Chuck Richards gave up the Big Bands for Baltimore media

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February 08, 2009|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN

Ken Jackson, the veteran Baltimore radio broadcaster who is host of In the Mood, a weekly three-hour Big Band radio show that airs over WYPR on Friday evenings, called me the other day and, in the course of our discussion, mentioned the name of Chuck Richards.

"Did you know that Chuck sang with Fletcher Henderson?" said Jackson.

I said I never knew that.

In fact, I knew nothing about his past during the glory days when Americans fell in love, swayed, and jumped and jived to the music of the Big Bands.

I first got to know Richards, who was working at WMAR-TV, after moving to Baltimore from Boston in 1973. He had a rich, distinctive baritone voice that was quite memorable, serious but not stentorian, and also tinged with a great deal of friendliness.

A friend who knew Richards from the Towson Rotary Club had arranged a job interview for me. Richards, in addition to his on-air work, was also the station's assistant director of public affairs.

So, on a warm Baltimore autumn afternoon, I trucked over to the station's York Road studios, where I was eagerly greeted by the very affable Richards.

I find it amazing with broadcasters that their voices, even when they're off the air, sound as though they're still on.

There were no openings. Later that fall, I went to work for The Sun, where I have remained in one incarnation or other for the past 35 years.

Jackson's question sent me scurrying to The Sun's library where Paul McCardell, our intrepid researcher, had pulled Richards' clipping file.

This accumulation of material revealed that he had indeed been a singer with some of the best-known bands of the 1930s and then gave it all up and returned to Baltimore in 1942.

Richards certainly didn't know it then, but he would become a local broadcasting pioneer.

A Baltimore native, Richards was a 1931 graduate of Douglass High School, which had also nurtured Cab Calloway. Recalling the musical and theatrical talent that rolled out of Douglass High School during the 1920s and 1930s prompted Richards to say in a newspaper interview, "All of these black entertainers were products of Douglass High School, Pennsylvania Avenue and the Avenue clubs."

During his senior year at Douglass, he sang on a musical program on WCAO, which was affiliated with CBS. CBS carried Richards' singing throughout the South over the old CBS Dixie Network.

"After graduation, Richards went to New York and began a successful singing career. He worked with the bands of Chick Webb, Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington," said a 1966 Sun profile by reporter Bill Hyder. "He played the Cotton Club in New York and went on several band tours, one of which took him as far as Australia."

Between 1934 and 1940, it's been estimated that Richards made 20 or 25 records on the Columbia and Vocalion labels during his tenure with Webb, Henderson, Ellington and the Mills Blue Rhythm Band.

For record aficionados, Richards' can be heard singing "Imagination," "Saving Myself for You" and the first version of Ellington's "Solitude."

In a 1978 interview with The Sun, Richards recalled the days when his agent also represented Ellington, Calloway, the Mills Brothers, the Boswell Sisters, Milton Berle and his personal idol, Bing Crosby, whose singing style he imitated.

When Richards gave up New York and the road to return to Baltimore, he worked as a freelance disc jockey with WITH. Shortly thereafter, he started a radio show on WBAL and became the first black announcer working on a 50,000-watt station.

Older listeners may recall the "Cupid's Corner" segment of the show, when Richards was spinning records and would get telephone calls from teenagers all over the city anxious to dedicate a song to their boy or girl friends.

He had a nightly radio show on WBAL for 16 years and in the early 1960s became WCBM's first regular black announcer.

In 1959, he became host of a live musical show, Open House, that aired over WJZ-TV on Saturday afternoons.

"Putting a Negro announcer on television was unheard of in those days," observed The Sun in a 1965 article. "Richards was signed for a specific commercial reason: the sponsor wanted to direct his message to Negro homebuyers."

Richards later hosted and was producer of Tomorrow's Stars, a weekly TV show that featured Ethel Ennis, the legendary Baltimore jazz singer, and showcased local talent and touring recording artists. It was the first regularly sponsored black show on Baltimore television.

In 1964, he joined WMAR as a staff announcer and began making regular appearances on various news programs, the five-minute cutaways in the Today program, mid-day news, and sometimes the 6 p.m. news.

After retiring from the station in 1978, Richards went to work for Victor Frenkil's Baltimore Contractors as a customer relations executive.

The Towson resident was 71 when he died in 1984.

"He was your friend and mine, a co-worker. He served dignity in huge portions to every person he met," wrote a letter writer to The Sun at the time of his death.

"He never spoke ill of any human being," the writer continued. "He was kind and strong in spirit to the end and should be remembered as a once-in-a-lifetime man of gentle, cheerful power.

"He was Charles A Richardson, the ambassador of goodwill we knew as the unique and individual 'Chuck Richards.' "

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