LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Seventy-eight-year-old Emil Richards is Hollywood's go-to percussionist. He was part of the legendary group of studio musicians known as The Wrecking Crew. He can be heard on more than 2,000 TV and movie soundtracks, including several that are up for Oscars tonight. NPR's Neda Ulaby has this profile.

(Soundbite of music, "Addams Family Theme Song")

NEDA ULABY: Those snapping fingers belong to percussionist Emil Richards. He at played bongos here.

(Soundbite of music, "Mission: Impossible Theme Song")

ULABY: And he's manning the marimbas in this 1980 hit.

(Soundbite of song, "The Tide is High")

BLONDIE: (Singing) The tide is high but I'm holding on...

ULABY: The list of albums, films and TV show soundtracks that Emil Richards played on goes for days, weeks, maybe months.

He was born Emilio Raddocia. His parents immigrated from Italy. Richards was about six when he went along with his dad to the music store to buy his brother an accordion.

Mr. EMIL RICHARDS (Musician): I was pulling on his pant leg, said I want something too, I want something too. He said, what do you want? And I just pointed to the first thing I could see.

(Soundbite of music)

ULABY: A xylophone. He played one in the Simpson's theme song.

(Soundbite of music, "Simpsons Theme Song")

ULABY: You can also hear Richards on the xylophone if you've ever seen "The Flintstones," "Scooby Doo," or "Family Guy."

Mr. RICHARDS: I get to do most of the good cartoons, you know. And that's, I got to say, some of the hardest music to play.

ULABY: When he was teenager, Richards was playing jazz in New York City nightclubs. He played in an Army band, then Hollywood. There he occupied a front row seat during decades of music history. He recorded with the Beach Boys, Elvis, and Judy Garland. Frank Sinatra took a shine to Emil Richards and brought him on a 1962 world tour to help children's charities.

(Soundbite of song, Ol' Man River")

Mr. FRANK SINATRA (Late Entertainer): (Singing) You and me, we swept the spring...

Mr. RICHARDS: And he was in top form, singing his buns off.

ULABY: The album, "Sinatra Live in Paris," was recorded during that tour. Richards thinks it could be the singer's best.

(Soundbite of song, "Ol' Man River")

Mr. SINATRA: (Singing) In jail...

Mr. RICHARDS: All of that without a breath, holding jail...

(Soundbite of song, "Ol' Man river")

Mr. SINATRA: (Singing) ...jail, I gets weary...

Mr. RICHARDS: I get weary - and he did it every time and it freaked me out.

ULABY: The musicians flew on Sinatra's private plane with stops in Europe, Asia, and the Mediterranean.

Mr. RICHARDS: Frank had a lot of room in the plane so I filled the belly of frank's plane with instruments.

(Soundbite of music)

ULABY: Richards found them all over the world: camel bells from Egypt, finger cymbals from Thailand, a Chinese opera drum.

(Soundbite of music)

ULABY: Emil Richard's collection of exotic instruments fascinated composers searching for new sounds. They helped shape the soundtracks for "Planet of the Apes," "Jaws," "The Exorcist" and the TV show "Lost." The huge warehouse where he stores his instruments is legendary.

(Soundbite of instrument)

ULABY: But right now Emil Richard is in the middle of his living room whipping a sticklike instrument around his head like an excited little kid. Someone brought it to him from Africa. He's not sure exactly from where.

Mr. RICHARDS: I've discovered you could also play it like this.

(Soundbite of instrument)

ULABY: It's a perfectly ordinary living room except it's crammed with maracas, drums, gamelans, temple bells.

Mr. RICHARDS: This is my turtle collection.

(Soundbite of rattling)

Mr. RICHARDS: It rattles. This is called a devil chaser. They're from the Philippines.

(Soundbite of instrument)

ULABY: One of Richard's passions, besides rare instruments, is his musicians union. He's been active with Local 47 for decades, fighting so far unsuccessfully to get musicians on soundtracks named in movie credits.

Mr. RICHARDS: The guy who brought the porta-toilets gets his name up there. And the music is such an important part of a movie. My name is on about six movies.

ULABY: But Richards has stories about hundreds of them. Playing on Bernard Herman's last score for "Taxi Driver" or taking a break from making the "Dr. Zhivago" soundtrack to perform for Igor Stravinsky.

(Soundbite of music)

ULABY: Or recording the theme song to "Mission: Impossible."

(Soundbite of music, "Mission: Impossible Theme Song")

Mr. RICHARDS: I was studying Indian rhythms at the time. That theme is in five-four time by the way.

(Soundbite of music, "Mission: Impossible Theme Song")

ULABY: During recording, Richards made a mistake. No one else even heard it, but Richards insisted they record it again.

Mr. RICHARDS: And the French horn players were real bummed at me because French horns are a hard instrument to play and their lips were tired, but am I glad because that "Mission: Impossible" played for so many years. Had I had to listen to myself play a really bad mistake, I couldn't have stood that.

ULABY: Emil Richards, usually an Academy Award regular, won't be in the orchestra pit this year. He's busy with two scores for Danny Elfman and for the movie "Cars 2."

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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