Oregon Music News: Oregon’s all-genre music magazine since 2009


Tales of the late Richie Cole who died at 72 on May 2

By BILL ROYSTON // Remembering a few wild adventures with the Alto Madness of Richie Cole

"Billy Boy! This is Alto Madness barreling down I-95 from beautiful Trenton to equally lovely Filthydelphia in my brand new mini-van with the band and my Mom! I know we're late, but had to make a pit stop. Be there in a flash! Over and out!"

Richie Cole was always late. It was part of his Alto Madness, but it was making me a candidate for the Prozac Salad Bar. It was 1987 at Penn's Landing, and another free Friday night jazz concert. We hit each week at 7pm, and it was now 7:25. For the last hour, I had my intern check the office answering machine every few minutes. She had carefully written down the message and ran across the plaza to give it to me. This was before cell phones or email... "In a flash? How long was that?"

Jazz radio WRTI, which did Live broadcasts each week that beamed from northern Jersey, to central PA and into Maryland, was also there. They had gone 'live' at 6:50 as planned, and they were really nervous. "Could we interview the stage crew?" they asked nervously. I explained that while the crew worked for me, I could not guarantee a Philadelphia union stage crew's sobriety after 2 pm.

There was only one thing to do. While being on air, I would take the stage and stall for time. There were a couple thousand people assembled, and I started to acknowledge everyone I could see in the crowd. I thought I saw Grover in the back, but I wasn't sure. Philly, and especially Philly musicians, has come out to see an almost-native son. Finally, in desperation I read the note as my intern had given it to me. As I said the phrase "In a flash," a cheer erupted from the audience.

Somehow Richie had avoided security and drove his not-so-new mini-van right up to the side of the stage. Richie jumped out from the driver's seat like he was Rocky Balboa with his hands high in the air. The crowd went wild! What an entrance! From the side, a bass player and then a drummer emerged. The drummer kept making the sign of the cross while shaking his head. Way in the back of the van was Richie's mother, who had been talking incessantly to her seat mate, New York guitarist Vic Juris, since they left Trenton. Vic was shell-shocked. "Where's the stage?" he asked me. "Right in front of you!" I answered. "Oh, yeah..."

I was beginning to feel like this was Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters doing Bop instead of the Grateful Dead. "Where's the bathroom?" asked Richie's Mom. We ditched the van and whisked the band to the dressing room trailer. The crowd was hysterical, but the radio station was absolutely frantic. It was after 8pm, but the guys wanted their deli platter! Except for the drummer, who stayed in the corner praying. "Stop that!" said Richie. "You're in Philadelphia. God's not listening!"

This was getting silly. I aggressively herded the cats towards the stage, but first Richie grabbed me and whispered "Don't worry. I'll play good!"

Richie played for the next 3 hours! It was almost midnight. The band was exhausted, Richie's Mom had fallen asleep in the trailer, the radio station had long ago surrendered, the audience was still partying, and the stage crew was in an absolute stupor and not to found. Welcome to Alto Madness!

A year later, I booked Richie on a doublebill with John Blake's band for the winter Philadelphia 'Presidents Day Weekend' Jazz Festival (bad name/good event) in a hotel ballroom. Since John was the real hometown hero here, I had asked Richie to play first. Richie was cool. Richie was always cool, but I should have known better... Richie Cole was always late!

By late afternoon, I started to worry. As the headliner, John had already set-up and soundchecked his (electric) band, and now waited for Richie as the opening act to come and do the same. I nervously approached the hotel front desk, explained the situation, and asked that someone please come fetch me from the ballroom if Mr. Cole should happen to call...

Sure enough, an hour or so later a hotel person came with a piece of paper almost identical to the Penn's Landing note saying he was on his way and heading to Filthydelphia. I explained to John that he would have to go on first and Richie would have to navigate around John's configuration. John wasn't cool, but he was ok.

Richie Cole had demons. If he wasn't fixed at the bar, he would be in his room getting happy. Before letting the audience enter the space, something told me to check the hotel bar. There was Richie with a double whiskey. The band and his mother had checked into their rooms, but Richie needed to find some courage. I told him that he needed to get the band and soundcheck so that I could then admit the audience. Cool! But he didn't need the band!

It took another 15 minutes to get through all the people waiting in the lobby. Either the entire audience had come down from Trenton, or Richie knew a lot more people in Philly than he thought. We got to the stage, clapped his hands twice, and nodded. That was his soundcheck. John's band stood there. They were not happy. Welcome to Alto Madness!

Richie stayed and listened to the first few tunes of John's set. He really liked John's band! He then exited to his room. A little worried, I had that same intern follow him in order to get he and the band back in time. This show was not going until midnight!

Richie returned with his Mom and the band right on time. He asked John to keep his band on stage and have everybody play the gig together. That meant two drummers and two drum kits, plus grand piano opposite electric keyboards, acoustic bass next to Gerald Veasley's electric bass, and sax with electric violin sharing center stage. Richie was ecstatic; no one else was pleased. "Don't worry, I'll just call out tunes," exclaimed Richie.

What a mess! Alto Madness my ass! But everyone was placed and ready to start when Richie came off stage, winked at me with the same twinkle in his eye as the year before, and said, "Don't worry. I'll play good!" He did. For the next two hours, he blew his brains out. The rest of the band held on the dear life, but Richie played really, really good.

Maybe on purpose, I didn't see Richie again for many years. Tim Price, a really good local sax player from Reading, PA, the home of the Berks Jazz Fest, proposed a "Sax Summit" including Richie Cole. Since Berks was/is primarily a smooth jazz festival, my buddy John and I agreed it would be a good idea to mix it up a bit... With one condition that someone else would be responsible for Richie being on time!

Richie was indeed punctual, but by the point just a shell of the man and the player that he used to be. Thin, pale, emaciated, and frail, Richie's demons had taken over. The evil had ravaged his body and was consuming his mind. He was literally shaking with insecurity like he was apologizing for entering the room. We talked, but the twinkle had been removed from his eyes. Yet he still confided "Don't worry. I'll play good!"

And he did.

That's the last time I saw Richie. There were sporadic gigs, but no record contracts after that. He eventually moved to Pittsburgh, because he had a lady there to take care of him. Like many jazz guys, Richie Cole died in relative anonymity, but somehow he had hung on another dozen or so years through the sheer force and will of Alto Madness!

Don't worry. Play good, Richie, play good! God's listening now!

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