Emil Richards was born in Hartford, CT to Italian immigrants who ran a meat market—and, he says, the city’s first legal liquor store after Prohibition. Richards started playing the xylophone at age six and by the 10th grade he was playing with the Hartford Symphony, and soon after, he was sneaking into New York City nightclubs to play jazz. He graduated from the Julius Hartt School of Music (now part of the University of Hartford) and Hillard College. Richards was a private student of the distinguished and Schillinger accredited teacher Asher George Zlotnik. After he left the military service, where he had been Assistant Band Leader of the First Cavalry Army Band in 1952 and 1953, his performing career rapidly gained momentum.
In 1954 Emil moved to New York where he played jazz gigs with Charles Mingus, Ed Shaughnessy and Ed Thigpen while doing studio recordings for artists such as Perry Como, the Ray Charles Singers and Mitch Aires. In 1955 Emil joined the George Shearing Quintet. He stayed with the group fo r over four years, playing 51 weeks a year. In 1959 he moved to Los Angeles and became a member of The Wrecking Crew, a nickname given to a group of studio musicians that played anonymously on many records in the 1960s. During this period he worked with the Paul Horn Quintet, Jimmy Witherspoon, the Shorty Rogers Big Band, Don Ellis, Lenny Bruce and Lord Buckley. He also recorded with Frank Sinatra, Nelson Riddle, Judy Garland, Sarah Vaughan and Doris Day. In 1962, in response to a request from President John F. Kennedy, Emil and a small jazz combo joined Sinatra on a tour around the world for the benefit of underprivileged children. This group helped to found the first hospital in Israel for Jewish and Arab children. This was the beginning of Emil’s interest in, and collection of ethnic percussion instruments. While Emil is renowned for his prodigious recording career, he is also known in the industry for his giant percussion instrument collection, the Emil Richards Collection. He soon began working with the legendary microtonal pioneer Harry Partch around this time too. After this world tour, Richards returned to Los Angeles where he recorded with such artists as the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, Bing Crosby and Nat Cole.
He became a member of Frank Zappa’s Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra and recorded several albums with this large orchestra, including Zappa’s first solo album, Lumpy Gravy, in 1967.
Richards is highly successful in Hollywood, being the first call percussionist for the Hollywood film industry, having played on around 2,000 films. (Shaft, Jaws, The Exorcist, Dr. Zhiavago, Taxi Driver, and many many more). He has served several terms on the Board of Directors for the Percussive Arts Society, and donated the largest single-donor collection of instruments to the society museum. Richards is passionately active in Musicians’ Union Local 47 as part of their campaign to get musicians credited in the film industry.