by Rick Mattingly
He says that being elected to the pas hall of Fame is "quite an honor" and cites previous inductees as "a pretty prestigious bunch of folks." But Emil Richards says that the biggest thrill is in being given the same honor as his first major influence, vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1984.
"My roots are from Hamp," Richards explains. "I got all my early training from copying and playing along with Hamp's records, because he was the only one around at the time. So it is a thrill for me to be included alongside players like him."
Today, Emil Richards is known as a first-call L.A. studio musician whose playing has graced countless movie and TV soundtracks, albums and jingles, and who can be depended upon to come up with exactly the right percussion sound from his extensive collection of instruments. But his initial fame came from playing vibraphone, and he still considers himself a vibes player first.
"Vibes are my real love, and I'm playing vibes now more than ever, live," he says. "Joe Porcaro and I co-lead a group that we sometimes call Calamari and sometimes call Contraband. I've also been indulging my second love, which is writing, and I've been coming up with some of the greatest songs I've ever written. It's just flowing; I guess it's all been in my head waiting to come out."
Richards' vibes playing and composing are heard to advantage on his solo album, The Wonderful World of Percussion, on the Interworld Music label. "I overdubbed all the parts, and I have as many as 25 overdubs on some tunes," he says. "I did a piece I wrote in seven called 'Underdog Rag,' and besides playing the four marimba parts I embellished it with all kinds of kooky sounds. The album has some bebop, some straight-ahead vibes and marimba things, and some real fun stuff. I also used some of my real oddball instruments."
Despite having a collection of over 350 instruments, Richards continues to acquire new ones on a regular basis. "I'm still trying to learn them all," he says, laughing. "Each one is a lifetime study. One of the newest instruments I've got is an Array M'bira, which is a five-octave thumb piano, and I also got a two-octave marimba that has bars made from stone roof tiles, which really gets an unusual sound."
A longtime supporter of the Percussive Arts Society, Richards donated 65 of his instruments to the PAS museum in Lawton, Oklahoma when it was built in 1992, including his entire collection of Thai gamelan instruments and a Leedy "octarimba," which is similar in concept to a twelve-string guitar in that it has bars mounted in pairs and pitched an octave apart that are played with a double-headed mallet. Richards has also helped the PAS museum acquire other instruments, such as one of Shelly Manne's drumsets.
Born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1932, Emilio Joseph Radocchia began studying xylophone at age six and was playing with the Hartford Symphony by the time he was in tenth grade. He attended the Hartt School of Music from 1949-52, where he studied with Al Lepak, and after being drafted he played in an Army band in Japan, where he worked with pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi.
After getting out of the Army Richards settled in New York and soon became a member of George Shearing's group, with which he stayed for three years. In 1959 he moved to Los Angeles where he worked with Paul Horn and Don Ellis, eventually leading his own group, the Microtonal Blues Band. He also worked with instrument innovator Harry Partch, toured with former Beatle George Harrison, and recorded with artists ranging from Frank Sinatra to Frank Zappa.
Meanwhile, Richards became active in the L.A. studio scene, playing on everything from the original Flintstones cartoons to TV series such as Mission Impossible (he played the bongos on the theme song), Falcon Crest, Cagney and Lacey, and Dynasty, to movie soundtracks for such films as Star Trek, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Ghostbusters and the various Planet of the Apes films.
"My ideal situation for a session would be playing the hardest mallet parts conceivable," he once said. "I like to go home exhausted from playing good, hard music. By hard I mean difficult, because it's a challenge. I love a challenge."
Richards also prides himself on being able to come up with the proper sound for any situation, and composers have come to depend on his knowledge of ethnic percussion when scoring films set in exotic locations. Richards, in turn, especially enjoys working with composers who use instruments in creative ways. "On the movie soundtrack for The River Wild Jerry Goldsmith wrote melodic figures for timpani and three RotoTom players," Richards recalls. "Having the timpani and RotoToms playing melodic lines together in octaves was really a good noise."
Richards says that one of the most important things he has learned is to be selective about the instruments he uses. "When I first started, I was very proud of all of these instruments I had collected," he told writer Robyn Flans in a 1985 Modern Percussionist interview. "I had a tendency to pull everything out of the bag. I've noticed this happens to a lot of percussionists when they play live: They don't let eight bars of music go by before playing on a different instrument. They don't give one instrument a chance to do something. Naturally, if five instruments do work and they provide the colors and help the music, fine, but in most cases you can't really get going playing in a rhythmical context if you're trying to play congas and and then jump to a shaker or hit a cowbell.
"I hope to someday come back as an octopus, but for right now I only have two hands and two feet, and there's just so much one can do."