Infinite Culture

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The LA Chronicles | Emil Richards

Emil holding a talking water drum from New Guinea after demonstrating the playing technique in his pool.

Featuring Jake Feinberg and Rafael Otto

Emil Richards has been playing the vibes for more than seven decades, accumulating accolades and recording credits with some of America’s finest musicians, including Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Francisco Aguabella, Marvin Gaye, Frank Zappa and many others. He is considered Hollywood’s go-to percussionist and holds recording credits for nearly 2,000 films and TV shows. His drum collection is one of the world’s largest at nearly 800 and counting, many of which are displayed neatly throughout his home, almost in a museum-like fashion, but in such a way that they are ready to play at a moment’s notice.

We met Emil in the summer of 2011 at his house in Los Angeles. When we arrived he welcomed us inside, offered drinks, and eyed us somewhat suspiciously. We weren’t draped in technology for a high profile shoot, but we had enough to make it count, and we were sincere about being on the hunt for great stories about his years as a percussionist in LA. At one point in the interview Emil told us, “You can’t bullshit a bullshitter,” and I think that was his way of saying he knew how to read people and he figured our motives were legitimate.

Emil generously shared many stories that day, but the trip itself became an inspiring experience for both Jake and me. What follows is the first installment of the story about that trip, featuring stories from Emil Richards, and the beginning of a new chapter in the exploration of jazz, music, story, and culture.

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Rafael: Jake told me, “I don’t know what’s going to happen this week, but my goal is that you get home on Friday night and say that was one of the coolest things you’ve ever done in your life.” This entire project erupted out of Jake’s obsession with jazz and funk from the early 70s, and that has become the focus of his Tucson-based radio programming that began in January 2011.

Jake: Two months before my Tucson show went live Raf interviewed me about my plans. Musicians, social issues, some politics. My first show aired the week after the Giffords shootings in Tucson, so I had to talk politics. But I also knew that I needed to get to my true passion, the musicians from back in the day who had stories that needed to be told.

Rafael: The shows are rumbling amalgamations of history and contemporary America through the voice of music. Impossible for me to resist. And throughout the spring Jake had been rolling through interviews with jazz cats all over the country. Many guys he talked with were still making music in Los Angeles.

Jake: LA was definitely calling and things started to heat up at the end of May. I’d already interviewed Henry Franklin and Calvin Keys for my show. The catalyst came when I talked to Carl Burnett about the music he’d made for the Black Jazz label back in ’74. After talking with these guys I wanted to meet them in person. The music has given me so much and I needed to meet the bones and muscle and tissue and the souls of the people who made it. I mentioned it to Henry – let’s do a Black Jazz reunion. He had done a similar show at Yoshi’s in Oakland, but the current owner of the Black Jazz label ruined the show. Long story. So we talked musicians and dates and setting the show up as a tribute to Gene Russell, the man who originally founded the label. Henry said let’s get George Harper on sax and Bobby Pierce on piano.

Rafael: The trip happened almost instantly and before I knew it I was packing my video camera, digital SLR, audio recorder, tripods and some cheap eats. We decided to leave early to beat rush hour traffic in LA, but not without stopping off for some coffee at Jake’s favorite spot down on Speedway. On the I-10, Jake gave me some back-story on Gene Russell… Gene wanted to replicate the Blue Note groove on the west coast and create something specifically for the black musicians, for the underexposed talent. This was the late 60s. Motown left Detroit for LA in ‘71, and Gene contacted Ovation Records from Chicago to help establish Black Jazz Records. People who had been chomping at the bit for a turn to record were finally going to get a chance.

Jake: Exactly. But I couldn’t head to LA without setting something up with Emil Richards. This guy is an innovator, a real talent, Hollywood’s go-to percussionist who brought new music to the West, built new sounds out of hoses, tubes, and wire. Played microtonal blues in 13/7 time with Don Ellis, Dave Mackay, Porcaro and more. He came up when everything off beat was considered hip, and he’s also a collector of eccentric instruments – almost 800 in total. I’d already interviewed him on my show and he said, “If you come to LA you’ve got to come see my big band.”

Rafael: We checked in to a hotel in Burbank with polyester bed covers, a mini kitchen, and barking dogs a few doors down. Perfect for a home cooked meal of PBJs and granola bars. Then we went to Emil’s place in Toluca Lake for the first interview of the week. Emil welcomed us inside and when Jake ducked into the bathroom, Emil looked at me and said, “Tell me something, is Jake getting any money to do this?” I said, “Nothing, it’s all about love.”

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Jake: He was bugged-eyed when we arrived, not quite sure what our motives were. As if to test us, Emil asked me the same question when I came out of the bathroom. Of course I told him the same thing. Then all of a sudden he launched into a story about the best drum he’d ever found at a yard sale – a giant Buddhist singing bowl that he also used as an end table between two recliners.

Rafael: I scrambled to get the video camera set up, hitting record right as he started the story.

Jake: He lifted off a lamp and a plate of glass sitting on top of it and pulled out a large wooden dowel wrapped in leather. Then he made it sing…slowly working the dowel around the edge of the bowl. And I was standing there in awe, realizing that the trip had finally, truly begun.

Rafael: The entire house was vibrating and we were all silent just listening to the hum and vibrations.

Jake: The in-laws were muttering in the kitchen and his wife came through with a skeptical look. No matter, we continued the interview sitting in these two recliners, the singing bowl having been returned to a table. Emil is not really a collector. He’s a player and can play every drum he owns. He told the story of playing on the soundtrack for the original Mission Impossible. After several takes everyone was exhausted, the lips of the French Horn players were on the ground. They thought they had the recording finished when Emil raised his hand and said, “Sorry, I messed up. We have to do it again.” But that was the kind of quality he wanted to have, and that’s how he built his reputation in LA.

Rafael: Emil became the leading mallet player in LA. He also advocated for union pay and other perks for percussionists, a group that had traditionally never been treated in the same way as other musicians.

Jake: He toured with Sinatra at the behest of JFK, filling the belly of Sinatra’s plane with instruments from India, Persia, Egypt and Israel. And he told me this, “I’m not trying to invent something new, I’m trying to remember something from the distant past.” He brought the past to the present with an array of photos from his days with George Shearing, Al McKibbon, Armando Peraza, and his meditative excursions in the California Mountains with John Densmore. In his studio he played a little something for us on the vibes in five, gave us each a stack if cds, and copies of a book he wrote with his wife on making instruments out of household items like toilet paper rolls, string, and wooden spoons.

(Listen)

Emil on working movie calls in 1959 and advocating for percussionists in the music industry (2:20):

The effect of raga on his playing, Don Ellis, and beginning to play the blues in five and seven (1:27):

“As in music, as in life.” Working with a friend of Evelyn Glennie and being honest about whether or not she had the chops (2:17):

Emil’s mentor who used to rob banks and owning your mistakes when recording (2:45):

On using ProTools… and if you thought Lucille Ball and Elvis Presley always sounded good, you’re wrong (0:54):

Playing with Francisco Aguabella and his sacred bata drums, demonstrating the bullroarer and a piece of PVC, and talking about changing times (5:21):

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Rafael: Close to six o’clock Emil had to pack up the vibes and head to the Santa Monica airport for a gig at Typhoon restaurant.

Jake: “Hey,” he said to us. “You guys hungry?” After a day of hard-boiled eggs and granola bars I was excited. “Tell you what,” he said. “Dinner’s on me.” Then he gave us each a free drink ticket and said, “My band is going to be pissed I gave those to you but go have fun!”

Rafael: Emil has made a living in music for decades, but he conducts the 17-piece big band out of sheer love. While loading the vibes into the back of his SUV he told me he would make $50 at the gig, paying a few band members twice that for having to haul bigger instruments (drums, keys, double bass).

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Jake: We arrived at the Typhoon, a packed house with one table for us up front. We ordered drinks and food off the Asian fusion menu. The band was four deep for trumpet and trombone, five in the sax section and Emil up front laying it down on the vibes.

Rafael: A big band with a huge sound. After the first number, Emil said, “Thank you, and good night!”

Jake: Gary Foster, Pete “Deacon Blues” Christlieb, and Lanny Morgan were playing. They did a Don Menza tune, then a funky number with a ‘bone solo. Emil was all over the vibes as the sun went down behind the band and private planes ascended into the dreamy California night.

Rafael: With every tune, someone got a solo – trombone, drums, trumpet, bass. A sax player used our table to store his saki stash and downed eight or ten shots before his turn.

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Jake: During a set break I stood outside talking with Emil’s son. A retired schoolteacher, he talked to me about having parents who weren’t around much, about growing up around drugs, meeting famous cats, his parents’ divorce, the constant swimming rush of growing up in the 70s.

Rafael: The sky went dark but Emil and the band kept playing.

Jake: And we went back to the Extend Stay before the last tune.

Rafael: Dogs were still barking a few doors down.

Jake: And those polyester-covered beds never looked so good.

Rafael: What a day. And tomorrow we head to Henry Franklin’s place.

Jake: Henry Franklin, aka the Skipper. Into the heart of Black Jazz.

Rafael: Only the beginning.

Jake: What did I tell you?

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2 comments on “The LA Chronicles | Emil Richards

  1. Greg Errico
    November 24, 2013

    VERY COOL!

    GE

  2. David Easter
    December 16, 2013

    Great interview! My introduction to Emil Richards was through his recordings with George Shearing and later the Fantasy label recordings. Mr. Richards gave a workshop performance a few years back at NYU Steinhardt. He was amazing! Thank you for posting.

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All content on Infinite Culture, unless noted otherwise, is copyright © 2016 Rafael Otto. All rights reserved.