Celebrating the biggest night in show business, Streamwood's Wayne Richards isn't going to let the 90th Academy Awards get in his way.
"Fifty years ago, I made the determination that I would stick with show business no matter what happened," says Richards, who celebrates that declaration and his 67th birthday with his special concert "Wayne Richards: Fifty Years and Counting!" at 7:30 Sunday at the Skokie Theatre, 7924 Lincoln Ave.
"I started playing piano when I was 3," says Richards, who has never stopped.
Richards has been entertaining patrons at Big Shot Piano Lounge & Restaurant, 2 S. Vail Ave., in Arlington Heights since the place opened in 2007. He's composed more than 20 independent film scores and won a "best original music score" Summit Media Award in 2008 for the soundtrack he wrote for a documentary titled, "Pure Antarctica." He wrote a musical called "A Summer Storm," which the TesserAct Theater Ensemble premiered in Palatine in 2012. He hosted a podcast in 2013 and 2014. He appeared in the play "Blacklisted" in 2016. He wrote his "Wayne's World" column for a suburban night life publication in the 1990s, and was billed as "The Elton John of Chicago" during a stint in Norway in the 1980s.
Born in Chicago, Richards, the only child of Ethel and Joe Richards, moved to Skokie when he was 9 years old. He has a special connection to the venue of his 50th anniversary concert. "The Skokie Theatre was my playground," he says. "I went there on Saturday afternoons for cartoons."
He worked in a factory and in a department store as a teenager, but he always managed to find paying music gigs. "I was in a garage band, although we didn't have a garage. We practiced in the basement," says Richards, who played keyboard and guitar for The Conquistadors.
As a member of Niles East High School's Class of 1970, Richards was on the speech team, and did some radio and theater. After graduation, he studied theater at Loop College, the Chicago community college now known as Harold Washington College, and he enlisted in the Naval Air Reserves, where he became "a card-carrying journalist." He thought about making a career in radio, but didn't like the advice he got from radio veterans, who told him, "You'll be doing the morning drive in Mule Breath, Utah." His decision to become a piano player was easy.
"The only steady money I had coming in was from music," Richards says. He started playing piano in lounges up and down the Gold Coast in the 1970s. He spent the summer of 1983 playing piano at The Murray Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan, which inspired him to write a song called "Mackinac Dreams." That song, an anthem for the island, led Richards to a meeting with Rand Shackleton, a filmmaker who ended up hiring Richards to score tourism commercials. Shackleton, a descendant of famed explorer Ernest Shackleton, who was shipwrecked with his crew during a failed attempt to reach Antarctica in 1915, then hired Richards to score the documentary, "Pure Antarctica."
"The door opened, and I stuck my foot in all the way," Richards says. "You have to be a people person."
Married to his wife, Annie, Richards played jazz in some clubs, pop in others. His work for movies and his musical have a different style. "Work is work and you have to stretch the envelope if you want to survive," Richards says.
In the 1980s, he played piano in bistros, cafes, casinos and clubs throughout Scandinavia, making friends and playing in his own style. Some lounge piano players are "human jukeboxes," mimicking whatever song is demanded by a patron with a tip, Richards says. He strives to put his own spin on songs and make a connection with the audience.
"My music touches people. I know it does," says Richards, whose anniversary show will weave through his career and include performances with fellow pianist and vocalist Sami Scot, and cabaret singer Carla Gordon, the lyricist for many of Richards' compositions. Also joining him on stage will be vocalist Cindy Windsor, as well as his singing daughter, Shannon Townsend.
He sometimes tires of popular requests. "I've played 'Sweet Caroline' a thousand times, and that was just last Saturday," he quips. But he says that performing with others always rejuvenates him.
"I'm not even thinking about ending the experience of performing," says Richards, who continues to make good on his vow to stay in show business no matter the obstacles, even if it means going against a star-studded Oscars telecast.
"There's nobody in that room who's a bigger film buff than I am," Richards says. "That's why we have DVRs."