Dick Shoulders spends retirement making beautiful music
By Bill Richardson
Dick Shoulders jokes that a professional musician is someone who loads $1,000 or more worth of equipment into a vehicle, drives two hours, plays for three hours, then drives home, all for the sum of $50.
That’s something Shoulders knows all about. The 82-year-old Vincennes man has spent the majority of his life teaching and playing music, and currently leads the Dick Shoulders Big Band All-Stars, a 17-piece group made up of players from southwestern Indiana and southeastern Illinois that plays hits from a bygone era. The group plays 10 to 12 times a year at weddings, and benefits.
“Certainly we don’t make a living with it,” said Shoulders. “But it’s fun.”
Many of the members of the All-Stars are former students of Shoulders and have been with the All-Stars for a while. He’s happy that his band has become what he calls “tight knit.”
“I want us to have our own identity,” he said of the All-Stars. “But I want us to be professional as we’re doing it.”
Known to some of his former students as the “Sweet Old Bandman,” Shoulders started teaching band in 1958, at Sumner High School in Lawrence County, Illinois. Subsequent stops as a band director have included Palestine, Illinois, and then, for a 20-year period at Robinson, Illinois.
He was then called to fill in temporarily at Vincennes Lincoln High School, and would end up staying for two years. After that it was back to Palestine again, and finally for two years at Red Hill High School in Bridgeport, Illinois.
Shoulders tried hanging up his director’s baton a couple of times during all of that to focus on his house-painting business, but kept getting called back. He finally retired from teaching for good at the end of the 1993 school year.
Born in the tiny village of Birds, Illinois, in 1936, Shoulders attended Pinhook Elementary, a country school located near Petrolia. He graduated from Bridgeport High School — where his father, Gene, was an administrator — in 1954.
Although he enjoyed playing, mostly the Sousaphone (or tuba), becoming a band director wasn’t an easy decision.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he said. “But I’d always enjoyed music and I really enjoyed band. So when I graduated, I said ‘Let’s give that a try.’”
He attended Eastern Illinois University in Charleston and graduated in 1958. That summer he met Conita, now his wife of nearly 60 years. The couple was married on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 26, 1959.
A musical family
Although she’s never served in a paid position, Conita has been her husband’s biggest supporter ever since. She’s worked with majorettes and flag girls, and led fundraising efforts throughout the years.
“She’s been my right hand the whole time,” Shoulders said of his wife, a native of Olney, where she was in the high school band and choir. “She’s been right there with me. I’d have never made it without her.”
The Shoulders, in fact, could be a musical family. Their daughter, Gretchen, followed in her father’s footsteps and had a lengthy career as band director at Palestine. She’s now the director of musicals for the Vincennes School Corporation, and lives across the street from her parents.
Attending an All-Stars show is like stepping back in time. Mostly the group performs instrumental music from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Count Basie, Glenn Miller and Duke Ellington are among the artists frequently covered. To spice things up, the group has recently started to play a version of “YMCA,” the popular 1978 song by the disco group The Village People.
“Basically, we’re a big band,” Shoulders said. “We do a little bit of rock, and we do a lot of swing. Of course, they’re all contemporary arrangements, but they’re pretty true to form.”
Many careers in the tight-knit group
Some of the All-Stars are band leaders, themselves. There are also farmers, a judge, graphic designers, etc.
Shoulders insists that the All-Stars are a “good band.”
“But we’d be a great band, if we just had a good stand-up bass player,” he said.
The punch line is that Shoulders, who is capable of playing nearly every instrument, serves as his band’s stand-up bass player.
“I’d always told myself that I wanted to learn to play the string bass, but never to the degree to discipline myself to do it,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I’ve mastered it, but I enjoy playing it with the band.”
Shoulders has no immediate plans for the All-Stars to call it quits. In fact, he’s already been booked to play a party on April 8, 2024, the date of the next big solar eclipse, when the area around Vincennes will experience total darkness for an extended period of time.
“I hope we can stay together for a few more years,” he said of the band. “We’re really starting to have a lot of fun.”