Dick Baker ’37
Swing band leader
by Sara Bodnar '03
This profile originally appeared in Bowdoin magazine, Vol. 75, No. 1, Fall 2003
In Vero Beach Theater Guild, Florida, an audience eagerly waits in the darkness. Suddenly, the opening of the song "Harbor Lights" fills the air. The audience recognizes the tune and begins to clap. The thick curtains slowly part. Dick Baker '37 and his 15-piece swing band, The Harbor Lights, are about to begin another finger-snapping performance.
After he retired from consulting in 1980, Dick moved to Vero Beach, home to many retired professional musicians. One Sunday afternoon Dick found a group of men playing music at a local clubhouse. An avid saxophonist himself, Dick asked if he could join in. "And the next thing I knew," Dick said. "I had organized a band." The original members always knew someone else, and the band quickly grew from four people to a dozen. Every member shared a passion for big band music. Before long, the band was playing at dinner dances, yacht clubs, theaters, and mobile home parks. When asked about his role as the leader, Dick merely replies, "It's a question of somebody had to do it, and I was the oldest fellow there, so I became the leader."
But being a leader of a 15-piece swing band entails a great deal of responsibility. Dick maintains a library of 200 to 300 songs for the band. "And those 15 parts for every one of those songs; that's a lot of paper," Dick said. He also has to make sure there are 15 chairs available for every performance, as well as music stands that have working lights. The wiring system, batteries, and microphones for the amplification also fall on Dick's plate. And he always remembers to issue the proper white and blue concert attire. " It'd be embarrassing if some fellow who's never played with you before shows up in a brown suit," Dick said.
Does all the work ever grow overwhelming? "Sometimes you wish you hadn't gotten into it," Dick admits. "But they're not frequent. The kind of thing when you thought you had this trombone player who was supposed to play Saturday night, but he got sick. So, Saturday morning you have to make phone calls all over eastern Florida and try to find another trombone player." Dick has a list of 60 to 70 substitutes he can call. "But everybody lives with that," he affably concludes.
Given Dick's past conducting credentials, it would be a challenge to find a better swing band leader. Throughout high school Dick played in and led three-and-four piece bands. At Bowdoin, he led the marching band for two years and the Polar Bears dance band for one year. "Any picture you see in the Bowdoin yearbook of some guy standing up with a stick leading the band is probably me," Dick said.
From "Glenn Miller's Theme Song" to "Begin the Beguine," Dick now leads The Harbor Lights in an assortment of songs from the 1930s. "It's the same old stuff," he insists. "We play tunes that people know. The secret of big band music is nostalgia." Down in Vero Beach, the group's rendition of familiar tunes has roused quite the following; they sold 200 CDs last fall. The band has been on a summer hiatus, but will they be ready to swing in September? "You know it," Dick replied. "No question about that. It'll start up."