Emil Richards, Legendary Percussionist and L.A. Session Player, Dies at 87

Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Emil Richards worked on the score for 2004's 'Spider-Man 2' at Sony Studios.

He snapped his fingers on 'The Addams Family,' played the bongos for 'Mission: Impossible' and worked with everyone from Judy Garland to Linda Ronstadt.

Emil Richards, the famed percussionist, vibraphone specialist and L.A. session player who performed with Frank Sinatra, George Harrison, Frank Zappa and scores of other greats and beat the bongos on the Mission: Impossible theme song, has died. He was 87.

Richards died Friday, his daughter, Camille Radocchia Hecks, announced on Facebook.

"My dad had a saying, 'As in music, as in life," she wrote. "He lived and loved as he played: fully, deeply, with endless creativity, humor, discipline and spirituality. He never missed a beat. As Emil would say, 'Good Vibes!'"

Richards, who considered Lionel Hampton to be a major influence on his career, was a session musician for the fabled Wrecking Crew in Los Angeles and played on thousands of recordings during his career.

He worked with the likes of Shorty Rogers, Judy Garland, Charles Mingus, Elvis Presley, Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole, Stan Kenton, Julie London, Ella Fitzgerald, Dick Dale, Sam Cooke, The Carpenters, Marvin Gaye, Dave Mason, The Monkees, Harry Nilsson, Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, Burt Bacharach, Michael Jackson, The Beach Boys, Glen Campbell and Luciano Pavarotti.

"My ideal situation for a session would be playing the hardest mallet parts conceivable," he once said. "I like to go home exhausted from playing good, hard music. By hard I mean difficult, because it's a challenge. I love a challenge."

The innovative sonic expressionist did the finger-snapping on Vic Mizzy's theme song for The Addams Family ("Yes, that was me — the clicks and the whole bit," he admitted) and did the xylophone parts on The Simpsons' opening tune for Danny Elfman, who once called Richards "an irreplaceable original."

Richards made his Hollywood debut when he was hired by Alfred Newman for The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), and he would team up with many members of the composer's esteemed family, all the way from Lionel Newman to David Newman, Thomas Newman and Randy Newman. 

While recording the percolating Mission: Impossible theme in 1966 for composer Lalo Schifrin, Richards realized he had made a mistake and insisted the musicians do it all over again. "The French-horn players were real bummed at me — their lips were tired," Richards told NPR in 2011. But it was worth it, he said. "That Mission: Impossible played for so many years. Had I listened to myself play a really bad mistake, I couldn't have stood that." 

In addition to Schifrin and Elfman, Richards was a regular collaborator with several other great movie composers, from Max Steiner, Jerry Goldsmith and Henry Mancini to John Williams, Elmer Bernstein and James Newton Howard.

Richards also toured with Harrison and played on four of the former Beatle's albums, starting with 1974's Dark Horse. Earlier, he traveled with Zappa's Electric Symphony and performed on his 1968 album Lumpy Gravy.

Richards was in the orchestra pit for more than two dozen Oscar telecasts and often was onstage with comedian Lenny Bruce. "Lenny would get arrested almost every weekend for his risque language, but he loved musicians and always wanted a jazz group playing behind his act," he wrote in his 2013 memoir, Wonderful World of Percussion, My Life Behind Bars.

The son of Italian immigrants, Emilio Joseph Radocchia was born on Sept. 2, 1932, in Hartford, Connecticut. His first encounter with the xylophone came at an early age, he recalled in a 1982 interview with Modern Drummer magazine. 

"My brother was 9 and I was 6," he said. "He had been begging my father for an accordion and my father made the mistake of taking me with them to the music store. When he bought my brother the accordion, I cried; naturally, I wanted something, too. Finally, he said, 'Well, what do you want?' I immediately pointed to the first thing I saw, which was a xylophone. So for $60 we got a xylophone and six months' worth of lessons."

By the time he was in the 10th grade, Richards was performing with the Hartford Symphony, and he soon expanded his expertise to include the marimba and vibes (of all the instruments he played, the latter was his "real love"). He then attended the Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford from 1949-52, studying with timpanist Al Lepak.

After being drafted and playing in the U.S. Army band in Japan for two years (he performed with pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi during his stay), Richards spent three years touring with George Shearing and his jazz quintet starting in 1954.

He arrived in Los Angeles in 1959 and worked with flautist Paul Horn, trumpeter Don Ellis and composer Harry Partch — known for building many of his own instruments — before launching his own group, the Microtonal Blues Band.

Richards appeared onscreen as a percussionist in The Nutty Professor (1963) and went on to contribute sounds to notable films including the Planet of the Apes movies, The Cincinnati Kid (1965), Grand Prix (1966), Ice Station Zebra (1968), The French Connection (1971), Dirty Harry (1971), Chinatown (1974), Jaws (1975), Taxi Driver (1976), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), The Stunt Man (1980), Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985), Toy Story (1995), Spider-Man 2 (2004) and Ratatouille (2007).

While on a 1962 world tour with Sinatra to raise money for children's charities, Richards began collecting percussion instruments from faraway places like Switzerland, Egypt, Thailand and India. His stash would grow to more than 700 pieces.

"I'm still trying to learn them all," he said in an undated interview on the Percussive Arts Society website. "Each one is a lifetime study. One of the newest instruments I've got is an Array mbira, which is a five-octave thumb piano, and I also got a two-octave marimba that has bars made from stone roof tiles, which really gets an unusual sound."

Inducted into the Percussive Arts Society's Hall of Fame in 1984, Richards donated 65 of his instruments to its museum in Lawton, Oklahoma, when it was built in 1992. But before that, he worked for Schifrin on the 1971 film The Hellstrom Chronicle.

The movie was about insects, and "considering that we don't know what the insects hear, I decided to 'invent' their audio world," the composer wrote in the foreword to Wonderful World of Percussion. "In order to do so, I needed Emil Richards to provide me with many of his instruments.

"We decided to meet at his home, where most of those instruments were part of the decor of the house and the garden and hanging in the patio — for example, wind chimes, African bells, Korean thumb pianos and many more. When I finished the project, Emil was telling everybody that 'Lalo is playing my house.'"

With his second wife, Celeste, Richards co-authored a series of books about making music and musical instruments from commonly found objects. (In his Modern Drummer chat, he said he "could happily spend the rest of my life just shaking a tin can.") And he never stopped studying.

"You have to be a student until you die," he said, "because your whole lifetime spent trying to be proficient is not enough."