At 92, Dick Meares needs help getting to the piano in the dining hall at the Union United Methodist Church in East Northport. Using a walker and some additional support from a congregant, he makes his way to the upright and takes a seat. The instant his fingers touch the ivories, it’s the late 1940s again, and he’s back in the spotlight when he was performing with Eddy Duchin and his orchestra at the Waldorf-Astoria’s Starlight Roof.
In younger days, Meares, now of Setauket, was nearsighted. Three years ago, he lost all vision, but his hearing is just fine and, he says, the piano needs tuning.
“Shut up and play, Dick,” fires back his wife, Pat, 84.
Meares, the church organist for nearly six decades, dutifully breaks into “Tenderly,” seasoning the classic melody with a handful of jazzy flourishes. His rendition matches the song’s title.
Now Meares will get to perform for an audience beyond those at the house of worship. On Friday, Oct. 21, he’ll be in swing mode when he plays at The Jazz Loft in Stony Brook, billed under his show-biz pseudonym, Dick Style, and accompanied by a bass player, drummer and guitarist.
Sharing the bill will be Pat, a onetime lounge singer who now runs estate sales and was instrumental in arranging the Jazz Loft gig. “She was in conversation with someone she was working for, and started talking about me. She’s always talking about me for some reason,” Meares says. “He said, ‘I go to this jazz club in Stony Brook. Why don’t you go over there? They’re looking for a piano player.’ ”
Tom Manuel, president and founder of The Jazz Loft, didn’t need much convincing to hire Meares. As both a jazz historian and a musician himself, Manuel was well-acquainted with Meares’ career, which included stints with such notable bandleaders as Shep Fields and Larry Clinton, as well as Duchin.
“Dick sat down at the piano and I grabbed my trumpet right away. He was incredible,” Manuel says. “Then I said to him, ‘I don’t know if I should be glad you’re here or mad at you for taking so long to get here.’”
A young piano master
Meares has been playing the piano since age 3, when his mother taught him the basics. Over the next few years, he started working with teachers, and by 8, he made his professional debut playing on the NBC children’s radio show “Coast to Coast on a Bus.” He also performed at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and formed a band, The Rhythm Aires, in high school.
After graduating, he had no problem finding work. A pal’s father managed Shep Fields. Meares was hired without even auditioning at a salary of $150 a week, which today would be roughly $2,700. “People would say to me, ‘You were in the big time, weren’t you nervous?’ I knew I could do it,” Meares says.
He was less prepared for the initiation he got from other band members during the train ride to Altoona, Pennsylvania, his first gig with Fields. “I met the train and got on and fell asleep,” he says. “They got off and left me on the train. I ended up in Pittsburgh. I made it back by taking a milk train, which in those days stopped everyplace. I walked in just as rehearsal was starting. They all thought that was the funniest thing.”
Fields dropped the band once the United States entered World War II. Meares, who says, “I’ve always had enough sight to see 15 or 20 feet in front of me,” was rejected for the draft. Instead he served by performing at USO bases throughout the country, and also formed his own group, The Dick Style Trio.
“My manager said Meares was not a good-sounding name,” he recalls. “He said, ‘You need a name that would click right away.’ I talked to my mother and she said, ‘You’ve got a new style with your band, and I said that’s it.”
Meares then started his own orchestra in 1946, but with the big-band days coming to a close, found it difficult to develop a following. The next year, he worked briefly with the house band at WINS radio before joining Larry Clinton, who was best known for his hit record “The Dipsy Doodle.” In addition to his piano work, Meares did musical arrangements and sang as part of The Dipsy Doodlers, a quartet of backup singers for the band’s vocalist.
“Clinton did an awful lot of one-nighters and out-of-town programs,” says Meares, who was often away from his first wife, Elsie. “She didn’t make a big deal out of it. I was making top dollar.”
Working with Duchin was more stable: Three months were on the road, six months he was booked at the Waldorf, and then the remaining three months were vacation time. Meares was also earning $500 a week — close to $5,000 today. Meares also covered for Duchin on the radio when the bandleader became ill in 1950. Duchin’s death from leukemia in 1951 led to the end of the orchestra, as well as the end of Meares’ big- band period.
Long Island sounds
Meares redirected his career, including a stint working on music for television pilots for NBC. He also was ready to settle down. He chose Long Island after going with a friend to buy a new car in Northport in 1951 and fell in love with the area.
Part of his routine was attending Sunday service at the Union United Methodist Church. One day in 1957, the organist got sick and Meares was asked to fill in. A year later, when she opted not to return, Meares was asked to replace her. He’s been there since.
“He’s our music director. Our artist in residence. He’s directed the youth choir. He’s always been here for us,” says church member Chris Mueller of East Northport.
Meares also was a popular performer at many jazz spots back in the day on Long Island, including Caro’s in Manhasset and the Maine Maid Inn in Jericho. In 1965, Meares, who had been divorced a year, met Pat when she performed a club date in Jericho. “I hadn’t sung in 10 years,” she says. “I came in and saw a man with glasses, a winter coat, earmuffs and gloves. He sat at the piano and played with his gloves on. That was my accompanist.”
While Meares’ appearance may not have ignited sparks, that changed the minute Pat heard him play, she says. “I was very nervous. I sang ‘Ghost of a Chance,’ and after I sang the first line I knew I was home free. Then he said, ‘What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this?’ ”
They were married five years later, and have been making music together since then. They started a community theater company, Theater Plus, which put on musicals, and have also been active performing with Township Theater Group as well as putting on shows at the church in East Northport.
A comeback performance
Meares, who says he plays about six hours a day, is grateful for the Jazz Loft gig, especially after suffering a health scare eight months ago. He was stricken by sepsis, a condition that results from infectious bacteria entering the bloodstream and causing injuries to bodily tissues and organs. He was told by doctors that there was only an 15 percent chance of recovery at his age.
“His kidneys started shutting down and we were pretty sure we had lost him,” says his son, Richard, 55, of East Northport. “Everybody was very negative about it except for one nurse who said, ‘I believe in miracles.’ Then on Sunday, the kidneys came back again.”
He was hospitalized for a month and then spent another three months in rehab. “Pat was yelling in my ear, ‘Fight, Dick,’ and I’m sure that’s what got me through,” Meares said.
She also pushed him to play the piano at the rehab center, though, his son says, the lack of playing meant Meares had to retrain his hands. “He was missing notes. He was horrified he didn’t have the range of movement in his hands.”
Now that he’s back, Meares has no intention of slowing down. “A few years ago, I was thinking about retiring from the church, but they said, ‘No,’ ” says Meares, who has also been known to jazz up some of the hymns. “I figured this would be my musical life. Playing [jazz] professionally for the first time in years is something I never expected.”
WHEN | WHERE Friday, Oct. 21, 7 p.m., The Jazz Loft, 275 Christian Ave., Stony Brook
INFO $20; 631-751-1895, thejazzloft.org