A pillar of the Rochester music community, Farmington resident has been performing since he was 10
By John Addyman
From a 10-year-old front-porch superstar performer to a career as a peripatetic musician, Jim Richmond has led an interesting, fruitful life.
He is a man who lives, loves and breathes music. And he’s had a lot of company.
Raised in a home listening to his father’s gospel quartet practice in the living room, he suddenly burst with enthusiasm for Elvis Presley’s music, entertaining his buddies on the front porch of the family’s Geneva home by belting out rock ‘n roll songs.
Through a succession of local bands, a couple of years of college, and one opportunity after another, Richmond, 68, can look back on a 58-year career as a saxophone player, vocalist, songwriter, lyricist, record producer, booking agent, touring organizer, bandleader and pillar of the Rochester music community (he’s the music director for the Rochester Music Hall of Fame).
And it all started in his living room in Geneva.
“My dad was in a gospel quartet. They practiced once a week in our living room. I sat there and listened, and that got me interested in music,” Richmond said, speaking softly on his Farmington condo back porch, with rain falling on the table’s umbrella.
“We lived in the projects at the time. In the back yard, our next-door neighbor had his radio on one afternoon. He was playing Elvis Presley. I asked, ‘Who is that?’
“Wow!” Then I started following Elvis, saw him on TV and I wanted to be like him. After school, I’d go home and start my Elvis Presley thing on the front porch. Kids in the neighborhood started coming down, which was just about every day. I was 10 years old. I think it was a good laugh for them, but I was really into it — I was into the music and I liked to entertain.”
In school, his teacher handed out a paper that asked, “Do you want to play an instrument?” He took the paper home to mom. “She suggested I play the saxophone because her ex-boyfriend was a baritone sax player in school. That’s how I started.”
Richmond’s tenor sax became an anchor for a lot of bands in the 60s and 70s, and he found four friends who wanted to start a group — the Echomen: Steve Cocola, Dan Damick, Gary Ventura and Jim Harrison joined Richmond on stage and the guys became a local hit.
“We still do a reunion show at Club 86 in Geneva every summer. This would have been our 50th year playing and we’d pack the place with 350-400 kids…er, fans,” Richmond said.
But not this year: the coronavirus.
He went off to SUNY Fredonia to study music education after high school and was brought aboard by another band, Mother Freedom.
“Stupid me,” he says. “We got this record deal in my second year at Fredonia State and I quit school. I thought I was on my way with Sugar Hill Records…
“The record did nothing [but now it’s a local collector’s item]. Later, I found out we were basically a tax write-off. It was the late 1970s, when Wild Cherry had a hit with ‘Play that Funky Music.’ Sugar Hill was looking for a white-based band playing R&B music.”
Mother Freedom broke up, but some of the members — Ralph Ortiz, Greg Medoro and Ron DeAugustine from Newark; Oliver Wiggins, Willie Johnson and Charlie Shew of Ithaca; and Mike Loman, Dick Yanotti and Dave Deyulio — would show up again in Richmond’s career.
“For about two weeks, that was the only time in my life I was without a band,” Richmond said. “I was living at home.”
He got a call from the King Juke band and joined up. “They were good, but nobody knew us,” he said.
Next was the band Saratoga. “I had Oliver Wiggins with me from Mother Freedom, the Ralph Ortiz, and Joe Chiappone. Nancy Kelly, a jazz vocalist, sang with Saratoga and will be inducted into the Rochester Music Hall of Fame next year.”
Along the way, Richmond’s wife-to-be, Judy, entered his life. “It was a mutual attraction,” he said. “I met her while Mother Freedom was playing in Penn Yan. She had come home from college with her best friend, who was a fan of ours, and that’s how we met.
“We became good friends first and it grew into a serious relationship. She found out the difficulty of being involved with a musician as time grew on. We had a long-distance relationship early on because she going to Geneseo College and I lived in Geneva and then she got a job teaching in Salamanca, New York.”
The two dated for 11 years and finally Richmond popped the question. Their daughter, Jamie, is a pre-natal/post-natal trainer in New York. “She married Russ Jones, who was hired by Clive Davis right out of high school. Russ started out as a deejay all through high school. He would go to Clive Davis’s record labels, get all the newly released songs and play them at clubs and report back to Clive. Russ is now the vice president of Streaming for RCA Records/Sony.”
When Saratoga broke up, “I formed my own band called ‘Kicks.’ That went on for awhile with Ralph Ortiz and Joe Chiappone, my brother Randy on drums, and Randy Calabrese. This was the foundation of starting Prime Time Funk.”
Prime Time Funk, which can sound like Earth, Wind & Fire on one tune and Chuck Mangione on the next, developed into a vibrant powerhouse fan favorite locally…and in France.
“It was born in Ortiz’s apartment,” Richmond explained. “Mark Manetta, the late guitarist who played with Chuck Mangione was there, too. It was 1996.
“Mark said, ‘We ought to start a big band. We should really plan this out so it’s a band that people want to come out to see, a band that has people waiting in line — a band that’s an attraction.’ Ortiz agreed…
“But I was hesitant. ‘Look at the way things are now,’ I told them. ‘All the bands are four-piece, five-piece: I’m not sure we’ll find the support.’ But they talked me into it. We started talking about who we wanted in it — Ron France, a bass player from Syracuse, and vocalists Todd East, then Ron Leigh. Joe Chiappone.
“We kicked off in a club in Rochester,” Richmond says, sitting back in his seat, putting his hands together in a prayerful pose. The image is fresh in mind. “It was outstanding. We were sold out! The response was just unbelievable. We knew we were onto something.”
And the band also promised itself something: “We wouldn’t play every gig that came along,” Richmond said. “We wanted it to be special, so every time we play we get a great crowd.“
Prime Time Funk does do weddings and special events for organizations, and it’s the house band for the Rochester Music Hall of Fame, which Richmond is the music for, and, of course, some clubs.
Richmond was central to the development of Prime Time Funk, and the band’s success opened up his creative portfolio. He wrote or arranged songs on the band’s first CD, “ready and willing” in 2001, produced by Rochester’s Jeff Tyzik, who was not only the conductor for the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, but also led his own big band and produced records for Chuck Mangione, Doc Severinsen and the Woody Herman Orchestra.
That first CD features “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot,” which also led off the B side on the Mother Freedom record, and is one of the videos on the primetimefunk.com website. Watch that video — or any of the others — and you a group of guys really focused and enjoying what they do together: they’re having way too much fun.
Richmond, David Cohen and Andy Calabrese produced the second CD, “Hear and Now.” Guitarist Oritz, who had been a fixture with Richmond for years, died in 2009 but had recorded tracks on the CD, which is dedicated to him as someone who “lived, loved and breathed music.” The band went one more step, establishing a $1,500 music scholarship at Newark High School in Ortiz’s name.
And Richmond found other bands to contribute to — he played with Majestica, a reggae band, and with Lou Graham.
His band Kicks opened for Tower of Power; another of his bands, Chet Catallo and the Cats, opened for George Benson; Prime Time Funk opened for the Brothers Johnson, John Schofield, and Earth, Wind & Fire — mostly in festivals.
Richmond toured with the Four Tops and met Levi Stubbs. “We talked for awhile. When their time came to sing, his sister and I helped him onto the stage and were holding him while he sang ‘Reach Out.’ I was in tears. To be that close and hear that voice with all its history – it was an emotional moment for me.”
And there was more. He toured with the Temptations show for two years. “I was asked to form a horn section for them in each city and on a tip from a trumpet player in Prime Time Funk, I contacted military bands where they were going.
He did some Buick commercials and is the voice of “Munch” in Chuck E. Cheese restaurants. “It’s amazing to go into one of those and hear myself,” he said.
Richmond had a side business with Jeff Cosco — Heart Song — where they would quickly custom-write a love song. “We started out on the Brother Weez show on radio. We’d go into the studio, take a phone call, and after 20 minutes or so, write the song and play it for them over the air. People were crying…” Cosco and Richmond took that act on the road for broadcasters in San Antonio, Dallas and Miami.
Then there was Paris.
Blue guitarist Sherman Robertson was in Rochester to perform at the Lilac Festival and he came early telling the producer he was looking for a band to accompany him to Paris for a three-week gig. The producer, a friend of Richmond’s, recommended Prime Time Funk.
“He heard us and hired us to go to Paris . We would open the show and play a 40-minute set, then we’d back Sherman. He also hired three girl singers from Syracuse. It was unbelievable. The response to us in Paris was really overwhelming. They loved Sherman, too, but the response to us was pretty strong.”
Richmond looks at the 24 successful years of Prime Time Funk as a function of having a goal from the outset.
“When we started the band, that was part of our mantra — we started a band, a 10-piece band, and I want to look across the stage five years from now and smile and be as happy as I am the first time we play. Twenty-four years later, we’re still smiling.
“I love the guys in the band, we all love each other. It’s like a family, it really, is. I’ve watched their kids grow up. The music that we make, we all know how blessed we are to all have this kind of talent in one band, and the whole feeling around the band and the music and the families. We’re all really lucky and we’re blessed and we all know that, and we hear it all the time.”
The band has been silent this year because of the pandemic. But for Richmond, less activity in performing has been a blessing.
“I miss the performances, but I’ve been writing more. I finally bit the bullet to get my own studio so I can do what I want to do here, when the moment hits, instead of trying to get it down and going to somebody else. I’m a little more self-sufficient. In that way, it’s been great.”
He said he’s had time to listen to more music, and more varied music. “I find myself taking in more internally than I did. It’s hard to explain. Before the pandemic, I was always out running to play, running to do this, rehearsals and stuff; sometimes you don’t have time for that internal things, for going back to your roots almost.
“This period has taken me back to the roots. It’s so hard to explain, I’ve always loved music. I have a deep love for music, but it seems that now, there’s a more intense love, and maybe it’s because I feel I’ve lost a year and I can’t get it back. I can’t waste time just doing trivial music stuff now…now everything means something.
“I am at a point now where I’m really excited about music. It’s been a blessing in a way even though I’ve lost a year.”
Photo: The pandemic curtailed music performances but tenor saxophonist Jim Richmond of Farmington used that time to get deeper into his music writing and set up a studio in his home. His sax is an antique, used by a member of the original Duke Ellington band, who had his name etched on the instrument.