“This is the moment/I’ve waited for/I can hear my heart singing/Soon bells will be ringing…”
It was during an interview at the home of big band leader Dal Richards in December 2012, when I spotted one of my favourite songs on an album he recorded in 1964 with his Hotel Vancouver Orchestra called Date Night with Dal. Without missing a beat, Dal began singing “The Hawaiian Wedding Song,” much to my delight, and I remember thinking at the time, this is one of these days when I really love my job and a moment in time I’ll never forget.
It was also the first memory that came rushing back when I woke up early New Year’s Day to discover the popular musician had passed away. My second thought was for Dal’s wife, Muriel, and the third was just how fitting it was that the King of Swing would leave us on New Year’s Eve, just minutes before midnight. Dal would have turned 98 this past Tuesday, Jan. 5.
This year would have marked Dal’s 80th year playing a New Year’s Eve gig, but ill health prevented him from performing at Hotel Vancouver where he and the band were booked for the night. Dal Richards and the Hotel Vancouver Orchestra played at the venue from 1940 to 1965.
Sitting on the couch that day in 2012, chatting about grandchildren, stories from the past and the couple’s plans for the future, it was easy to believe Dal was going to be around for a very long time. Just this past June, I spoke with Dal about his participation in a research project focused on “super seniors,” which he began participating in at age 85.
In June, Dal told me, “I still sing and I’m still blowing my horn, playing the saxophone and clarinet, which is good for the diaphragm. And I lead a pretty healthy lifestyle. I walk a mile every day and I still take singing lessons.”
But I knew all was not well when Dal bowed out of performing at the Fair at the PNE later in August, a gig he’d loved playing for the past 75 years until his last performance there in 2014.
In an email to the Courier on Jan. 1, PNE president Mike McDaniel wrote, “Dal Richards was an icon who helped shape the landscape of Canadian big band music. His showmanship and talent will forever be his legacy.” That public outpouring of grief and condolences continued on social media. Dawn Chubai, Dal’s long-time friend who regularly sang with his big band, wrote on Twitter, “11:41 on New Years Eve - as you would expect. #RIP #DalRichards.” Chubai’s comment was only one of hundreds left on Facebook and Twitter.
Over the decades Dal performed with such greats as Bing Crosby, Natalie Cole and Lena Horne. Ironically, Cole, whom Dal performed with at the River Rock Casino last February, also passed away Dec. 31.
The stories Dal shared with me about celebrities and concerts at the Orpheum Theatre and Hotel Vancouver were 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 Dal had that clarinet in his hands there was no looking back. Dal started his first band as a student at Magee secondary school in the late 1930s.
Besides rubbing shoulders with celebrities, it was Dal’s charitable work that will carry on and become his true legacy. The Dal Richards Foundation, founded to coincide with his 90th birthday, supports music programs for kids and young adults across B.C., promotes musical education and relieves some of the financial pressures most young musicians face. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Dal was also involved with Variety: The Children’s Charity and the B.C. Lions Society for Children with Disabilities, to name a few.
And while I’ve had the pleasure of watching Dal perform big band and jazz classics over the years, a personal favourite of mine will remain the B.C. Lions’ fight song, which the musician wrote and arranged, “C’mon and roar you Lions roar. We love the L, the I, the O, N, S…” It’s no surprise that besides the numerous honours bestowed on Dal over the decades, he was also inducted into the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame in 2012.
Besides wife Muriel, Dal leaves behind his daughter Dallas Chapple, Muriel's daughter Jennifer Lindsay and much loved granddaughter Bowen Honey. A public celebration of life takes place at 2 p.m. this Saturday, Jan. 9, at Christ Church Cathedral, 690 Burrard St., followed by a private reception for family and friends. Anyone interested in donating in Dal's name is asked to consider the Dal Richards Foundation, B.C. Cancer Foundation or Variety the Children's Charity.