Sunday 15 September 2019

Obituary: Dick Richards

Drummer who shot to fame with Bill Haley and his Comets at the dawn of rock'n'roll

The Comets: Bill Halley top, and Dick Richards, right
The Comets: Bill Halley top, and Dick Richards, right

Dick Richards, who has died aged 95, was a member of Bill Haley and the Comets at the height of their fame.

Although he did not play on their best-known recordings, he was the onstage drummer between 1953 and 1955, when the band was making rock'n'roll-sized waves around the world, and he was behind the skins when Rock Around the Clock was first played live.

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He was born Richard Marley Boccelli on February 12, 1924, at Yeadon in Pennsylvania. He attended West Chester University, where he excelled at American Football.

Bill Haley had formed his group, the Saddlemen, in the late 1940s; they played blues-tinged country and western, but into the following decade they gravitated towards rockabilly and the nascent rock'n'roll, changing their name to the Comets in the process.

Haley asked Richards to join the band, and Rock Around the Clock was recorded in April 1954, although Haley used one of his trusted session men, Billy Gussak, on drums.

But Richards was playing when the band gave Rock Around the Clock its first live outing, at the Hotel HofBrau in Wildwood, New Jersey, on Memorial Day the following month. "The first crack of the drums and the kids went crazy," he recalled. "They were up on the floor dancing around.

"We knew what to do, just lay the beat down," he recalled. "That's all. We didn't do anything else but give the people what they want. They really got into it."

Although there was an ecstatic reception, the song did not truly take off until it was used on the opening credits of the film Blackboard Jungle in 1955, and it reached No 1 on both sides of the Atlantic.

It was a similar story for Richards on the equally celebrated follow-up, Shake, Rattle and Roll: he did not play drums on the record, but was thought to have joined in on backing vocals, and he did play on the B-side, ABC Boogie.

In late 1955 he left the Comets, along with bassist Marshall Lytle and saxophonist Joey Ambrose, to start the Jodimars, who lasted until 1958. Richards found a second career as an actor.

In the 1960s he appeared in local theatre productions, and during the 1970s and 1980s he acted on Broadway, appearing in a comedy, The Ritz, alongside Rita Moreno and F Murray Abraham. He went on to have a recurring role in the soap The Edge of Night in 1980, and played a desk cop in the crime thriller Shakedown (1988). He had a small role in the Mob comedy My Blue Heaven (1990) with Steve Martin and Rick Moranis, and was in the HBO prison drama Oz in 1998 and 1999.

Bill Haley died in 1981, but the Comets who had played with him reunited in 1989, playing on until 2014. Richards also toured with his own band, the Ready Rockers. Haley was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

Richards died on July 12.

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