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Ron Reichard's Sentimental Journey

This St. Louis crooner plays old tunes for old folks.


A "Reality Orientation Board" hangs on a wall at the Cardinal Ritter Senior Services Adult Day Care center. The board is designed to ground the center's clients — the hollow-eyed Alzheimer's patient, the man with Down syndrome, a feeble grandmother — in the here and now. On this day it reads: "Today is Monday, January 29, 2007. The season is winter. The weather is cold and cloudy. The next holiday is Groundhog Day."

Nan Boelloeni, the activities director at the Shrewsbury facility, informs a group of octogenarians that it's National Puzzle Day. Among the residents listening to this announcement are a gentleman who used to be friendly with Charles Lindbergh, a Cuban immigrant who salutes visitors as if he's a general-in-exile, and a former Arthur Murray dance instructor and one-time professional magician.

Ron Reichard is uneasy about the whole puzzle-day affair. With a Martin acoustic guitar in tow, he's just arrived from his south-city home and is here to perform a selection of golden oldies that he hopes will coax memories of vital youth. As always, he demands an attentive audience. It's what he likes best about the elder-care circuit: no booze to make them chatty, no secondhand smoke to irritate his throat. Most certainly, he doesn't want the house doing puzzles.

"This is kind of a disaster," Reichard complains. The crowd's already thin due to a cold spell — and now they're going to be distracted with the darn puzzles. He brightens, though, when Boelloeni qualifies her announcement.

"Ron Reichard's here to sing for us," she says. "We can turn it into National Puzzle Week — we can do that, can't we? — so we can watch Ron perform?"

Reichard (pronounced "Richard"), who's been strumming tunes for appreciative seniors at Cardinal Ritter for the past six years, arranges his gear: a collapsible bench, a suitcase-size Fender amp, a microphone and stand. Overstuffed recliners, each with a handmade afghan draping its back, line two walls.

He begins his set with a song made popular by Dean Martin. "You're nobody 'til somebody loves you," he sings, his rich, dynamic baritone filling the room. The sunshiny hits of yesteryear are what this group craves — melodies of hopeful, happier days. And that's exactly what this St. Louis crooner delivers: "Pennies from Heaven," "A Dreamer's Holiday," "Yes, Sir, That's My Baby." It could be the reason why he's fully booked for the year. In fact, the 66-year-old Reichard is fresh off a run that would impress even Bruce Springsteen — sixteen shows in twenty days.

Reichard is winding up his 45-minute act when a man named Stanley, who's been slumped in a chair the entire show, says he wants to hear "Take Me Out to the Cardinals."

Reichard pauses. "Take Me Out to the Ballgame?" he asks. Thinking that maybe Stanley didn't familiarize himself with the reality board, Reichard explains, "We can't do that one yet. We're still in hockey season." The man, who's donning a red Cardinals T-shirt, repeats his request. Ron listens and nods, but doesn't budge. "It's January," he says, and spring training hasn't even started. "We've got one more month until March. Then I'll play it."

With that, Ron Reichard launches into "Glow Worm," an old Mills Brothers hit written by Johnny Mercer. As the song ends, Reichard gives a benediction, the same one he always uses: "Unless you've got something good to say about me, don't say anything at all." And with that, he waves goodbye, loads up his gear and hits the road.

Delmar Gardens West, Altenheim, McKnight Places II and III. Ron Reichard's played them all. Cardinal Ritter, Annie Malone, Alexian Brothers, Parc Provence. Been there, done that. Reichard's performed for people on their deathbeds, sang to spry ladies more than a century old and watched men lose their dance partners to fatal disease.

"They all vary a little bit. They're all different," says Reichard, racing his beat-up Celebrity out to the Chesterfield Villas retirement community. He's running late to his 2 o'clock gig.

He's concerned because it's Super Bowl Sunday, and he might be competing with a pre-game party. But he needn't worry. A woman named Jean usually sits at the front table and chats with him between songs, and there's the fellow who always dances, which gets the crowd in the mood. What's best about the Villas, though, is that most residents here actually know what day it is.

At some of places, says Reichard, "the people are a little more challenged. The point is — you never know what you're in for. Sometimes when you're expecting the best, it turns out the worst, and when you're expecting the best it turns out the worst and then becomes the best. "

The same might be said about his career.

Reichard didn't begin earning money from his musical talents until the late 1990s, when he was a few years shy of retirement from his job at an appliance store. His plan was to stick it out until it was time to draw on Social Security and savings. But management changed at the store, and he didn't like the new direction — rewarding salesmen who overcharged for appliances, giving the high earners better parking spaces and earlier hours.

"To him, that was bullshit. He couldn't compete with these young guys. But he was too young to retire, and he had to come up with some kind of income," says friend Marty Luepker Sr., owner of Al Smith's Feasting Fox, a south-city restaurant and bar where Reichard performs weekly.

Unbeknownst to many friends, Reichard was a prodigal singer and guitarist who had given up a career in music before it even really began. When the music world fell hard for Elvis Presley, Reichard refused to change, preferring to remain happily captive to a bygone musical era.

Still, Reichard enjoyed going out to hear live music. In the late '90s, he used to hit Riddles Penultimate Café & Wine Bar every Sunday. That's when Jobim Dreams — a duo consisting of guitarist Mary Dee Brown and singer/flutist/guitarist Margaret Bianchetta — played. As he became a regular, the two noticed their new fan. "He'd walk in, always with his hat on, every week and have dinner," recalls Brown. The pair struck up a conversation, and when Reichard told her he played, she invited him to perform.

"We were bowled over by it," says Brown. The three became fast friends, and Brown and Bianchetta helped Reichard get a regular Saturday-night show at the Soulard spot Lagniappe's — a gig he continues to play each week.

"Pretty soon he quit selling refrigerators," says Brown.

Reichard developed a small fan base, which included a number of musicians decades younger than he. One of them suggested he try retirement homes, which pay a decent wage (between $50 and $75 for an hour's work). Reichard spent a day with the Yellow Pages, calling nursing homes.

"I figured that that was a more fertile territory if I was going to get a lot of work," he says. "And I did all right. It maybe worked better than I thought it would."

One reason he got the bookings, notes Reichard, was simple demographics. The tunes he plays are those that retirement homes' aging residents grew up with. While the rest of the world moved from Elvis to Dylan to disco, punk and hip-hop, Reichard — with his "passion of former days," to use a Winston Churchill phrase — rarely ventures beyond the music of the 1930s and '40s.

"Back then, music was way less complicated," he explains. "These days you've got all these names, and there are so many different kinds of music. People have all these intellectual ways of explaining how great this music is. They dissect the music. Now it's 'art.' In those days there were three kinds of music: Popular, classical and hillbilly."

Reichard calls his chosen repertoire "sweet songs," but he usually hits a broken chord when he tries to explain that to a youngster. "I'll say, 'Songs of the '30s and '40s.' 'You mean like rhythm and blues?' They'll have no idea. Probably the best way to put it is: I do songs that Lawrence Welk would have played."

The old folks love their Welk, but few facilities can afford to bus in an entire orchestra. Reichard offers the same service with voice and guitar.

It doesn't hurt that a few of the homes are, as Reichard puts it, "like Las Vegas hotels. They're really opulent. That Garden Villas South on Tesson Ferry? That place is really sparkling. Big dining room and big chandeliers." Ditto the St. Louis Altenheim on South Broadway: "A class place, really first-class."

Once in a while, he'll play to a crowd of Alzheimer's patients at McKnight Place. "Those are tough ones, definitely," says Reichard. "But then I'll be playing a song, and out of the blue someone starts singing along." (There's an added bonus to playing McKnight: "On the way home I stop at the Pasta House and have one of their best fish sandwiches, and that's really a nice night.")

"Music is the only thing that gets to them," explains Pam Huseman, activities director for McKnight Place. "That's something in their brain that they don't forget. They really like Ron. They relate him to Gene Autry. Some of them say he sounds like Perry Como. The ones I like — like Ron — I book for the whole year, because you're not going to get them if you don't."

Ron Reichard keeps a small museum of memories tucked away in a couple of bedroom dresser drawers. His father taught him the value of documenting one's life. He's archived all the clippings and photos from his adolescence, back when he had a measure of local fame.

His home, a few blocks south of Tower Grove Park, is filled with ornate nineteenth-century antiques — more a grandma's house than a bachelor pad. Two photos hang in the stairwell leading up to his second-floor apartment: one of Groucho Marx, the other of his beloved Bing Crosby.

Reichard has never been married and has no children. "I'm too independent," he explains, adding that he's had his girlfriends, but decided that he was too stubborn to get hitched. "I have all these interests of mine, and there are not too many people who could live with me. Everything is my way, and what I'm interested in doing, and the way I do it."

He developed a love of song early, racing home after school to spin tunes on the record player. "I'd wear them out until the hole got too big." His parents bought him a toy ukulele when he was ten. He later upgraded to a baritone ukulele and kept practicing. At thirteen he was discovered by "a lady who promoted young entertainers," he recalls.

Soon Ronnie Reichard was on all of the local television affiliates, including a few appearances on Dance Party with Russ David, a 1950s music show on Channel 5. He started performing at sock hops, schools and nursing homes. A photo in his scrapbook shows a boy standing with four others on a stage; a sign hanging from the ceiling reads, "Aeolian's Stepping Stones to Stardom, WEW, 770 kilocycles."

"I remember that night like it was yesterday," he says, gazing at the photo. Another page in the scrapbook holds a letter, dated 1953, from St. Louis department-store magnate Arthur Baer, president of the now-defunct downtown store Stix, Baer & Fuller. The executive took a shine to Reichard. He told the youngster he could help. Baer was friends with Eddie Cantor, a revered 1950s comedian and singer who co-hosted the nationally televised show The Colgate Comedy Hour.

Baer wrote Cantor a letter, asking that he give the boy an audition. "That was the closest I ever came to making it big," recalls Reichard.

Eddie Cantor declined. "I like Ronnie's personality," reads his typewritten response. "I like his voice — I like everything about him." The letter closes with Cantor wishing Ronnie well. "I think your boy deserves an opportunity of being seen by and heard by the largest number of people."

It was a minor setback, but Ronnie kept playing. One photo shows him singing to a crowded auditorium. He seemed to be on his way. But in the summer of 1956, history intervened — and history's name was Elvis Presley. From the start, Reichard couldn't stand Presley's music. Unlike his teenage peers, he couldn't stomach rock & roll at all — in fact, he still can't. Too noisy, he says, and it drowns out the softer melodies.

"Music changed, and I wasn't into it," Reichard says flatly. His father, always an encouraging voice, suggested that Ronnie update his style. "But I drew the line. I didn't like it, and he couldn't understand why I couldn't bend a little bit. I wouldn't bend. And in fact, I still won't."

"He didn't want to do any leg-shaking," concludes Mary Dee Brown, "so he took his toys and went home."

Over the next 40 years, Reichard "did all these crazy things" for work: He taught guitar lessons, repaired electronics and fixed church organs. For a while he was a DJ on KSTL (690 AM), "playing hillbilly music." A lazy left eye kept him out of Vietnam, and he wound up selling appliances.

"I never had a job that I didn't fight, no matter what it was," says Reichard. "I couldn't change dimes" — tossing out an old-timer's phrase — "and not find something about it that wasn't any good." Pause. "But that's the public for you."

But he never lost the bug. Most nights he'd go out to dinner and then come home and play guitar. "I never really let up," he says.

"I didn't even let anyone know that I did music, because I always felt that was what I was interested in, and the music that I knew nobody could even talk to me about. They didn't have any idea what it was all about. I just shut up about it."

Reichard partly blames genetics or, specifically, his grandfather Max Luttbeg. "I inherited my stubbornness from him," he says.

Luttbeg was a famous wrestler at the turn of the nineteenth century. He arrived in New York City from Russia in the early 1900s and, along with his wife — Reichard's grandmother — moved to St. Louis a few years later, where he continued wrestling. Photos of Reichard's grandfather posing with an opponent, A.J. Thibodeaux, are archived in the Library of Congress.

After Luttbeg retired from the mat, he turned an accordion hobby into a profession and headed out on the vaudeville circuit. He also built accordions, some of which are housed at the World of Accordions Museum in Superior, Wisconsin.

"He used to kid around," recalls Reichard. "He used to say, 'We oughta go into vaudeville — vodeville, he called it. He even had the billing: 'Max Luttbeg and Grandson.'" Letting out a riotous laugh, Reichard adds, "He took the top billing!"

Luttbeg wrote an unpublished autobiography. It's an odd book, says Reichard. The manuscript begins with Luttbeg's life story, but soon devolves into a series of chapters on wrestling moves, and eventually becomes a screed against Luttbeg's archenemy — bodybuilder and self-proclaimed "Father of Physical Culture" Bernarr Macfadden. The last sentence of the autobiography, says Reichard, captures his grandfather's frame of mind. It reads: "I'll see you all in hell."

Reichard's worldview is more tempered, even if his friends joke about his "doom-and-gloom attitude" and call him a lovable curmudgeon.

"I've gotten to the point where the world is changed," says the man who'll only watch classic movies on TV. "I'm a time capsule. I live in the middle 1940s, OK? That's where I'm at. And I've never really gotten out of it."

The performance space at Chesterfield Villas is on the ground floor. Reichard double-parks the Celebrity and carts in his gear. He sets up next to a grand piano at the elbow of the L-shape room. The bright, sunny space looks like an empty hotel restaurant. Somewhere the Beatles' "Love Me Do" is playing. The Super Bowl is three hours away, and the activities director is encouraging people to come down, which bodes well.

Reichard recalls a show he did a few weeks before at one of the Delmar Gardens facilities. "I walk in and the guy says, 'Well, we got a group of baton twirlers.' The first thing that comes into my mind is, 'Why do they book this stuff so tight? Either call me and get rid of me, or get rid of the baton twirlers.'" But the show was beautiful, he says. "I thought, 'God, what a crazy event this is going to be — what an aggravating afternoon.' And it was just great."

By 2 p.m. a good 30 people have come down. Reichard sits on his stool and says, "I'm Ron Reichard. Thanks for coming down on Super Bowl Sunday." He pulls a tattered piece of paper from his pocket, his handwritten set list, which contains about 50 numbers.

He begins with "My Blue Heaven," and the words float out of his mouth; he captures his audience immediately. When he sings, he tilts his head back a little bit, like he's singing toward the sunset. He finishes the song with a hearty laugh and starts strumming the next. A minute into it, though, the fire alarm begins to screech. Ron looks up, shocked. People start shuffling toward the front door.

Reichard puts his guitar in his case and follows suit. "Unbelievable," he says with a frustrated shake of the head. "You just knew something like this was going to happen." The group is nearly to the door when the alarm stops. Reichard lets out an audible sigh and returns to the microphone.

Within a few songs, his voice has warmed up. Despite the occasional interruption of firemen looking for the source of the alarm, Reichard is unfazed. He sings of green velvet landscapes and wrap-around skies of moonlight blue, his rich smoky voice sustaining notes like a church organ.

When he kicks off "A Dreamer's Holiday," listeners ride along as though his voice has sprouted wings, accompanied by his softly strummed guitar: "Climb aboard a butterfly/And take off on the breeze/Let your worries flutter by/And do the things you please."

One woman in front sits alone, blank-faced. Even when she danced with a partner to "King of the Road," she seemed bored. But when Reichard starts "It's Been a Long, Long Time," the woman suddenly brightens and starts harmonizing in pitch-perfect tone. "Kiss me once, then kiss me twice, then kiss me once again," she sings, "it's been a long, long time." It's like Reichard flipped a switch in her brain, and she's twelve years old again.

That isn't too far from the truth, says Cynthia Briggs, head of the Music Therapy Program at Maryville University. "Long after we've lost a great many of our skills, including language and a lot of other communication skills, we can still sing with words." Lyrics are memorized and stored in the brain differently than language. People can have damage to the language centers of the brain, yet still have lyrics embedded in their musical memories.

This music becomes an important tool for family members. They can sing with Grandma when they've lost the ability to talk with her. Briggs describes it as "pulling families in, and using music as a way keeping them engaged when they're feeling like, 'I can't talk to Mom anymore.'"

When a certain melody tickles a certain neuron, magic happens, says Jack Jenkins, adjunct professor at Maryville and licensed music therapist. Someone hears their favorite song, he says, and their heart rate rises, which dispatches more blood to the brain.

"The brain and synapses start firing, which releases endorphins," explains Jenkins. "Endorphins then start everything kicking in, and you get rush of adrenaline. Once that kicks in, we're up. We're not hanging out in the wheelchairs any more."

More often than not, the music that triggers the explosion, adds Briggs, is the music heard in adolescence. "The group that is in homes now are between 70 and 90, and they were doing '40s big band — Glenn Miller and, later, Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day."

As the years progress, says Briggs, the baby boomers are going to push that era out of the community rooms. Nursing homes will relive the British Invasion, then arena rock. Jokes Briggs: "We'll have to get everybody fake lighters to hold up. Will we have music therapists writing raps for older people?" she wonders. "'I've lost my hearing, I've lost my gait.' It'll be an interesting rap."

In essence, Reichard's music career faces a similar fate. "When it's over, it's over," he says. "I'll probably be over when it's over, so I don't worry about it. These days, even people who are 70 go back to rock & roll. It's not going to be long, and they're going to want to hear Elvis songs."

Upstairs at Lagniappe's on a Saturday night, Reichard is winding down the last song and has just asked the audience not to say anything bad about him when he's gone. A few of his admirers are hanging around tonight, including Margaret Bianchetta and guitarist Tom Hall. In the seven years he's been performing around St. Louis, Reichard has fallen in with an interesting crowd of musicians.

Bianchetta built a whole band around Ron Reichard, "but it wasn't good enough for him," she says, sitting at an upstairs table with a glass of red wine while Reichard dines on tortellini. One of the bonuses at Lagniappe's is the free meal that comes with the gig.

Their band began as a two-person ensemble — Bianchetta on flute, Reichard on clarinet (his second instrument). More kept coming until it was a ragtag ensemble they dubbed the Torture Chamber Orchestra.

"That's when it got too much for Ron," she says. "It was frustrating to him, once again, because of his perfectionism. He would like his best his best efforts to go to an all-around good sound, and the Torture Chamber Orchestra does not have that."

"As fine a musician as Margaret is, she'll tolerate all of it," counters Reichard. "That's why I don't want to screw with it any more. It's like a grade-school band."

As Reichard emerged from exile, he started drawing the attention of musicians much younger than him, who shared a love of song and a desire to celebrate the lyrical and melodic beauty of early twentieth-century American popular music.

"Some of these younger people in their forties have a little understanding of the music that has come and gone, and do the music of all periods and different styles. We have a little bit more to talk about."

Each Monday — "and it is every Monday, no exceptions" — Reichard attends a potluck with many of these musicians. He's particularly close to Mary Dee Brown and Bianchetta, whom Reichard considers "a real bohemian — a total bohemian. You won't find any more complex a personality in the world than hers. I'm bad, but she might go me one better."

"He is kind of a shoot-yourself-in-the-foot guy," retorts Bianchetta, playfully poking at her friend. A few years back, she says, the Monday potluck group bought him time at a studio so he could record a CD, "and he complained the entire time."

The end result, however, is the beautiful, sixteen-song CD Pretend, on which Reichard performs both popular standards ("Pocket Full of Dreams" and "As Time Goes By") and relative obscurities ("Small Fry," "A, You're Adorable," "But, Beautiful").

Among the group, Reichard's knowledge and insight is unparalleled. They've pushed him, without success, to stray from the comfortable routine of restaurants and retirement homes and move onto a bigger stage.

"He could tell stories," says Bianchetta. "He knows everything about every song. He knows the history. He knows the year and can tell you why he likes the song."

"Nobody plays like that anymore. It's like he's a time capsule of that particular style," explains Tom Hall, sipping a beer upstairs at Lagniappe's. Hall has been playfully quibbling with Reichard about the chord structure of "Stardust." The younger musician has always done it one way, but Ron insists that his is the right way.

Later, Reichard explains his confidence: "I'm not just doing new versions of old songs. I'm doing old songs the way that they would have performed in the day that they were popular. And any of my musical friends will tell you, you couldn't go anyplace and hear these songs the way that I do them. And if you do, it's going to have more of a jazz edge to it. I'm the only game in town."

Reichard no longer tries to convince people that the music he enjoys is superior. "I'm learning more and more to keep my mouth shut. Most people think, 'My God, he doesn't know what he's talking about.'

"But they don't know what I know — and I don't know what they know. I'm going to give them that. I don't listen to the stuff that they're familiar with, and they don't listen to the stuff that I'm familiar with."

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