How many 93-year-old men do you know who can jog a mile, swim 20 laps, do squats and lead a 16-piece band in a sold-out auditorium? Meet Dal Richards, Vancouver’s Dr. Swing.
Timeless classics in a brand new setting – that’s how Richards describes his latest album, “Dal Richards, Musically Yours.” It will be a vocalist’s compilation, he said, including songs by Jennifer Hayes, Diane Lines, Caroline Markos, Dawn Chubai and Jamie Croil. Richards sings two songs on the album, scheduled for release this May.
Richards said that his latest release has the familiar big band sound and jazz standards that he is renowned for, but that the material selection and the musical settings are unconventional.
“The singers are singing unlikely songs, you know what I mean?” he said.
Nobody knows big band music like Richards does. At 93, his ear for timbre (albeit with a hearing aid) has evolved through more than 80 years playing the clarinet and saxophone, and leading a 16-piece orchestra at some of Vancouver’s most prestigious venues and events.
For 25 years, he played at Hotel Vancouver’s one-time Panorama Roof and he has performed for over 70 years at the Pacific National Exhibition.
But the indefatigable Richards wants more.
“I enjoy a gig and I’m always looking for the next one,” said Richards at an interview in his downtown studio apartment.
He rattled off memories of his past performances at the Orpheum and the PNE, and upcoming gig at the River Rock Show Theatre. The wall of his apartment is covered with plaques and awards, including the Order of Canada, the Order of British Columbia and the Vancouver Freedom of the City award.
Desire to excel
On one day, Richards had a 7 a.m. breakfast with the mayor, recorded his own radio show over lunch, squeezed in an interview, and then celebrated Vancouver’s 125thbirthday at the Jack Poole Plaza. This was after spending the previous night recording his latest CD.
He keeps on top of his hectic schedule with some help from his friends and his wife, Muriel. “She’s my guiding star,” he said.
Richards ran down the winding staircase in his downtown apartment to search for Muriel’s photos. Minutes later he scurried down again to find a copy of his last CD, “Dal Richards and Friends – One More Time.”
“Everyone needs a little bit of luck, as the song says, in life, to help things turn out as they hope for,” he read.
He looked up and smiled before continuing. “Of course there are many other prerequisites, such as desire, energy, and of prime importance, the desire to excel.“
Richards said that he feels lucky to be active at his age, but also that he puts a lot of effort into his performances. He said that he was always competing with himself.
“I want to be able to write, sing, blow my horn, lead a band, be a master of ceremonies, whatever, I want to excel at it,” he said.
The question that bothers him most is ‘when will he retire?’ He laughs at the thought. “What would I do with myself?” he said.
He said that he’s come to a point where he asks the person back, “Well, when are YOU going to retire?”
Richards said he still enjoys what he does and his good health allows him stay focused on his work. His memory sometimes falters for the lyrics to his songs, he said, but he never forgets the music.
Richards’ adventures and overtures
Richards literally stumbled into his calling as a virtuoso. He was on his way home from school in Vancouver’s Marpole district when he tried to snipe a bird with his slingshot.
The nine-year-old Richards was so eager to examine his fallen prey that he tripped and fell as he ran towards it. The slingshot’s prongs injured his eyes and he was doomed to spend weeks recovering in a dark room.
His parents enrolled him in music lessons to cheer him up and keep him occupied. He took to the clarinet, and the rest is music.
Listen to Dal sing ‘Hour of Parting’:[audio:https://thethunderbird.ca/files/2011/04/Dals-hour-of-parting.mp3|titles=Dal’s hour of parting]
Richards’ resilience is driven by his love for performance. Three years ago he underwent surgery on both his knees. “I thought to myself, that’s a lot of time away from the bandstand,” he said.
Richards amazed his physiotherapist by doing twice the number of prescribed exercises during in his surgery preparation and recovery period. He shocked his doctor by being fully mobile again just three weeks after the operation.
He showed the same durability while training to carry the Winter Olympics torch through Robson Street last year. He would jog half a mile to Muriel’s office and jog back with her, he said. He also swam 20 laps once a week.
More recently, for exercise he rides his stationary cycle for half an hour every night while watching the news and does his famous squats twice a day. (He sometimes does them on stage, just to tickle the crowd, he said.)
Richards calls himself “a ham at heart.” He said that he thrives on his audience’s love and affection.
“All those people come to me and shake my hand and tell me that they followed my music over years and listened to my radio show. It is a great legacy that I carry around at this age,” he said.
His hour of parting
Part of Richards’ legacy is his arrangement for the song, “Hour of Parting,” his theme song for 72 years.
“I love that song, lovely song, beautiful,” said Richards. He said he heard it broadcast from the Los Angeles Hotel Biltmore and adopted it as his theme in 1939 when he started playing at the Palomar Ballroom of the first Hotel Vancouver.
Richards said that if he had to stop making music then he would write a second book. “So much has happened to me in the year since my last book was published, I’d devote my blood and guts to it,” he said.
At the eve of his latest CD release, Richards is still excited for adventures to come. He wrote in his last book, One More Time – The Dal Richards Story, that he’s nowhere near the hour of parting from music.
“Not when I’m still on top of my game with the gigs coming in and the young talent coming up,” he wrote.
Richards wrote in is book that one day his “true hour” would come, but till then, “keep your dancing shoes polished and your partner close by. The Dal Richards Orchestra could be coming to a hall near you.”