Dal Richards was 22 when he received a critique that would help shape his long life on- and off-stage. After a performance at Vancouver's Orpheum Theatre, he sought the manager's opinion. "I was looking for compliments and applause," he recalled in a 2007 interview. Instead he got: "Good show, Dal. But you forgot the balcony." The manager meant it literally – Mr. Richards had failed to direct his attention up above. But "don't forget the balcony" became a motto for playing – and living. Don't get so wrapped up in yourself that you forget your audience – whether a ticket holder, your family or a fan on the street.
And there were so many fans. Mr. Richards was an institution in these parts – a bandleader who stayed devoted to the music he loved long enough to see it return to fashion, while the city grew up around him.
"People use this word a lot, but he was truly, truly an icon in Vancouver," says billionaire businessman Jim Pattison. "And on top of that, he was one of the nicest people you would ever, ever meet."
As Dick Clark was to America and rock 'n' roll, Dal Richards has been to Vancouver and swing music (although, unlike Mr. Clark, he was a musician himself, playing clarinet and sax). He performed in Vancouver year-round, but with a New Year's Eve track record dating back to 1935, Mr. Richards was indelibly linked to the last night on the calendar.
This past Dec. 31, he was to play the Hotel Vancouver, where he performed at the storied Panorama Roof for a quarter-century. But after all those years of Auld Lang Syne ("It never gets auld," he joked in his memoir), he would have to sit this final one out.
Instead that night, as the clock ticked toward 2016, Mr. Richards, who had prostate cancer, lay in bed at home surrounded by family. He was 97, days from turning 98, when he died at 11:41 p.m.
"He couldn't do New Year's Eve here but he knew there was a party going on somewhere," says his wife, Muriel Richards, who was lying with him. "If he didn't want to be late for the call, he'd better get out of here."
Dallas Richards was born on Jan. 5, 1918, in Vancouver to Olive Ellen (née Hoffmeister) and Harmon Leslie Richards, a farmer turned blacksmith. At nine, Dallas lost his right eye when he tripped while running with a slingshot. Confined to a dark room for recovery, he fell into a deep depression. His doctor had an idea: music lessons. "Just like that," he wrote in One More Time!: The Dal Richards Story (written with Jim Taylor), "I was a one-eyed clarinet player."
Losing his eye also may have saved his life. After high school, many of his friends went to war; some didn't come back. Mr. Richards's glass eye kept him home. "I can think of so many forks in the road and just by dumb luck, I took the right one," he told The Globe and Mail in that 2007 interview.
He joined the Kitsilano Boys' Band and while in high school, organized his own band and got some paying gigs. He was 20 when he began leading the band at the Palomar. In 1940, he got his big break playing the swishy Panorama Roof atop the Hotel Vancouver – with regular live broadcasts on CBC Radio.
Mr. Richards was in demand. On Friday nights, he and his orchestra would play the Orpheum before running down the street to The Roof. There were other gigs: Stanley Park's Malkin Bowl; B.C. Lions games, and an annual stint at the Pacific National Exhibition, where in 2014 he celebrated his 75th anniversary.
He discovered the crooner Michael Bublé at a PNE youth talent search, according to Mr. Richards's memoir, and gave the future superstar his first paying gig.
On the home front, Mr. Richards married Beryl Boden, one of his singers, in 1945. The marriage ended when she moved to New York to pursue her career. He hired singer Lorraine McAllister in 1949. They wed in 1951 and had a daughter, Dallas. Ms. McAllister died in 1984. In 2001, Mr. Richards married Muriel Honey.
Remarkably, the Panorama Roof gig lasted 25 years, until the band was let go in 1965. Rock and roll had pushed swing to the sidelines. The next New Year's Eve, Mr. Richards was hauling his own gear up the stairs of the Boilermakers' Union Hall – the only gig he could get. The work was drying up; it was time for a Plan B.
In 1966, he enrolled in a hotel management course at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. He was 48, 30 years out of high school, and had a gig playing the Holiday Inn six nights a week. He was a keen student but having trouble with math. His math teacher, Frank Gruen, then 26, volunteered to tutor him at the hotel between sets. "It was amazing how he could focus," Mr. Gruen said this week. Mr. Richards not only passed, but earned the program's top marks overall.
He achieved success in the hospitality industry in a series of jobs. But swing staged a comeback and so did Mr. Richards. In 1982, he started recording again. He got radio play and gigs – and was able to return full time to the music he loved.
"He had an incredible ear for music. He could tell if it was Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw on the clarinet ... just by listening to it. But he didn't have a clue who Madonna was or Billy Joel or anybody," Ms. Richards says. "He got stuck in an era. He hated rock 'n' roll because it killed the big band sound. So he just wasn't going to learn to listen to it, period."
Even as he aged, Mr. Richards – who quit drinking cold turkey during his hotel industry days – was a dynamo. He played tea dances at the Commodore Ballroom, the jazz festival, retirement homes.
"He never said no to a gig, was never too tired to play, no matter what was going on with him," says Diane Lines, who began performing with Mr. Richards in 2002. "He always smiled, was always a showman, always on time, always gave all his energy. And even when you would see him very tired offstage, he would walk onstage and he was just like a 40-year-old man again, dancing and moving around."
After surgeries to replace both knees at 89, he loved to show off by doing deep knee bends. He was asked to participate in a scientific study on longevity. He ran with the Olympic torch in 2010 – and also tried the zip line during the Games. "He and I ran ... to the top of the tower," Ms. Lines recalled. "I was terrified. And there he was in his tuxedo zip-lining across Robson Square at 92 and didn't hesitate."
He volunteered for Variety. He played Santa to premature babies at St. Paul's Hospital. He never left the house without change for buskers.
He played a benefit for the G.F. Strong Rehabilitation Centre with musician Jim Byrnes, who lost his legs in his 20s when he was hit by a car. "That night we sat down and acknowledged to one another why we were there and why it meant so much to us to be a part of this: Because without music, in the depths of despair, it was a deep hole," Mr. Byrnes says. "But the light was the ability to sing and play."
Mr. Richards was named to the Order of British Columbia and the Order of Canada, among other honours. His weekly radio show, Dal's Place, ran for more than 30 years on a succession of radio stations including one owned by Mr. Pattison – who became a friend after they met at a Kitsilano Boys' Band reunion.
In 2014, Mr. Pattison invited Mr. Richards onto his yacht, along with Vancouver Symphony Orchestra music director Bramwell Tovey and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson. Mr. Robertson brought his tuba, Mr. Richards his saxophone, Mr. Pattison his trumpet. Mr. Tovey sat down at the yacht's grand piano and the group cruised around the harbour playing together.
"The whole voyage was all about music," says Mr. Tovey, with a sentence that could describe Mr. Richards' life.
In his memoir, Mr. Richards wrote that retirement was not an option – and would fly in the face of medical advice: "Don't stop blowing your horn, Dal," my doctor says. "You may drop dead."
So everyone knew things must be dire when in November, Mr. Richards had to cancel gigs. He was admitted to hospital. The night before he was discharged in early December, he insisted on making an appearance at the Vancouver Club's Christmas party. He arrived in a tux and slippers, took the stage with a cane and played to the balcony one last time, singing As Time Goes By.
"He was perfect," Ms. Lines says. "He held the last note. ... And at the very last he threw the cane down so he could conduct us at the end."
On Christmas Eve, Mr. Richards lunched at the Hotel Vancouver, then managed to pull off his annual reading at Christ Church Cathedral. "It was a perfect last outing," Ms. Richards recalled during an interview Tuesday, which would have been his 98th birthday.
A few days later, he was at home in bed. At one point, he became agitated and asked to see his wife.
"He wanted to sing The Hour of Parting to me," she says, launching tearfully into the song: "Love, the hour of parting is near. And in my heart I can hear the song they played when I met you. ... Love, I know that love cannot die and yet we're saying good-bye. The parting hour is here."
As the clock ticked over to Dec. 31, loved ones performed a bedside countdown and sang Auld Lang Syne. Mr. Richards woke up and tried to sing along. He died just under 24 hours later, his home filled with friends and family, his 1964 album Dance Date with Dal on repeat on the record player he had received for Christmas.
"When my time comes," Mr. Richards wrote in his book, "I think this is how I want to go: a full house, leading my band, sharing the music with people who love it, too. What better way to say goodbye?"
Dallas Richards is survived by his wife, Muriel; daughter, Dallas Chapple; Muriel's daughters, Jennifer and Kayce Honey; and Jennifer's daughter, Bowen Honey. He was predeceased by his second wife, Lorraine McAllister; sister, Dorothy; and brother, Mel. A celebration of his life will be held Jan. 9 at 2 p.m. at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver.
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