Musician Dal Richards remembers the night in 1940 when a local nightclub promoter arranged to sneak TV actor/cowboy Roy Rogers and his faithful equine sidekick Trigger to the top of Hotel Vancouver where the Dal Richards Orchestra was performing.
“He wanted to get a picture in the most unusual spot he could find so he spoke to the hotel manager,” remembers Richards. “Then they walked Trigger in the front door, snuck him onto a freight elevator and brought him into the Panorama Roof for the shot.”
A copy of the black and white photo taken that night does indeed show Richards, resplendent in a black tuxedo, posing with the horse, Rogers and several patrons in the Panorama Roof ballroom.
Richards laughs at the memory.
The legendary Vancouver bandleader will be back at the ballroom Sunday evening (Jan. 13) following a performance with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and UBC Opera Ensemble at the Orpheum Theatre to mark his birthday, dubbed “Dal Richards at 95.” (HIs actual birthday was Jan. 5.)
Richards takes over the stage for the second half of the concert and will perform big band favourites including, “In the Mood,” “Cheek to Cheek” and “Jump, Jive ’n Wail.”
Following the concert is a commemorative cocktail party in the former Panorama Roof at what today is the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. Rumour has it the “Roof” might be resurrected in 2013, but no confirmation was available from the Fairmont prior to the Courier’s press deadline.
This birthday also marks more than 80 years in the music industry for Richards, who shows no signs of slowing down. On Dec. 31, the Dal Richards Orchestra played the River Rock Casino and Resort, making it his 74th consecutive New Year’s Eve performance.
This landmark birthday has not been lost on the many friends, fans and music lovers who continue to surround Richards, who is busier than ever in these early days of 2013. Last Friday morning, Richards was feted by City TV’s Breakfast Television at a special breakfast broadcast live from the former Panorama Roof. The art deco decor that once provided the backdrop to Richards’ big band performances in the room has since been replaced with mid-century modern, but the remaining floor-to-ceiling windows still provide a spectacular view.
The location was fitting considering the Dal Richards Orchestra played the Panorama Roof from 1940 to 1965, where he performed with visiting musicians the likes of Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Jack Benny.
Sitting on the couch of the well-appointed, yet family-friendly Beatty Street penthouse he shares with wife Muriel Honey, the fit and trim Richards is happy to reminisce about the time when jazz and big band music ruled the ballrooms, smoke-filled clubs and air waves across North America.
While perusing the list of songs printed on the back of an early album, Dance Date with Dal, recorded with his late wife and former vocalist Lorraine McAllister, I mention the “Hawaiian Wedding Song” as being a favourite of mine.
To which Richards begins to croon, “This is the moment, I’ve waited for. I can hear my heart singing, soon bells will be ringing…”
It’s just one of the many spontaneous moments during our 90-minute interview where Richards demonstrates his quick wit and wicked sense of humour, especially while recalling stories from the big band era. He chuckles while telling the story of what happened after a performance at The Cave nightclub, when the late, great jazz vocalist Lena Horne ended up at the Kerrisdale home he shared with McAllister, and inadvertently taught his then-young daughter Dallas to snap chewing gum. Richards also shares some “off-the-record” details about a night in 1950, when the couple treated famous crooner Bing Crosby to dinner at Oscar’s Steak House, a famous Vancouver eatery of the day. (Apparently, what happens at Oscar’s Steak House stays at Oscar’s Steak House.)
Then as now, life with Richards is never dull, says Honey. “He has such an amazing memory that whether we’re driving or walking he will point out a building and tell me about when it was built, what was around it etc. It’s also fun when we meet someone who has a memory of seeing Dal somewhere ... and wants to tell Dal all about it. Dal is a very nice man. He is always happy to stop and talk to people who recognize him.”
During Richards’ long-running stint at the Panorama Roof with his 11-piece orchestra, the band’s performances were regularly broadcast nationally on CBC Radio. He was also one of the first to recognize the talent of a young girl named Juliette Sysak, who later went on to fame and became commonly known by Canadians as “My Pet Juliette.”
Richards’ stories of celebrities and concerts at the Orpheum Theatre and Hotel Vancouver are in sharp contrast to his early years. Born in 1918, Dallas Murray Richards was raised in Marpole and lived the life of a typical boy until an accident with a slingshot cost him his left eye at age nine. During his lengthy recovery the family’s doctor suggested he take up an instrument. And once young Dal was presented, there was no looking back.
Richards started his first band as a student at Magee Secondary School in the late 1930s.
The walls of Richards’ and Honey’s seventh-floor home are lined with awards, certificates and photographs — both old and new — testament to the musician’s successes in business and community service.
Richards’ awards also include an International Presidents’ Citation from Variety the Children’s Charity, an honorary doctorate from BCIT and lifetime achievement awards from both Tourism Vancouver and the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association. Richards was also added to the B.C. Lions’ Wall of Fame in 2005 in recognition for his work as a producer and music director for the football club’s half-time shows from 1955 to 1980. And of course, anyone who’s ever been to a B.C. Lion’s football game will have sung along with the popular fight song penned by Richards, “C’mon and roar you Lions roar.” “We love the L, the I, the O, N, S…”
Richards was also inducted into the B.C. Entertainment Hall of Fame in 1994 and the B.C. Football Hall of Fame last year. He’s the proud recipient of the Order of Canada (1994), the Order of British Columbia (2003), and was granted the Freedom of the City by Vancouver city council in 2005. Most recently, Dal was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of B.C. at the school’s spring convocation.
Last May, the nonagenarian marked yet one more remarkable moment in history when he was inducted into the Guinness World Book of Records for the longest lapsed time between performances by a high school bandleader. It was almost 75 years to the day since Richards had last picked up his baton to lead the band he founded at Magee Secondary School in 1937.
One of Richards’ proudest accomplishments came in 2010, when he was chosen to run as part of the Olympic Torch Relay just after celebrating his 92 birthday.
And last summer was Richards’ 73rd year playing to appreciative crowds at the PNE. His radio show, “Dal’s Place,” during which he “celebrates the sounds and times of the big band music of the 1930s, 40s and 50s,” launched more than two decades ago and can still be heard every Sunday night at 9 p.m. on 650AM.
Honey says the music business for Richards is “a bit like an iceberg. “
“The performance is the tip that’s visible ... and the work that goes on behind the scenes before the music starts is the big part of the bottom of the ice berg ... and that’s the part that I do,” says Honey, who retired as manager of the Film and Special Events office at the City of Vancouver last August.
“As well, we get dozens of emails everyday from people who want to share stories or ask questions of Dal; I read them to him, chat about how he’d like to answer, and then send the response. I have been busier than ever keeping up with Dal.”
Longtime pal Peter Legge, chief executive office of Canada Wide Publishing, met the musician who would become his friend more than 40 years ago.
“It was during the big band era and I was doing a lot of emcee work at nightclubs, dinner dances and the PNE,” recalls Legge. “We got to know each other and later I started booking his band for events.”
Legge says Richards is an inspiration for many reasons, but in particular for his efforts in finding and encouraging young musical talent.
“He was the first judge at the PNE to hear Michael Buble and say, ‘Watch that young man,’” says Legge. “It was the same with Dawn Chubai when he heard her sing at one of my events. He said, ‘I know there’s more to her than ‘O Canada.’”
Richards was so impressed he immediately invited Chubai to join him onstage for a performance. But since then, Chubai, a host and on-air personality with Breakfast Television, has become one of Richard’s regular backup singers affectionately known as “Dal’s Gals” alongside singer/keyboard player Dianne Lines and vocalists Jennifer Hayes and Caroline Markos.
Richards encourages even younger musicians through the Dal Richards Foundation, which launched in 2008 and offers scholarships and supports programs for young musicians across Canada. Proceeds from the commemorative cocktail party Sunday night will go to the foundation.
Legge adds Richards is also inspiring to anyone “getting on in years.” The fact Richards walks daily and still carries his own instruments and music stand to most performances isn’t lost on Legge.
“He gives a lot of hope to a lot of people,” says Legge. “I’m only 70 so I’ve got 25 years left to try and keep up with Dal.”
Legge has celebrated his friend’s 80th, 85th, 90th and now 95th birthdays. “And I plan to be there for his 100th,” says Legge.
Meanwhile, Richards has no plans to retire — yet.
“But I am 95,” he says with a big grin. “So I guess it will be inevitable. Just not right now.”