Memories of Dick Gerhart

On Friday, May 5, Dick Gerhart died in Boca Raton, Florida. Dick was leader of the Glenn Miller Orchestra from 1983 to 1988, road manager for 10 years before that, and sideman for his first 5 years with the band. During his time as a GMO sideman, he served under leaders Buddy De Franco, Peanuts Hucko, Buddy Morrow, Jimmy Henderson, and Larry O’Brien. Dick had a fat tenor saxophone sound and they called him “Zoot,” after Zoot Sims.

Dick hired me as girl singer for the Glenn Miller Orchestra in 1985. I was a schoolteacher in Chattanooga, TN, and I still remember the night he called. It was late, time for school teachers to be in bed. When I boarded the GMO bus in Nashville after my first gig with the band at the Opryland Hotel, Dick saw the fear in my mother’s eyes. As Joe Francis sang to my baby nephew Matthew (now 21), Dick reassured my mother and promised to take care of me.

On my first tour of Japan, Dick walked into my dressing room and sang in stiff quarter notes, “Just in time, you found me just in time,” then said, “Don’t do that.” Another time, after I’d served up my best Lou Rawls licks on “I’ve Got It Bad,” Dick took a deep breath and imparted, “That’s Ellington. That’s the bible. Sing the melody.” He continued, “Sing a song according to the melody a thousand times, and then, if you’re Sarah Vaughan, mess with it.” He also told me pretty girls don’t bob their knees on stage.

We had a boy singer who made a point of matching his bow tie and cummerbund to my dresses, in the days when i wore hot pink and turquoise. Dick called him aside and said, “Lookin’ like an Easter egg, man, that’s not what it’s about.”

Dick Gerhart’s credo was, “I wanna go out playin’ the blues.” He loved to blow and always found a session, especially in Japan. One of my favorite photos of him was taken at what used to be called the Village Vanguard in Sendai. He had just played a few choruses, and he was a little beat because of the arduous tour. (For years, we did 37 shows in 39 days.) The photo shows Dick seated, with 3 or 4 longtime Japanese friends massaging his neck, arms, and legs. Taking care of Dick-san.

I can see Dick sitting in the front of the bus, under the headphones, eyes closed, shaking his head and smiling. He’d look over and say, “Sassy,” (meaning Sarah Vaughan). He wore corduroy pants, pullover sweater, red checkered shirt, and a navy tie. On the bus! His wife Jane would call him from their home in Lancaster, PA, where she managed the Fulton Opera House, and encourage him to take me to dinner on nights off. He always found a real place, be it in Albany or Fukuoka. When Jane came out on the road she’d bring baskets of good eats: fresh mozzarella, basil, good bread; and i was always invited.

The band stayed in Manhattan a lot in the 80’s, when you could still park a tour bus in front of the Paramount Hotel. The Gerharts treated me to many dinners at La Strada and Joe Allen. They took me to see Anita O’Day and Chris Connor at Michael’s Pub. Before a gig leave, Dick even marched me across the street and up the backstage stairs where Cleo Laine was doing “Sweeney Todd” to chat with Miss Laine while he talked shop with John Dankworth. (Cleo Laine told me nobody blinks when a trumpet player fracks a note, but let a singer do it . . . ! I told her I had transcribed her “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” and “Don’t Mean a Thing,” even if I couldn’t sing them.)

One sunny afternoon as we pulled into the Paramount Hotel where he always had a big corner room, Dick waved his hand aloft and said, “Julia Rich.” And that’s how Rich was added to Julia Yvonne Blankenship Fisher Highsmith.

Dick Gerhart didn’t eat, he dined. He feasted, with a big white napkin tucked under his chin and a good glass of Cotes du Rhone or o-sake or his beloved Tanqueray nearby. “Nice taste,” he’d say. The flavors were music to him. As Auntie Mame said, “Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death.”
Not the Gerharts. They knew how to live, they relished the good things, and they made a special spot for me at their table. God bless Dick and Jane.

Julia Rich