Grow the Tree You Got: & 99 Other Ideas for Raising Amazing Adolescents and Teenagers.
If you’re wondering how he has the creative energy for all this output, don’t worry. He wrote a book about that too. Tom lost his own father when he was 3 years old—a loss he likened to losing a limb. This drives him to be an “über-Dad” to his three sons and to bring a paternal spirit to his work as a mentor.
One of Tom’s passions is managing the archives of his father, Oscar-winning writer/director Preston Sturges. The elder Sturges made a string of consecutive hit films in the ‘40s, including Oscar-winner The Great McGinty, Christmas in July, The Palm Beach Story, The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, Hail the Conquering Hero and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.
His films were celebrated for their witty dialogue, sharp social commentary and juicy female roles. In addition to maintaining the official Preston Sturges website, Tom has kept his father’s work alive by publishing his scripts, which are prized for their literary value as much as they serve as part of cinematic history.
As his father was known for writing masterful dialogue, it was natural that Tom inherited an ear for writing music. After studying music composition at UC Davis, he served as president of Chrysalis Music and then worked for Shaquille O’Neal’s TWIsM Records.
His next stop was Universal Music Publishing Group, where he signed notable artists including 50 Cent, Foo Fighters, Stone Temple Pilots, Jack Johnson and Chris Brown. He has also taught at UCLA Extension, where he co-created the class The Music Business Now.
Having witnessed the success of so many musicians, Tom gathered his observations about their creative processes into his latest book, Every Idea is a Good Idea: Be Creative Anytime, Anywhere. Tom’s premise is that creativity is a powerful tool at everyone’s disposal and provides a framework by which to harness your own—for business or personal expression.
Clockwise from top: Tom with Denzel Washington and a school choir at James A. Forshay Learning Center; cover art for Grow the Tree You Got; hanging with Hall & Oates in the ‘80s.
One of the core ideas Tom references is the notion that there is a “Golden Hour” when an idea comes to life. As soon as an idea germinates, your brain is highly active and able to form the idea’s DNA.
He explains in Every Idea is a Good Idea, “In creativity every idea starts with those first precious moments right after a new idea has revealed itself, right after the bloom of inspiration has suddenly appeared. Whatever the idea ultimately is or finally becomes, how you treat it in its first few minutes, in the golden hour, determines its fate.”
Tom uses this path to brainstorming and teaches others to let an idea flow uninterrupted or edited for an hour to jump-start the creative process. He used this concept to design his mentor programs that incorporate the kind of creative thinking he knows can change lives.
Tom began his creative workshops to mentor inner-city high school students at the Foshay Learning Center in South Los Angeles. Tom wrote a song with them and served as choir director for their public performance. He was also available by phone for anything they needed, whether it was for school or personal support.
Tom’s efforts with the Foshay program are the subject of the documentary Witness to a Dream. His students’ success rate was especially noteworthy: Every single one of his mentees graduated from high school and entered a four-year college. It was his unique ability to guide the creative process and devote personal attention to his students that contribute to his—and ultimately their—success.
In summarizing his mission, Tom credits friend and songwriter Allee Willis who said, “The path to self-respect is through creativity.” Tom says, “So I realized that what I was really teaching these kids, especially the inner-city kids, was self-respect.”
Tom’s own kids attended Grandview Elementary in Manhattan Beach, so he wanted to create a similar program geared for younger students. He explains, “What I do at Grandview started at Foshay.”
He envisioned a program that also featured music at its core. After obtaining approval from the principal, he designed a creative workshop for fifth-graders. He has conducted it for the past 14 years and taught more than 1,000 students.
HONORED LEGACY | Top: Tom and fifth-graders at the annual Academy Awards event at Grandview Elementary. Bottom: Tom and his son share a musical moment with his father’s Oscar statuette for screenwriting The Great McGinty in the background.
Tom’s Grandview program allows students to experience a creative process in five sessions. During the beginning sessions, students create an individual project in any medium they choose.
Under Tom’s guidance, students may write a play or a poem; others will paint a picture or sculpt. This allows each student to brainstorm and execute their project and finally present it to the class. They gain confidence in their ideas and learn how to articulate them to their classmates in a way that is fun and challenging.
The students also get to have a collective experience as they spend the latter part of the program writing a song together. Tom proposes a topic and then fleshes out ideas with the class.
Tom makes the process an encouraging one that calls on the students to be open to critique. “They’ve got to be fearless; creativity is fearless,“ he says.
He taps into the natural, creative energy of the students with a playful and structured hand. “For instance,” he says, “this year we’re going to write a song called ‘Peace in Our Time.’ I will give them the title as a kind of hammer point to see what they have to say and what ideas they come up with, and we’ll work on it every day.”
Tom asks students to talk about the issue, and they build lyrics from their suggestions. Tom makes sure the song topics have meaning, and the brainstorming often leads to thoughtful discussions among the class. Tom recalls that one of the most memorable songs created by a class was last year’s rap about bullying.
By the fifth session the students have contributed lyrics, chorus and verses to the song, and they meet at Village Recorders in Santa Monica to record it. Parents are invited to the recording session, which is an exciting event for all.
Tom says, “We record the song in a big studio with headphones and microphones and engineers.” Students leave with a recording of the song as a lasting reminder of their experience.
Tom is a testament to the power of creative thinking because he knows how valuable it is at any age. His success as a mentor is evidence that kids benefit from artistic expression and that confidence and creativity go hand-in-hand.
And, he says, “It’s a good thing for my community. I see the same kids when I referee them on a soccer field, or in line at the Starbucks. I get to know them, and that’s part of the beauty. I would recommend that anyone who wants to do something for their local school, whatever it is, contact the principal.”
As I drive away from the golf course after meeting Tom Sturges, I understand why he makes such an impact on others. What I thought would be just an interview turned out to be a golf lesson, a memorable discussion about parenting and an awakening to the infinite possibilities of creative thinking. Golden hours, indeed.