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It’s 9 a.m. A Tuesday morning, and I’m waiting my turn to interview Dal Richards – well-known bandleader, sax player, Freeman of the City, philanthropist, and nonagenarian.
“Dal” is being interviewed by a local TV station. This is just the first in a long series of events today, we are informed by Muriel Honey, wife of nine years and the Keeper of the Schedule.
She hands Dal a binder, and he flips through it to see what’s happening today. The binder is packed full. After more than 70 years of playing music professionally, Dal Richards is still busy.
He picks up a saxophone, and obliges the cameraman with a few riffs. Closes his eyes, lost in the sweet notes that fill the room.
One of the first things you notice about Richards is that no matter what the time of day – and right now it’s early for a musician -- he’s always sharply dressed. Today, it’s a jacket and tie that would do Harry Rosen proud, with complementing pocket square.
And when he speaks, he has a wicked sense of humour. Wears it effortlessly, like the trademark tux and bow tie. A wry insouciance … a touch of self-deprecation, sarcastic, yet surprisingly, not world-weary.
Dallas Murray Richards was named after Dr. Dallas Perry -- the doctor who delivered him at VGH on January 5, 1918.
“You know, I’ve run into three other males in my life, who were named Dallas,” he says. “All delivered by the same doctor… he must’ve had quite a bedside manner.”
Doctors have played two important roles in Richards’ life. One was his namesake. The other, the reason he got into music.
At the age of nine, Richards put out his left eye when he tripped and fell on a slingshot, while playing in the woods of Marpole. During his recovery, he was confined to a darkened room for almost six months, and grew very despondent. The family doctor suggested music as something to keep him occupied. His parents bought him a clarinet, and the rest, as they say, is big band history.
While he was still in high school at Magee, Richards started a small band. “We played at the golf clubs -- Point Grey, Shaughnessy, and Marine Drive -- for $10 a weekend-- a lot of money in those days.” Richards rode the rising tide of swing all the way to the Hotel Vancouver.
The Panorama Roof was the top of the town, the premiere venue for big bands. Dal Richards and his Orchestra played Hotel Vancouver’s “Roof” for the first time on April 26, 1940. Richards was 22 years old. That gig lasted 25 years, and made him famous as Canada’s King of Swing.
But by the mid-1960s, fashion and musical tastes had changed dramatically. Big bands were no longer in style, and bookings started to dry up. At 50, Richards went back to school. He earned a diploma in Hotel Management at BCIT. For two years, it was courses during the day and then, from nine to one each night, he played with his combo at the Holiday Inn on Howe Street.
After a dozen years in hotel sales, the pendulum of swing swung back in the 1980s, and Richards was ready. He picked up the baton again, re-grouped his band, and started playing for a whole new generation of fans. Dal Richards and the Orchestra haven’t stopped since. At 91, he plays clarinet, alto and tenor sax and conducts the band through more than a hundred gigs a year.
Dal premiered his latest CD, Dal Richards and Friends, One More Time at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival last July. With a schedule that would exhaust people half his age, Dal hosts a regular half-hour show on CISL radio, and he’s an active volunteer with the Variety Club, the BC Entertainment Hall of Fame and Vancouver AM Tourist Services. He’s just published a book with Jim Taylor (One More Time was launched as VF magazine went to press), and he was also chosen as one of the 12,000 people who will carry the Olympic flame in the Torch Relay for the 2010 Winter Games.
Richards also has an eye for finding new talent. One of the people he discovered in his early years was a teenaged singer whose only previous performing experience was Kitsilano Showboat. Juliette Sysak took the stage of the Orpheum in front of the band in June, 1940. She was soon singing regularly with the band, and went on to host one of the most popular television variety shows in Canada, The Juliette Show.
Twelve years ago, Richards was one of the judges at a PNE talent contest, when his ears perked up at the stylings of one particular contestant. Michael Bublé won the contest, and was soon singing with Dal Richards and his Orchestra, and featured in a show called Stars of the New Millennium. Richards has eased the way for many musicians, including jazz pianist Michael Kaeshammer, and trumpet player/vocalist Bria Skonberg (“She’s going to be a star,” he says with conviction).
Dal has always championed and nurtured new talent, usually by giving them a chance to play or sing with the band. But he started to think about another way to give back to the musical community –setting up a fund that would help future generations of musicians.
The perfect opportunity came along in January 2008 when close friends, family members, and the fans of all ages gathered to celebrate Dal’s 90th birthday at a gala dinner dance at the Hotel Vancouver on January 5, and a celebratory concert at the Orpheum Theater on January 6.
It was an unforgettable night, with many local musicians and singers taking part. At the finale, Jim Pattison came onstage with his trumpet, and led the crowd in a spirited rendition of “Happy Birthday” then presented Dal with a cheque for $100,000. “Nearly knocked me off the stage,” said Dal. “And that was the start of the Dal Richards Foundation at Vancouver Foundation.”
Dal used the proceeds from his 90th celebrations to set up a fund at Vancouver Foundation to support music programs for kids and young adults across B.C. and to help talented young musicians with scholarships. His goal is to promote musical education, and relieve the financial pressures that most young musicians have.
Everyone recognizes the contribution that Dal Richards has made over the years to the community. Now we can also recognize the contribution that he will continue to make through his endowment fund. Long live the King of swing.
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Vancouver Foundation has been honoured support Dal Richards' vision for helping musicians across B.C. do what they love…play music. For more information about the Dal Richards Foundation, or to donate, visit www.vancouverfoundation.ca/dal or call 604.688.2204.
(video originally aired: 2008)