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Legendary swing band leader Dal Richards dies, missing 80th consecutive New Year’s show

Legendary bandleader Dal Richards and his Orchestra perform during his 95th birthday celebration at the Robson Square Ice Rink in Vancouver, British Columbia, Thursday, January 10, 2013.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

A man who helped Vancouverites bring in the New Year for decades died just minutes before the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve.

Dal Richards was 97.

His wife, Muriel Richards, says Dal and his band had been booked to play the New Year's Eve party at the Hotel Vancouver, where he'd played from 1940 to 1965.

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But she says he became ill in November, and not wanting to disappoint an audience with a substandard performance, he decided to cancel.

Richards received the Order of Canada in 1994, and is also on the BC Lions Wall of Fame in acknowledgment of his many years as musical director of half-time shows.

During his nearly 80-year string of New Year's Eve performances, Richards also played at the Bayshore Hotel and the River Rock Casino.

"Dal was always a real professional, consummate performer and he felt if he couldn't be what he'd been for all the rest of it that he wasn't going to put on a poor show," Muriel Richards said in an interview on Friday.

"New Years Eve was such a big thing to him and to not be able to do it really saddened him."

Richards took up music as a way to console himself after losing an eye in a slingshot accident at the age of nine. The disability made him ineligible for service during the Second World War, which is how he managed to have so many consecutive New Year's Eve shows.

When swing and big band went out of style and gigs dried up in the mid-1960s, Richards went into the hotel management business. But he still kept a band going on the side and always had a booking to ring in the new year.

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Demand picked up in the early 1980s and Richards cut records. Until he became ill, his band was still taking bookings for weddings, birthdays and conventions.

Richards said her husband's last performance was a Christmas party at the Vancouver Club. Dal was in hospital, she said, but he put on his tuxedo and joined his band at the party to take the stage and sing "As Time Goes By."

His family sang "Auld Lang Syne" to him on the Dec 30 because they didn't think he'd last until another full day. He died at 11:41 p.m. on Dec 31.

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