Battle Creek’s Proverbial “Little Drummer Boy” --- Bruce Richardson
Updated: Jun 7, 2020
Bruce Richardson began playing the drums more than sixty years ago. He was nine years old when he began drumming. Initially he tried playing the trombone but soon learned that he possessed a natural affinity for beating the skins.
Like many of his peers, Bruce got his start playing in the school band and then progressed to marching/concert bands and the high school orchestra. However, his love for playing sports created a conflict for the gifted musician so when offered the choice, surprisingly he chose sports. Upon making that choice, his band teacher Mr. Art Gorman reminded him to “never give up music” because of what seemed to be his innate ability.
When he auditioned for the BCCHS high school band, Mr. Charles Kirsch, snatched him up for a three-year stint with the band follies, orchestra marching band and concert band, as well as head drummer. This speaks volumes for Bruce’s abilities because it was no secret that the band director did not have a consciousness for racial diversity. After high school, Bruce played the drums in the college concert, jazz and pit band.
He remained a formal music student because his knowledge of music made the study an “easy college credit.” Bruce also played with Battle Creek’s Civic Theatre, Battle Creek Symphony and “The Leila Follies” for a period.
At the age of sixteen, Bruce co-founded a small ensemble called “The Blue Notes” comprised of Bobby Holley (vocalist), Danny ‘Ira” McGee (saxophonist) and Willie Hollis (Keyboardist). He says, “it was difficult to find a steady, available guitar player” so that position was filled with pick up players from Fort Custer military base and the Battle Creek community. They played regularly at the Elks Club on Battle Creek’s East End along with various high school dances.
The members were surprised when someone passed the hat and they got paid! Initially, the band members reveled in the privilege to play music for others to enjoy. They never considered getting paid to play!
“We never knew we could get money for playing!” exclaimed Bruce. “That opened up a whole new world for us.”
So, the young men were referred to boxer/Golden Gloves trainer Dick Goldston who became their manager. “We got PAID then!” Bruce said. “I was making GOOD money; about $40 to $50 a week. That was good money back in the early sixties.”
But when Ira’s dad told us he was taking our money and we should have much more than he was paying us, we confronted Goldstone. He immediately said that “was a damn lie.” Richardson said, “we believed him until we began noticing he was driving a new car and moved into a big fancy house.” Shortly thereafter, the group decided to part ways with Goldstone.
“That was my first introduction to how cut throat the music business could be,” Richardson said.
The group got experience by playing for various groups, clubs and dances. They heard about Ed Joplin, Eddie Hollis, Bobby Parker as well as Jr. Walker who played at the El Grotto Lounge on what was known as “Blue Monday” night. That was Richardson’s first exposure to jazz and he was “amazed”! His sole music genres at the time were R&B/rock and roll.
“But jazz turned my head!” he said. “Oh WOW!”
From time to time, Mrs. Helen Montgomery, owner of the El Grotto Lounge, gave the young teenager the opportunity to sit in the back and listen. Other times, his ensemble members would stand outside and listen to Jr. Walker rehearse. Upon turning eighteen years-old, Ms. Helen informed Richardson that she had spoken with Jr. Walker who said he could sit in with the band. He was surprised that the young drummer, who had a very sharp ear for music, knew how to play all his material! “I’d been practicing!” Bruce said. At the age of nineteen, Bruce Richardson officially became a drummer for Jr. Walker and the All-Star Band.
Jr. Walker also had a new tune that was being released on a 45 and Bruce “knew that too!” That’s when Walker recruited him. At the age of nineteen, But Bruce didn’t want to play with “those old guys.” He then talked to his mother about it and she encouraged him to do what he thought was best, so while Bruce took his time considering the pros and cons of playing with Jr. Walker, he placed “an offer on the table that I couldn’t turn down for $300/week.”
At the time, Johnny Bristol had connections with Motown in Detroit, where auditions were held every Saturday morning. Motown snatched Jr. Walker and his All Stars up and they signed a lucrative contract. Bruce lamented over the fact that, as a minor, he had to bring his mother along. He got embarrassed when he was trying to hit on then rookie Diana Ross (of the Supremes) as he tried to appear grown and important. The agent said, “your mother is ready to sign the contract now, Mr. Richardson.”
After Bruce started “making money”, he was able to buy his class ring, clothes and pay his telephone bill. In his travels, he’s met a keyboard player from Chicago who came to Michigan to work for periods of time. “He found work when I couldn’t find any,” he said.
Meanwhile, Bruce’s mother, who worked for Calhoun County Judge Ryan asked him to review the 15-page contract for validity and loopholes. With there being none, he assured Mrs. Richardson of its strength. To this day, Bruce Richardson still receives royalties from the hits “Satan’s Blues”, “Huey Steps Out” and “Brain Washer” released under Jr. Walker’s contract with Motown. These tunes can be found on the Soul to Soul CD recently released. Bruce’s picture is posted on the back of the CD.
Surprisingly, Richardson says he “wasn’t really hot about playing with Jr. Walker”. He didn’t enjoy “living out of a suitcase” or the fact that Jr. housed them in remote hotels that were far away from town and “the women.” In retrospect, he understands that Jr. Walker was basically protecting them from the onslaught of groupies, but the musicians didn’t really like being so isolated.
“We didn’t have transportation to get into the city since we traveled in a reconditioned school bus that eventually was upgraded to a reconditioned Greyhound bus,” Bruce said, “That was our only form of transportation. The bus was there to take us to the playing venues and that was it. We weren’t afforded the opportunity or luxury to have a social life beyond playing in the band.”
Being in Jr. Walker’s band soon got old to Bruce. He only lasted eight or nine months before leaving the group.
“I wanted to explore and live life,” he said. “I also wanted to go to college and see a world outside of Battle Creek, Michigan. He and lifelong friend, Bobby Holly planned to enlist together but Bobby was in love and didn’t want to leave his sweetheart, Bobbi Ratcliff. They celebrate more than fifty years of marriage. Ironically, it was Bruce who introduced them back in 1966.
But Richardson and another close friend, Richie Chivers enlisted under the buddy system and didn’t see each other again until they returned to the states. As a military soldier, Bruce competed in a talent show and won. He returned the following week and won again. On a tour to Germany, he met several musicians who played at the officers’ club. At one point, he heard a familiar voice at the club and learned it was Tony Washington who also played for Jr. Walker.
Upon his return, Jr. Walker approached Richardson about playing with his group again. At this point, though, he was using two drummers instead of one. He tried to adapt to the new two-drummer system, but “couldn’t get into it.” He started playing around town with Jackie Beavers, Willie Brown and Chapter Two and too many other groups to mention. Bruce had so many bookings that he started taking his summers off. He played consistently for many, many three-years and really enjoyed it.
During that time, he got married and had two children, recognizing the need for more steady income and commitment to family he fell back on experience gleaned from his college education as a radiology technician. He retired from that profession after 47 years.
Since he had family in the Chicago area, he visited frequently and sat in with groups down there. He had a cousin who was also a musician and Richardson enjoyed the opportunity to visit family and make money at the same time. It was a way of life until 2011, when his cousin fell into bad health and the challenges of big city playing became greater with issues like double parking/tickets/towing, parking and thievery of equipment.
Currently, Bruce Richardson has been playing for Mount Zion A.M.E. Church for more than twenty years, furthering his musical knowledge and newfound interest in gospel music. He also plays for Battle Creek’s racially diverse community choir, Echoes of Grace directed by long-time chorister Wyoming Matthews. This musician still plays in and around the greater Battle Creek area and has performed as a special guest alumni artist with the Battle Creek Central High School Band Follies. They also made numerous additional alumni band appearances with the Follies. The players have made recent appearance at the Pasches’ Restaurant with their lifelong music ensemble, Bobby Holley, “Ira” Dan McGee and Sonny Holley a veteran player with Jr. Walker for more than nine years, appearing all over the world.
He is a 1963 graduate of Battle Creek Central High School and completed degrees with Kellogg Community College and Spring Arbor University. Richardson is a Vietnam War Veteran and active member of the American Legion Post 257 (renamed is Michael Dickinson II) and serves on the Executive Board of the NAACP..
“I have been blessed with two children, eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. They have been a constant joy in my life, never causing any heartache. It becomes an emotional experience attending their various activities as I watch them come into their own. Three of those grandchildren are musicians. I hope that’s in the genes!”