DON RICHARDSON (R.I.P.)

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First published in March 2008

TRIBUTES

Don played sax on the track "Don't ask me what I say" on our first album. A sad loss. - Bryan Beauchamp (Bari & the Breakaways)

In the mid 70's we were the resident band at (Vern) Clares Cabaret and among the dinner guests were Don and Marise.  Having inherited the gig from my music teacher, Bob Barcham, and knowing he and Don were close friends, I felt more than a little nervous about such a well known and respected musician listening to our stuff.  We played the Oscar Peterson piano version of "Night Train" and, during our break, Don came over to me and said, "That's one of my favorite pieces by O.P. and you played it well"!  Thank you Don. - Pat Southee
I would like to make a tribute to Don Richardson with whom I worked at the Majestic and EMI in the late 60s.  He taught me so much --what a great muso who will be missed.  - Roger Brasell
(click here to email me your tribute to Don and I'll add it in - andy@nzmusos.co.nz)

Dominion Post obituary (13th March 2008) written by Karl du Fresne

Donald George Evan (Don) Richardson, musician.  Born Wellington, March 2, 1928; educated Rongotai College; 1st marriage to Cath (one son and one daughter), 2nd marriage to Marise (one daughter and one son); died Wellington Hospital, March 6, 2008, aged 80.

Don Richardson never made it to the surprise 80th birthday party his former wife Marise organised in his honour.

The night before the celebration, he appeared to choke during dinner and went into cardiac arrest.  He fell into a coma from which he never recovered.

It was a sad end to the life of a man who, in his prime, was one of the great characters of New Zealand popular music.

A youthful prodigy on the saxophone, Richardson became a leading musical arranger in the 1960s and wrote the scores for a string of hit records by pop stars such as Shane, Allison Durbin, Craig Scott and Mr Lee Grant.  In 1969, three of the ten songs in the Loxene Golden Disc Awards – New Zealand’s Grammys – were Richardson’s work: Shane’s Saint Paul (which won), Wait for Me, Mary-Anne by the Dedikation and the Chicks’ Miss You Baby.

But to a generation of a certain age, Richardson was probably best-known as the long-serving bandleader at Wellington’s famous Majestic Cabaret.  The Madge, as it was known, was where Wellington society let its hair down in the days when the social calendar revolved around formal balls.

It was Marise, as singer, who took centre-stage; but it was Richardson who orchestrated things, literally and figuratively.

As a boy, he played in a piano accordion band before progressing to the saxophone and clarinet.  In 1946, aged only 17, the musically precocious Richardson was invited to join the Kiwi Concert Party, a wartime entertainment unit that was so popular it kept touring for years after hostilities had ended.  He stayed with the Kiwis for eight years, including an extended stint in Australia during which he married his first wife and studied at the Melbourne Conservatorium.

By then he had mastered the piano and fallen under the influence of big-band jazz.  Returning to Wellington in 1955, he organised a series of popular jazz festivals with his close friend and fellow musician, the late Vern Clare.  Richardson formed a band and wrote all the musical charts, painstakingly listening to the records of American bandleaders such as Billy May and Les Brown and transcribing the parts for each instrument.

As the musical ground shifted under his feet, he proved quick to adapt.  The jazz festivals were followed by a series of rock and roll jamborees in which, he later recalled, the musicians – mostly jazz enthusiasts – would drop extended jazz solos into the middle of rock and roll songs.  A 78 rpm record of the period featured pioneer rock and roller Johnny Cooper singing See You Later Alligator, backed by “Don Richardson’s Festival Five”.

About this time he also began playing at the Majestic Cabaret at 100 Willis St, soon becoming the bandleader there.  He was to remain at the Majestic until the early 1970s, leading a band whose vocalists included Marise – whom he married in 1968 – and the up-and-coming young crooner Malcolm McNeill.

The musical repertoire at the Madge was mainstream, to keep the revellers happy, but with a jazz inflection that allowed soloists like sax player Hymie Levin (by day a suit salesman at Vance Vivian) to cut loose.  

Other Wellington musicians with whom Richardson forged enduring relationships were the pianist Bob Barcham and the late Dave Fraser, a pianist and drummer with whom he ran an entertainment agency (Fraser and Richardson Talent, otherwise known as FART) that lasted until Fraser was lured overseas as musical director for British singer Roger Whittaker.

Richardson and Barcham, who is still playing, had a close working relationship that spanned 30 years.  They were the “A” team – the first people record producers called if they needed “sight readers”, able to play an unfamiliar tune from charts with no rehearsal.

When he wasn’t playing, Richardson was kept busy writing musical arrangements.  One of his early pop assignments was for the Hutt Valley duo Bill and Boyd.  In time he became, in effect, the in-house arranger for the HMV studios in Wellington – then the epicentre of the recording industry in Wellington.

In the late 1960s and early ’70s he and his fellow Wellington arrangers Barcham, Garth Young and the late Brian Hands were kept busy not only by the demands of the recording industry, but also by the proliferation of TV light entertainment shows.  Richardson recalled last year that they were all good friends and shared the work around.  But the jobs dried up when the record industry was hit by a punitive sales tax and Auckland gradually took over from Wellington as the hub of television light entertainment. 

Forced to abandon music as a fulltime career, Richardson got a job as an engineering assistant in the old Wellington City Council Waterworks branch.  Though far removed from music – the job involved taking measurements and keeping records of the city’s water reticulation system – it suited him well, and he stayed there till he reached retirement age.

He continued to record for Radio New Zealand until the 1990s, often with Marise doing the vocals.  His ensembles appeared under a variety of names – the Don Richardson Strings, the Don Richardson Orchestra – and featured a floating roster of players, many of them members of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

Richardson was loud and boisterous, with a vocabulary that would make a cattle drover wince.  He demanded the best of his musicians and could be irascible.  But he had a hearty sense of humour and commanded great loyalty and affection from friends and musical associates.

He tried unsuccessfully to deter his son Andrew from taking up a musical career, convinced that other occupations offered a more secure future.  But when finally forced to listen to Andrew playing drums, at a family wedding, he had tears in his eyes.  The younger Richardson plays for Wellington jazz group Deja Blue.

Richardson and Marise (who sang under her maiden name, McDonald) divorced in 2002 but remained the best of friends and lived next to each other in Karaka Bay, Seatoun.  The musical memorabilia assembled in Marise’s apartment for the surprise 80th birthday party – the party that never happened – was left in place for the wake.

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