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"To him, that was bullshit. He couldn't compete with these young guys. But he was too young to retire, and he had to come up with some kind of income," says friend Marty Luepker Sr., owner of Al Smith's Feasting Fox, a south-city restaurant and bar where Reichard performs weekly.
Unbeknownst to many friends, Reichard was a prodigal singer and guitarist who had given up a career in music before it even really began. When the music world fell hard for Elvis Presley, Reichard refused to change, preferring to remain happily captive to a bygone musical era.
Still, Reichard enjoyed going out to hear live music. In the late '90s, he used to hit Riddles Penultimate Café & Wine Bar every Sunday. That's when Jobim Dreams a duo consisting of guitarist Mary Dee Brown and singer/flutist/guitarist Margaret Bianchetta played. As he became a regular, the two noticed their new fan. "He'd walk in, always with his hat on, every week and have dinner," recalls Brown. The pair struck up a conversation, and when Reichard told her he played, she invited him to perform.
"We were bowled over by it," says Brown. The three became fast friends, and Brown and Bianchetta helped Reichard get a regular Saturday-night show at the Soulard spot Lagniappe's a gig he continues to play each week.
"Pretty soon he quit selling refrigerators," says Brown.
Reichard developed a small fan base, which included a number of musicians decades younger than he. One of them suggested he try retirement homes, which pay a decent wage (between $50 and $75 for an hour's work). Reichard spent a day with the Yellow Pages, calling nursing homes.
"I figured that that was a more fertile territory if I was going to get a lot of work," he says. "And I did all right. It maybe worked better than I thought it would."
One reason he got the bookings, notes Reichard, was simple demographics. The tunes he plays are those that retirement homes' aging residents grew up with. While the rest of the world moved from Elvis to Dylan to disco, punk and hip-hop, Reichard with his "passion of former days," to use a Winston Churchill phrase rarely ventures beyond the music of the 1930s and '40s.
"Back then, music was way less complicated," he explains. "These days you've got all these names, and there are so many different kinds of music. People have all these intellectual ways of explaining how great this music is. They dissect the music. Now it's 'art.' In those days there were three kinds of music: Popular, classical and hillbilly."
Reichard calls his chosen repertoire "sweet songs," but he usually hits a broken chord when he tries to explain that to a youngster. "I'll say, 'Songs of the '30s and '40s.' 'You mean like rhythm and blues?' They'll have no idea. Probably the best way to put it is: I do songs that Lawrence Welk would have played."
The old folks love their Welk, but few facilities can afford to bus in an entire orchestra. Reichard offers the same service with voice and guitar.
It doesn't hurt that a few of the homes are, as Reichard puts it, "like Las Vegas hotels. They're really opulent. That Garden Villas South on Tesson Ferry? That place is really sparkling. Big dining room and big chandeliers." Ditto the St. Louis Altenheim on South Broadway: "A class place, really first-class."
Once in a while, he'll play to a crowd of Alzheimer's patients at McKnight Place. "Those are tough ones, definitely," says Reichard. "But then I'll be playing a song, and out of the blue someone starts singing along." (There's an added bonus to playing McKnight: "On the way home I stop at the Pasta House and have one of their best fish sandwiches, and that's really a nice night.")
"Music is the only thing that gets to them," explains Pam Huseman, activities director for McKnight Place. "That's something in their brain that they don't forget. They really like Ron. They relate him to Gene Autry. Some of them say he sounds like Perry Como. The ones I like like Ron I book for the whole year, because you're not going to get them if you don't."
Ron Reichard keeps a small museum of memories tucked away in a couple of bedroom dresser drawers. His father taught him the value of documenting one's life. He's archived all the clippings and photos from his adolescence, back when he had a measure of local fame.
His home, a few blocks south of Tower Grove Park, is filled with ornate nineteenth-century antiques more a grandma's house than a bachelor pad. Two photos hang in the stairwell leading up to his second-floor apartment: one of Groucho Marx, the other of his beloved Bing Crosby.
Reichard has never been married and has no children. "I'm too independent," he explains, adding that he's had his girlfriends, but decided that he was too stubborn to get hitched. "I have all these interests of mine, and there are not too many people who could live with me. Everything is my way, and what I'm interested in doing, and the way I do it."
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