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Venerable LO maestro pushes past 80 years of music making

Not all that much has changed about Dick Saunders after 81 years in the music business. He is still a master musician, and his smile is as big as ever.

On a day in New York City in 1934, a 4-year-old boy stepped before a microphone at radio station WLTH and sang the song “I’m a Son of a, Son of a, Son of a, Son of a Halfback.”

The little boy has not stopped performing since. He was Dick Saunders, now 85 years old and a resident of Lake Oswego for many years and a fixture on the music scene of the Portland metro area. After 81 years of singing, playing and joking, Saunders seems to be as enthusiastic as he was at age 4.

Surprisingly, Saunders does not consider himself amazing. He attributes his longevity to his wife’s good cooking. But the facts speak for themselves.

Saunders has been like a musical “Zelig” in his eight decades of performing. In fact, his life has intersected with so many famous people over the years that he jokes, “It would be easier to list who I haven’t played with.”

To name all of these people would be exhausting, but here are some of them. It reads like a show business hall of fame: Louis Armstrong, Sammy Davis Jr., Danny Kaye, Milton Berle, Tony Bennett, George Burns, Lucille Ball, Mel Torme, Beverly Sills, Tempest Storm, and a few thousand others who weren’t as prominent.

REVIEW, TIDINGS PHOTOS: VERN UYETAKE - Dick Saunders gets in a little flute action as he is accompanied on the piano by his wife Lee. They have been playing together for 64 years.

Naturally, Saunders always gets asked if he knew Old Blue Eyes (Frank Sinatra), and the answer is, “Yes.” Saunders played in the band for several TV specials starring the Hoboken Hero, but his most memorable experience came at a magnificent wedding in Bel Air, where Saunders was playing in the band and Sinatra was serving as best man.

“My experiences with Frank were totally the opposite of what most people expect,” Saunders said. “He is usually thought of as this angry guy who went around punching reporters, but he wasn’t that way with musicians.

“At the wedding someone came in and said, ‘Your accordion player just had a heart attack.’ Frank ran outside and sat with the man until the ambulance arrived.”

Then there was Liberace. They played at the same time in Lake Tahoe, where Saunders and his band performed in the lounge and Liberace played the main floor. When not playing the flamboyant pianist would amble into the lounge and enjoy Saunders’ group, which was a great advertisement for Saunders.

“When people saw Liberace there they thought we must be pretty good,” Saunders said.

Dick and Lee Saunders make a great team. They first met when they were students at Tanglewood Music Center. It was Lee who brought her family to Lake Oswego.

Actually, when Saunders was a younger man he rather looked like Liberace, with wavy hair, chipmunk cheeks and an ebullient smile. Today, the hair is gone but Saunders is as ebullient as ever.

It started out in the Bronx for Saunders in 1930, where his dad Saul was a painting contractor. It was a comfortable upbringing for Saunders since the Bronx was a nice place to live in those days, far from the high-crime New York borough it eventually became.

“I lived on the 170th Concourse,” Saunders said. “It was beautiful.

There wasn’t one show biz performer in his entire family tree, unless you count a grandfather who was a bronco buster in Russia. But his mother Alice turned out to be a real stage mother, and when Saunders was barely out of the toddler stage she was pushing him to take piano lessons. This was not unusual.

“Every kid in the Bronx took piano lessons,” Saunders noted.

Pushing a child to sing on the radio at the age of 4 was unusual, but Saunders took to show business like a duck takes to water. Soon he was on his way to being “Little Dicky Saunders,” the singing kid. His voice changed between the ages of 12 and 13, but Saunders merely adjusted by becoming a musician, becoming masterful on the saxophone and flute. He even sold War Bonds during World War II.

Of course, all of his education pointed him toward the direction of music artistry. He attended the High School of Music & Art in New York, the Manhattan School of Music, and earned a scholarship to the Tanglewood Music Center to study voice and conducting.

The most important thing that happened to Saunders at Tanglewood was meeting his future wife Lee. They have been married for 64 years. One reason the Saunders marriage has lasted so long is that Lee is a fine pianist.

Eventually they had a daughter named Melody, who became an ace photographer, and dad and daughter worked together at special celebrity events as the team of Toot and Shoot. Saunders led his band and tooted his horn, Melody took photos.

While most of Saunders’ music has been in the vein of pop, big band and classical, he can also play heavy metal. But at the mention of heavy metal music, his cheerful countenance drops.

“Yes, I can play heavy metal if I have to,” Saunders admitted. “I know the style but I still don’t like it. If you’re not a super star you have to play anything they ask you to.”

The song “I’ve Been Everywhere” would describe the life of Dick Saunders. You could draw a spider web of the trips he has made across North America, for jazz festivals, parties, concerts, fairs, television, radio, charity events, patriotic celebrations, rest homes, restaurants, military parades, burlesque houses, luxury liners, and just about every musical venue that exists. He got used to calls from his agent like, “Pack your bags. You’re going to play 20 weeks at Harrah’s.”

The one regret of Saunders’ career is that he didn’t write down all of his crazy experiences on the road. Like the time he won some frozen chickens in a shooting contest in Rapid City, S.D., and tried to sell the frigid cluckers on the streets to get a little folding money. People thought he was nuts.

Then there was the time he got lost on his way to a gig in Nevada and saw a sight that made him think, “Great Balls of Fire!”

“I saw a flying saucer in Nevada,” said Saunders, still awed after all these years. “It was the brightest thing I ever saw. It zapped off the same way it came. I called the sheriff about this and he said, ‘Yep, we’ve gotten a lot of calls about that tonight.’”

To people who might question his story, Saunders stoutly maintains, “I never drink!”

The musician who never stopped wandering found his permanent home in Lake Oswego in 1986. He, Lee and Melody were finding Los Angeles ever more cramped and smoggy, so Lee took off on a scouting trip to find a new home.

“Lee went up and down the West Coast looking at towns,” Saunders said. “One time she called and said, ‘A real estate agent told me there was a real nice place to live. It’s called Lake Oswego. It has a really neat environment.’”

Saunders has now been part of the Lake Oswego cultural scene for nearly 30 years, and it is hard to imagine the place without him. Saunders has played every place big and small. One of his most memorable performance came at Lake Oswego’s New Year’s celebration in 2000, when Saunders brought his 16-piece big band to Millennium Plaza Park.

Advanced in years as he is, Saunders is far from ready to put away his sax. When asked when he was going to slow down, Saunders answers, “Not yet. Maybe Tuesday.” Then he laughs.

For Dick Saunders, 81 years of music isn’t nearly enough.

For more about Dick Saunders and his musical life past and present go to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Making like Benny Goodman, Saunders rips off a clarinet solo while practicing at his home in Lake Oswego.

Contact Cliff Newell at 503-636-1281 ext. 105 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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