The Vancouver music scene ushered in 2016 on a sad note. On Dec. 31, 2015, local big band leader Dal Richards died, just six days before his 98th birthday.
Richards (born Dallas Murray Richards) was long referred to as Vancouver's "King of Swing". Amongst the many honours and awards he received were the Order of Canada, the Order of B.C., and the Queen's Golden Jubilee Medal. He was also an inductee of the BC Entertainment Hall of Fame. The City of Vancouver once declared a Dal Richards Day, and he carried the 2010 Olympic torch to Robson Square.
It is poignant that Richards died on New Year's Eve, for he may well hold the record for most consecutive New Year's Eve gigs of any musician, anywhere. That total reached 79, from 1936 to 2014. He was a longtime regular performer at the Pacific National Exhibition, and was often in-demand as a host of national radio and television shows, including the popular weekly radio show, Dal’s Place.
Music came into Richards' life after a tragic childhood accident. At nine, he lost the sight in one eye after a slingshot mishap, and music was suggested as a pursuit to boost his spirits. Inspired by Benny Goodman, he took to the clarinet as his instrument of choice, and once he started high school at Kerrisdale's Magee Secondary, he formed a swing-oriented band.
While still in high school, he led his small group playing at golf course dances on weekends, and on the cusp of turning 18, Richards played his first New Year’s Show on Dec. 31, 1935.
His professional musical life really took off when Richards joined the band in the city's original Hotel Vancouver at Georgia and Burrard Street, and he soon assumed the role of bandleader. The big band he led performed regularly (often five nights a week) at the Hotel's brand new supper club, Panorama Roof, from 1940 through 1965. The gig was broadcast live on CBC radio at 10:30 p.m. on Saturday night, boosting Richards' profile considerably.
He occasionally performed in Seattle and Portland, but turned down offers of more regular work Stateside. As well as leading his own group, Richards would back such visiting stars as Lena Horne on their Vancouver shows.
The rise of rock 'n roll in the '60s brought a decline in the fortunes of swing music, and Richards' Panorama Roof gig came to an end in 1965. He remained very musically active in the decades following, performing regularly at The Pacific National Exhibition (PNE) and often playing as many as 200 shows per year through BC. He also frequently led big bands on the cruise circuit, voyaging to Russia, through the Caribbean, and across the Atlantic to Europe.
Retirement was never an option for the tireless Richards. In an interview with CBC Music on his 95th birthday, he explained "if you find something you like doing in life, pursue it with your heart. That is what I've done with music. I found that it was my love, so it enveloped my life totally."
As his good friend, veteran disc jockey/broadcaster Red Robinson, told FYI, "Dal lived to work and every working day was a glory day for him because he had passion for the music. We should all be so lucky."
Robinson recalls that "I appeared many times on his radio show where he would ask the guests to bring in something that meant something to them. I think I surprised him when I brought in Stan Kenton, June Christy and the Four Freshmen recordings. He was one in a million and will be missed by millions. Goodbye old friend."
Acclaimed BC bluesman Jim Byrnes performed frequently with Richards over the past two decades, as he tells FYI: "Almost every summer I'd sing with him at the PNE, and I sang 'I'll Be Seeing You' with Dal when he'd do Remembrance Day events." One memorable performance of Jim Byrnes and the Dal Richards Orchestra came in 2011 at the closing night of Vancouver's Yale Hotel, a venue Byrnes had regularly played for more than two decades.
Byrnes explains that "working with an old pro like Dal was so inspiring for a guy like me. He had this joie de vivre, and his professionalism inspired me to take my own career more seriously, as in the way I run my own band. All musicians in Vancouver owe him a great deal."
Another respected veteran of the BC scene, Tom Lavin, leader of Powder Blues, also paid his respects in an e-mail to FYI: "Dal Richards was a BC musical institution for seven decades. He always worked with top-flight musicians and quality arrangements which resulted in a rare consistency of performance. I enjoyed listening over the years and took pleasure in bringing my children to his PNE shows. When I think of Dal I remember the great classic he would often sing and know that the fundamental things apply as ‘Time Goes By’."