One night in 1970, Dave Richardson’s exhausted girlfriend returned home after a devastating nursing shift during which two patients had died. She went off to cry.
Mr. Richardson, a police officer who dabbled in poetry, scribbled some verse to capture the moment. His opening lines read, “She’s faced the hardest times you could imagine, and many times her eyes fought back the tears.”
In about 15 minutes, he had composed a six-stanza poem, which also included the line, “Let her cry for she’s a lady.”
The words written in a rush by Mr. Richardson, who has died at 77, would become some of the most performed in Canadian popular music. With an expressive melody composed by the guitarist Doug Edwards, the song Wildflower was a massive hit for the band Skylark in the spring of 1973.
The song reached No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, the magazine attributing its success to “unusually sensitive poetics about the soul of everywoman.” It sold more than one million copies and, by 1991, had garnered more than one million plays on radio stations.
In the years since, more than 70 artists have covered the power ballad, including The O’Jays, Johnny Mathis, Color Me Badd, and the Neville Brothers, who performed a reggae-flecked version at Woodstock 94. It has been rendered as a jazz instrumental and Blake Shelton recorded a live country version. Various recordings have also been sampled by urban music artists, including Tupac Shakur, Kanye West and Toronto rapper Drake.
The lyricist attributed his unlikely success to a divine power. “I always felt that all I did was hold the pen in my hand and God did the writing,” he once said. In time, religious visions called him to the Holy Land. He spent a decade feeding the homeless in Jerusalem.
Thomas David Richardson was born in the small Ottawa Valley city of Pembroke, Ont., on Jan. 25, 1942. He was the third of four sons born to the former Harriet Ruth Stewart and Henry (Harry) George McNaughton Richardson.
The senior Mr. Richardson had been a steel worker as a young man before buying the Old Spain Tea Room in Charlottetown. He enlisted in 1940, serving as an instructor with the Royal Canadian Engineers during the war, including seven months overseas in Britain. On his discharge, an officer noted the company sergeant-major’s “magnetic personality” and possible future interest in politics.
He moved the family to Victoria in late 1945. Four months later, he was dead at age 40 of Hodgkin’s disease. With four young boys at home, Harriet took an $18-per-week job waiting tables at a downtown café. In time, she bought Betty’s Cafe.
In 1964, Dave Richardson joined the Calgary police department. Two years later, he was hired as a constable in the Victoria suburb of Saanich, which was then still semirural.
He wrote in his spare time and, late in 1968, one of his compositions, Reaching Far Too High, a power ballad, was recorded in London by Vancouver nightclub performer Judy Ginn backed by a 30-piece orchestra. Shani Wallis, who starred as Nancy in the movie version of Oliver!, also recorded a version of the belter.
“I’ve always had an interest in music and started to write poetry when I was 15,” Mr. Richardson said at the time. “As a boy I was fascinated with lyrics.”
After another song was recorded, Forever Waits Beyond by silky Edmonton singer Judy Singh, it was clear this policeman was working a second beat as a fledgling pop lyricist.
The young officer liked to hang out at the Old Forge, a basement nightclub at the Strathcona Hotel in downtown Victoria, where he was known as DTC, shorthand for Dave The Cop. He befriended a young keyboardist, who had played for the Foundry Brass house band before touring England in Chuck Berry’s backup band while still a teenager. David Foster would become a world-famous record producer known as the Hit Man.
Mr. Foster took a sheaf of Richardson poems with him when he relocated to Vancouver with his wife, the singer B.J. Cook. Their band, Skylark, had a turnover in personnel and the new guitarist, Mr. Edwards, skipped a night at the movies to work on some songs. As he read the policeman’s ode to his girlfriend, a melody popped into his head.
The song was included as the penultimate track on the B-side of the band’s eponymous debut album. The label, Capitol Records, released a different song as a single. It went nowhere. So did a second song. The album was stiffing.
At 50,000-watt radio station CKLW in Windsor, Ont., disc jockey Rosalie Trombley put Wildflower in heavy rotation, a rarity for an album track, building enough demand for the song that the label finally relented by issuing a regional 45-rpm single. The record climbed the soul charts in Detroit and New York before breaking out in Cleveland and Philadelphia. Once it crossed over to Top 40 radio stations, it began a 21-week stay on the Billboard charts fuelled in part by a soulful, and much imitated, vocal by Donny Gerrard.
The song was also included in the group’s follow-up album, unimaginatively titled Skylark 2 which garnered barely any notice.
Mr. Richardson continued working as a police officer. An informant once told him a $10,000 bounty had been put on his head. The gruesome crimes he investigated, including the murder and sexual assault of a teenager whose nude body was left near a golf course, took a toll.
After retiring with the rank of staff sergeant, he offered counselling services to those suffering from addictions, mental illness, and hunger as a lay minister working the streets. He credited his renewed Christian faith with rescuing himself from alcoholism.
In Jerusalem, he spotted a name in a list rendered as “Summer, Les.” His own publishing company was named Summerless Music, so he sought the person out. Lesley Summer was an Australian woman with degrees in English and theology who was also doing charitable work for a Christian organization. Six years ago, she wrote his story in a self-published, as-told-to book, The Hand that Writes the Love Song: Also Holds a Gun. The couple marked the 10th anniversary of their Jerusalem wedding in June.
Mr. Richardson died of a brain hemorrhage on Aug. 25 in Victoria. He leaves his third wife; two daughters, Andrea Richardson and Laura Vanderford, from his second marriage to the former Deborah (Debbie) Nickel; two grandchildren; and younger brother Doug Richardson, a retired chief of police in Victoria. He was predeceased by two older brothers. A first marriage to Arlene (Jo) Richardson, the nurse who inspired his famous song, ended in divorce.
Mr. Richardson, as lyricist, and Mr. Edwards, as composer, were inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2011.
On at least one occasion Wildflower caused Mr. Richardson some grief. His fellow officers had planted a bug in a car carrying two young suspects in a brutal double homicide. When the song came on the radio, the volume was cranked and the eavesdropping police officers could no longer make out the conversation.