Music is the focus of Kevin Richards' life
Kevin Richards has been a key figure in the Cleveland Heights music scene for the past few decades. Not only does he play in Heights-based bands, he also owns the Fairmount School of Music (FSM), and is the founder of the nonprofit organization Roots of American Music, headquartered in Cleveland Heights.
Richards, who is 60, was born in Euclid, but his family moved to Cleveland Heights when he was 4 years old. He attended school in Cleveland Heights, and graduated from Heights High in 1973. He attended Cuyahoga Community College for a year, studying architecture, then transferred to Cleveland State University (CSU), where he majored in music.
He got into music at a very early age. “As a youngster, my brother would play a lot of Beatles records, Jimi Hendrix records and Mamas and Papas records,” he said. “And my mother was into Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra, so I became familiar with a style of music that other people of my age weren’t into.”
During his junior high years at Roxboro, Richards played alto sax and tenor sax in the school band. “I got a very formal, classical education,” he said. “And that was my start.”
A few years later, when he was in high school, he started playing guitar. While attending CSU, Richards decided he wanted to be a musician and teach guitar. He landed a job at the Dick Lurie Guitar Studio in Cleveland Heights. He also joined a band called Flapjack. “That was the first band I was in that was successful,” he said. “Suddenly, I was playing about 200 gigs a year and teaching 40 students a week.”
About a decade later, Richards opened FSM, which is located at 3473 Fairmount Blvd., near Taylor Road. The school’s slogan is “Educating the Heights since 1988.” FSM employs more than 15 instructors, offering lessons for a variety of instruments, including guitar, piano, violin, drums, clarinet, saxophone and brass instruments.
“After opening the Fairmount School, I began thinking about creating an outreach educational program in the community,” Richards said. “I wanted to create something that was not limited by geography or by finances.”
In the summer of 1999, Richards formed Roots of American Music. The nonprofit organization takes teaching artists who have backgrounds in jazz, blues, hip-hop and other styles of music into schools all over Northeast Ohio, and teaches the students about music and other subjects, using the music. Recently, the organization has broadened its mission by going into old-age homes and assisted-living centers.
This past July, Richards stepped down as the executive director of Roots of American Music. He was replaced by Chip Coakley. Richards now serves as the organization’s artistic director. “Now I have more time to focus on our programs,” he said. He wants to increase the number of community events that the organization puts on. Currently, Roots of American Music presents community picking sessions on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month at MT Glass on Cedar Road near Taylor Road. Roots of American Music also presents a “pickin’ party” on the last Monday of every month at Dise and Company, at 20600 Chagrin Blvd. in Beachwood.
Richards said he is also thinking about having the organization put together an annual roots-music festival, perhaps in the University Circle area, beginning next summer.
In addition to his involvement with Roots of American Music and FSM, Richards also plays guitar in a few area bands. On the first Thursday of every month, he plays fiddle, banjo and mandolin with his band the SpYder Stompers and Sugar Pie at the Barking Spider Tavern in University Circle. He is also a member of Hot Djang!, a gypsy-jazz band whose music is influenced by the music of Django Reinhardt, and he plays with Gene’s Jazz Hot, a group that features a traditional New Orleans sound, and Long Road, a '60s-style folk group. On Monday nights, Richards often sits in with George Foley during his shows at the Tavern Company on Lee Road.
Richards has also performed and taught outside of Cleveland. He has appeared at the MerleFest, an annual tribute to Doc and Merle Watson that is held in North Carolina, and has given music lessons at the Augusta Heritage Center in West Virginia.
Richards said he loves the diversity of Cleveland Heights. “I also love all of the restaurants, from the Wine Spot to the Tavern Company to Nighttown,” he said. “And I love the entertainment.” He frequently takes bike rides around the Heights. “I love looking at all of the houses and the great architecture,” Richards said.
James Henke, a Cleveland Heights resident, was a writer and editor at Rolling Stone magazine for 15 years. He is also the author of several books, including biographies of Jim Morrison, John Lennon and Bob Marley.