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Richard ‘Dick’ Smith, longtime pianist at Phillips in Baltimore who also performed on theater organs, dies

Richard "Dick" Smith, known for his extensive musical repertoire, tunes a piano in November 2021.
Richard "Dick" Smith, known for his extensive musical repertoire, tunes a piano in November 2021. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Richard “Dick” Smith, a pianist who entertained at Phillips Seafood Restaurant for nearly 40 years and was an organist at downtown Baltimore’s Stanley Theatre, died of heart disease Dec. 23 at University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center. The Cockeysville resident was 76.

Friends said Mr. Smith had an extensive musical repertoire at his fingertips and that it was hard to stump him when they requested a song.

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Born in San Diego, he was the son of Clarence Richard Smith, an aeronautical engineer, and his wife, Amy Nancy Studebaker, a homemaker. He was a graduate of Mission Bay High School and won a scholarship to the Peabody Conservatory of Music.

Mr. Smith began playing the piano at 5 and performed in his first professional theater pipe organ engagement at 13.

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As a Peabody student in 1963, he played the pipe organ at the old Stanley Theatre on North Howard Street that was originally installed to accompany silent films.

Dick Smith plays the pipe organ in Roy Wagner's basement in February 2011.
Dick Smith plays the pipe organ in Roy Wagner's basement in February 2011. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

In the 2017 book, “Flickering Treasures: Rediscovering Baltimore’s Forgotten Movie Theaters,” he recounted being hired to be the house organist and playing weekend evenings from 1963 to 1965 between the film screenings.

“It was the most opulent, most beautiful theater I have ever seen,” Mr. Smith said of the Stanley. “It was a jewel, and it was still in marvelous condition when I played there. The organ was huge. It was a Kimball, with three keyboards and a battery of percussion.

“The acoustics are produced by the architecture of the building. The sound hit the parabolic reflector in the ceiling and bounced back down to the audience. You could hear every word without a microphone,” he said.

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He recalled being in an otherwise empty theater when in the background, I heard a man say, “Can you play ‘One O’Clock Jump’?”

“‘Sure,’ I replied, so I played it from stem to stern. The voice said, ‘My God, you can certainly play that thing!’ The voice was Count Basie. They were getting ready to do a show.” Mr. Smith said the big-band leader was touring in Baltimore.

Mr. Smith continued, “During the show, the orchestra’s last number was the ‘One O’Clock Jump.’ I brought the organ up to stage position. ... There was a spotlight on me at the console, and a spotlight on Basie at the piano. It just knocked that place on its keister. There were about 2,000 people in the audience. Everyone got up and cheered.”

Mr. Smith got an offer to play for the Wurlitzer Co. in DeKalb, Illinois. He then returned to Baltimore and received his Peabody diploma in 1968.

Mr. Smith also gave numerous concerts on a theater organ installed at the John Dickinson High School in Stanton, Delaware.

He once described his style of playing as “everything from ballads to boogie, big band to Bach, and everything in between."

Mr. Smith was hired to play piano at Phillips at Harborplace. He was present on opening day in 1980.

A 2011 Sun article noted that Mr. Smith was back at his piano bar in Phillips Seafood on its final day of business at Harborplace.

For that occasion, he played “As Time Goes By” and longtime customers gathered on the high chairs around his piano to enjoy the song and a final crab cake.

“I was here the day it opened and the piano has not moved from this spot,” he said in a Sun article, which noted he had been performing there six days a week since 1980.

“It was an absolutely great run here,” Smith said between songs. “So many memories.”

He continued to play Sunday evenings, before the pandemic, at Phillips Seafood at the Power Plant.

He also played at the Harbor Court Hotel and pubs in the Mount Vernon neighborhood. He was an independent Baldwin piano technician and for many years was associated with the Kunkel Piano Co. He made numerous house calls tuning pianos during his long career in Baltimore.

He also played at the home of Roy Wagner, a Glen Arm resident who preserved the organ from the old State Theatre on East Monument Street, where Mr. Smith also played in the 1960s.

“Dick was a fabulous musician and friend,” Mr. Wagner said. “And he had energy. There was a night he played encore after encore at the Dickinson organ in Delaware. When he stopped about 3 a.m., he said, ‘The music just gave out.’”

Mr. Smith was music director at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Kingsville.

Services will be held at 3 p.m. Jan. 15 at the Lemmon Funeral Home of Dulaney Valley, 10 W. Padonia Road in Timonium.

Survivors include his sister, Martha Shepard of Cockeysville, and a nephew, Donald Shepard Jr., also of Cockeysville.

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