HIGH FREQUENCIES: Remembering Dick Richards — The American Music Show

1946 - 2018

Dick Richards
Photo credit: Courtesy Tony Paris Archives (photo by Reno).
From left: Wayne Holloway, producer, RuPaul Charles and Dick Richards.

Sometimes people and events are hard to separate — an explosion of light and sound and energy indistinguishable in their brilliance and impact. Such was the case with the scene inhabited by Dick Richards, James Bond, the Now Explosion, Potsy Duncan, The American Music Show, Ted Rubenstein, Funtone USA, Larry TeeTom Zarrilli, RuPaul and the U-Hauls, Wee Wee Pole, the Singing Peek Sisters, Lahoma Van Zandt, the Nitery, La Palace de Beauté, theCelebrity Club, Paul Burke, Dance-O-Rama, the Fabulous Reina, Attack & Decay, the Pop Tarts, the Lady Bunny, Nelson Sullivan, TV Dinner, Cocktail Girlz … who came first? Whose brilliance shone brightest? Was there a single star around which everything else orbited — or were the many bright stars part of a greater universe created with a Big Bang?

For those who don’t have a good memory, or didn’t write down everything in journals and calendars as it happened, those days in Atlanta — as the ’70s turned into the ’80s, Rose’s Cantina became the 688 Club, musicians began to cut their hair and wear skinny ties, queer and straight danced together at Backstreet and Weekends — from 1981 to 2005, Dick Richards captured a large portion of it on videotape. Wherever the action was, Dick Richards and James Bond were there with a bulky video camera rig immortalizing the moment for the ages. Go to YouTube, type in “misterrichardson,” and as fast as your Mbps allows, those wild, wonderful, wacky, and wicked nights will come streaming back to you, more vivid in their lo-fi glory than your brain can process.

Atlanta lost Dick Richards Sept. 13, but his beauty, his wit, his wisdom, and his keen eye behind the lens will live on in the videos and television programs he left for us, to view and review to better understand ourselves at a time when we were young. Invincible. And the party never stopped.

Ld Music

When news of Richards’ death first spread, from a nondescript Facebook post of photos of Richards by his longtime friend and TAMS co-conspirator James Bond, Atlantans then and now quickly began to eulogize him. Poet and musician Debra Hiers wrote, “Oh no, sad to hear, dang that ticking time, American Music Show was quintessential Atlanta.” Indie music veteran Cheryl Payne, now living in exile in Memphis, exclaimed, “Oh no!. What a visionary! He captured an amazing time in Atlanta that we all shared as friends living through magical days. I loved Dick Richards.” Famed DJ Larry Tee, who inhabits many of Richards’ videos and released music on Richards’ Funtone USA label, concurred in a more somber tone, “He was a pioneer in so many amazing ways.”

Indeed, he was. With a motto that guided him through life — “If it’s not fun, don’t do it” — Richards sailed through the stages of a South experiencing growing pains with a smile on his face and a camera in hand. He started the cable access show The American Music Show with then-city council person Bond, Duncan and Bud Lowry in 1981 — very likely influenced, in part, by Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party that ran on Manhattan Cable in New York City from 1978 to 1982 — and kept TAMS going until 2005.

After the show ended, and Richards discovered he had leukemia, he worked hard, aided by his partner David Goldman, to make sure his video archives would be properly stored and accessible for future generations, giving them to the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library at Emory University.

Thinking about Dick Richards, one can’t help but remember all the illustrious characters and personalities that made up his world as he helped forge theirs. I can see him now, smiling, no doubt, as he reads this.

Larry Tee (ex-singer, musician, performance artist in the Now Explosion and La Palace de Beauté; deejay and clothing designer): Dick Richards was queer decades before the new generation coined the term. I remember discovering his American Music Show with the help of my then-partner Lahoma van Zandt. In an age when AIDS had become the gay plague and Reagan politics were poisoning the public, he fought back through comedy and song with his public access show. The weird mix of gay/straight/sex workers/performance artists on TV was hilarious, and the alternative to the hateful nuclear scare era. But Dick never seemed to be political, and he was always laughing harder than anyone else at the in-your-face political humor, whether it was funny or when it bombed. He nurtured artists like Molli Worthington, Tom Zarilli, Potsy Duncan, Paul Burke, Elouise Montague, Clare Parker, the Now Explosion, Deaundra Peek and the Peek Sisters, not to mention the drag Mona Lisa, RuPaul.

I remember that RuPaul had found The American Music Show on cable access, had contacted Dick, and wanted to perform on the show even though he wasn’t sure what he would do. But Ru was so brimming with talent and enthusiasm that it wasn’t a problem at all. Even watching the young RuPaul was like looking into the sun. Dick acted as though RuPaul was no more special than any of his other ‘stars,’ but he had the foresight to give Ru his first TV show and put out his first records. He put out my first records also, under the Now Explosion and then La Palace De Beauté. He treated all his friends and performers like stars and helped bring so much creative talent to light in Atlanta. At the time, another night at TV Dinner or a comedy character-driven poetry reading at the Celebrity Club where we all created characters and read bad poetry, seemed like just a way to make our nights in Atlanta more exciting. Looking back, we were lucky as shit to have had Dick (and his partner David) and his family in Atlanta.

Potsy Duncan (part-time performance artist and television personality): I can’t think of many people who influenced my life as much as Dick did, and it’s so hard to try to distill it down to a few words.

For more than 20 years I sat beside Dick Richards every week on The American Music Show. While he and James Bond started the show together, it wouldn’t have continued for so long if it weren’t for Dick. We rarely discussed it ahead of time. Dick would have a couple of things lined up — a guest or a tape — but mostly people just came without any idea of what we were doing. There was always a group of people who would show up, but the people in that group changed over the years. Dick would always encourage participation, everyone was fair game. There were a lot of recurring characters — BettyJack Devine, Duffy Odum, Conjure Woman, the many Peek Sisters, Heather Fairingdale — but many characters were created on the spot, using the stash of costumes and wigs Dick accumulated over the years. He made it easy for people to express themselves.

There’s a handful of people who truly and totally influenced my life and Dick Richards was certainly one of them. He was funny and smart and had a crazy laugh which made you want to make him laugh. He encouraged people. You did things you didn’t really intend to do but he pushed you to it, whether for your own good or to push you a little outside your own box. And it was always fun.

Clare Butler (performance artist, ex-singer in the Now Explosion, writer): Dick Richards was a quiet instigator and the most subversive documentarian I’ve ever known. He, along with his co-hosts, created a medium for queer and alternative culture in Atlanta and broadcast it every week for 24 years to anyone with a TV who tuned in to The American Music Show. The show was a major force in normalizing gay life, allowing viewers to feel connected and OK about being themselves in what was often a hostile world of attacks and arrests.

With polite Southern charm, he encouraged countless performance artists to be as absurd and entertaining as they could possibly be on the show, onstage, and in their everyday lives. He never inserted himself into the decision-making of any performance, instead always looking for the unexpected in whatever was happening. I recall watching him film many events laughing and looking into the viewfinder as if the performance was for his own amusement. He truly delighted in the antics of the performers he supported.

Dick was certainly one of my earliest supporters as a performer. He wanted to be sure my band, the Now Explosion, had a 45 and an EP to promote, so we became the first band on the Funtone USA label. The Funtone family grew to include several bands, including RuPaul’s first band, Wee Wee Pole.

Looking back, I realize he videotaped the story of my life and those around me for decades. He was there with his camera documenting countless performances I was involved with in Atlanta and New York, my living space, whenever I moved, and my wedding. Since his passing, most all of those who knew and worked with him wonder how their lives could have ever been as wild and wonderful without his consistent and enduring support and his willingness to document all that he could. I am forever grateful to him.

Tom Zarrilli (journalist, actor, television personality, music and club impresario): Dick was a remarkable and unique person and a joy to know. I had the pleasure of knowing him since the mid-’70s before his foray into public access. When he first came to Atlanta he worked for the George McGovern campaign, and his milieu was the emerging leftist political scene in the city. I had great admiration for his aesthetic as he produced The American Music Show with next to no budget, just raw enthusiasm and a delightful, albeit crazed, sense of humor. Dick was much like Andy Warhol — at a personal level very private, polite and reserved, but he loved to surround himself with outlandish and exotic personalities. He had a knack for provoking people’s creativity. He inspired me as well as others to think, “I can do something no one else is doing, and I can get away with the way I want to do it.” He affected countless people with his TV show and with Funtone USA. He will be missed.

Susan Archie (artist, graphics designer, World of anArchie): You never got a second take with Dick.

Paul Burke (actor, performance artist, singer, a/k/a Duffy Odom, a/k/a Col. Lonnie Fain, a/k/a Baby Weemus): I have said that our loss of Dick Richards is the end of an area. Metaphorically, that is correct. We who were at the beginning of that thing that we now see as the result of our fun times together, however, had no idea where we were going with it all. The legacy that still exists from Dick’s “if it’s not fun, don’t do it” message also contains within it the idea that one should not let anyone stop you, and that you have a right to express who you are no matter who or what you are. We all believed in that and, with all love and respect, Dick and James made it possible for us to do that and to spread that word throughout our community and far beyond. We will not see his like again. Not for a long while, anyway.

Philip Campbell (former 688 Club manager; Cause Evaluation Specialist at Pacific Gas & Electric): My interactions with Dick were through the various artists he helped support: The Now Explosion, Wee-wee Pole/Ru Paul, the debut of Opal Foxx. Without fail, Dick was always charming and friendly, even in the chaos of a Now Explosion event … that band never just did a show!

What he did bring was the championing of joy in the face of oppression. His vision was queer in the broadest, most inclusive sense, and joyful. It was a singular celebration of the quirky and the underground.

Sandra Beckham (performance artist, ex-singer with the Now Explosion, a/k/a Elouise “Champagne” Montague; trophy wife): There will never be another like Dick! Sweet and generous of spirit and material form. He was a very funny, talented man in his own right and fostered talent in others. Without Dick, there would be no RuPaul or Pop Tarts or Nelson Sullivan videos … Dick was the creative force, along with James Bond, behind The American Music Show, a platform for offbeat entertainers in Atlanta and beyond. But mostly Dick was all about fun, thus the Funtone USA record label that produced the Now Explosion, Wee Wee Pole (RuPaul & the U-Hauls) … Dick put his money where his heart was and financed the creative dreams of many gifted performers. He will never be forgotten and always loved!

James Bond (ex-politician, co-founder of The American Music Show, photo journalist, family archivist): He was one of my oldest friends. I loved him. We were on the radio together and then TV which is one of the highlights of my life, The American Music Show.

I hate this. I will miss Dick forever.

FUNTONE USA: Dick Richards’ life, of sorts. Collage courtesy Tony Paris Archives.

(An edited version of this article appears in the October, 2018, print edition of Creative Loafing).