Odds are you have heard the work of percussionist Emil Richards. The 82 year old musician has contributed to hundreds of recordings including TV theme songs for Mission Impossible and The Simpsons as well as movies like Fantastic Voyage and nearly every soundtrack from Danny Elfman. He has been a fixture on the Los Angeles music scene since the first day he arrived in 1959.
Through the late 1950s, the Connecticut-raised Richards spent four years on the road with British jazz pianist George Shearing, taking one week off of touring per year. He was getting worn out and needed a change. Upon a chance encounter with arranger Billy May, Richards was convinced to head to the west coast. "Billy told me if I'm going to scuffle, I may as well scuffle where the sun is shining" says Richards calling from his home. "It went uphill right from there. My first gig was the first night I got into town. I worked that day on a recording session and at night I worked with Paul Horn at a club called the Renaissance. Lord Buckley and Lenny Bruce were the two comedians working opposite of us. I learned all about the Nazz and all the different shtick."
Richards had the benefit of the sunshine and the work, finding his way into the film music scene and the occasional high profile tour. The same year he arrived in L.A. Frank Sinatra hired him for a tour of Mexico. Richards described the relationship simply: "He liked me enough to keep me around as long as I wanted." And that relationship lasted decades.
It was because of Sinatra that Richards began collecting what would become a legendary collection of percussion instruments from around the world. "It happened in 1962. Sinatra asked me to go with a sextet on a world tour. Jack Kennedy had asked Sinatra to do a tour for underprivileged children around the world. The state department would fund the trip. Frank says I'll go one better 'I've got my own jet. I'll pay for it myself.'"
With the blessing of the President of the United States and liberal duty free standards, Richards traveled the world. "Kennedy said 'I'll have ambassadors meet you in each country so you don't have to go through customs,'" recalls Richards. "I filled the belly of that plane. Every time I made a trip after that, other trips with Frank to South America and a lot in the U.S., I just started collecting."
He amassed more than two thousand percussion instruments as he criss-crossed the globe, dotting his home with delicate teak gamelan artifacts and Cuban hand drums. "My collection of percussion instruments was pretty vast, larger than anybody I can think of in the U.S. I certainly studied a lot of percussion instruments from around the world. I got to play them and learn from them and buy them."
As a result he became something of a specialist in unique percussion sounds. "Anytime I came back from a trip at least a half a dozen people would call and ask 'what's new? What've you got?'" says Richards. "I used to try to instruct the composers that you mix all kinds of saxes and clarinets to get different sounds why not percussion? But nobody mixed percussion. They wanted to hear a percussion sound out by itself. With so many instruments in the world of percussion, you marry the woods and the metals and the glass, you can come up with another array of colors that even synthesizers can't do."
Despite all of the time he has spent in recording studios, Richards has only sneaked out a few times to record under his own name. A partnership with Impulse! Records in the 1960s helped Richards share his new discoveries with the world. His Microtonal Blues Band introduced a wealth of new sounds that ran from killer to kitsch over the course of a few sides.
In the last few years, Richards has sold most of his collection. The Percussive Arts Society in Indiana took a large portion while a world famous film composer and frequent employer got first dibs on the bounty.
"I found a vibraphone that had double bars, one right next to the other that was an octave apart," says Richards. "I said 'what the hell is this for?' It was kind of cheating because you could make it sound like you were playing octaves really fast. There were only one or two of them made and one just happened to come to me. I guess when you are a collector things just happen that way. Well, Danny Elfman freaked over that one. He's got it now!"
Emil Richards will be performing with his quartet Saturday, October 25, 2014, at Vibrato in Bel Air. He's also written a book: "Wonderful World of Percussion: My Life Behind Bars."
Top Image: Emil Richards