By Harry Anderson
The world has had a good crop of musical wunderkinds, perhaps the most famous of whom is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who at age five wrote his first composition. She was only six when Midori gave her first public performance, playing a Paganini Caprice. And, although born blind, George Shearing began studying piano at age three. Equally remarkable is an octogenarian who teaches himself to read music and then to play an alto saxophone. Such is the case with Roy Richards.
His story starts when he was two years old. In search for his absent father, he left home, stopping some blocks away from his Oakland Beach yard to watch some mama goats and their new-born kids frolic under a springtime sun. Roy’s daddy – W. Roy Richards – was rarely home. He was on the road all around America playing brass instruments with the Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey’s bands or singing with Vaughn Munroe’s The Moonmen.
“I hated my father and I wanted nothing to do with music because it was taking him away from me.”
Spats between father and son – when the family was together – were constant, wearing the mother down so much so that she sent young Roy off to a boarding school, St. Andrews in Barrington. It had farmland and cows, and the boy fared well in the fields and the milk barn. He also discovered that he was a pretty good athlete.
“I wasn’t that good, but everyone knew I was in the game!”
Roy is Irish, and an Irishman’s spunkiness comes through. His blue eyes, build, ready-to-do-battle mien make one think of Mickey Rooney. After his wife’s death not too long ago, he took her wedding ring to a jeweler to have it made into a pendant, its diamond in the center. The pendant, that never leaves his neck, is in the shape of a Celtic cross.
Four years at St. Andrews ended. Resolved not to return home, Roy joined the Navy and grew up. Refusing to re-enlist, he applied to URI, earned a degree in chemistry, and went on to RISD for a Master’s in chemistry. He married and fathered a son and three daughters, and until age sixty, he worked as a dyer for the George C. Moore Textile Company in Westerly, becoming its plant manager. When his employment days were winding down, he was in the construction business – climbing ladders, hammering nails into studs, priming window sashes.
As Roy approached age eighty, his body exacted revenge for all those years of searching for and running from his father. First, both knees gave out. Then came open heart surgery (“Cows whistle at me when I pass by”, he jokes – an oblique reference to the new valve that keeps his heart beating). The coup de grace was the passing of his wife. One of his daughters took action, convincing Roy that he could no longer manage day-by-day chores alone and moved him to the Village at Waterman Lake.
Now, the soul of Roy Richards’ story begins.
Widowed, hobbled, unemployed, and transplanted – at age eighty, left only with memories – he needed a raison d’etre. When moving into the Village, he had opted to take with him something that he had won in a poker game sixty-two years ago when he was a swabbie, and it had lain untouched all those years, moldering in a closet: an alto saxophone. He took it from its case and thought things over. “Yes, I’m going to play this thing!”
But Roy, having rejected music all his life, could not distinguish between a quarter and a half note, a flat and a sharp. He set forth to teach himself how to read music. Becoming musically literate, he next had to learn how to play the instrument.
“It was like playing third base. Not until the ball comes to you a thousand times do you learn.”
So, the days passed, and over and over he blew into the sax, pressed this key and that key, listening and learning.
He told his story to a visitor in the parlor of The Chalet. He had set up a music stand and spread open a portfolio of hand-written songs, all from the Great American Songbook.
“When you stop working, there’s a lot of lost time. No more, though. Not for me.”
He licked the reed of his alto and played a riff.
“I’m at it all the time. I play only for myself. Playing this sax puts me into another world. Math and music go together, you know. They put everything into an order.”
Eighty-five-year-old Roy Richards was tiring. He flipped pages of the portfolio and asked his visitor, “How about it? Want to hear something? You name it.”
“Whoa, back up. You just passed one of my favorite songs. Yes, that one. Can you play it?”
Sweet, thoughtful music came from his sax. He was playing Unforgetable.