NCCU choral director was a trailblazer and mentor|News & Observer



From left, Richard Banks and his wife, Deborah, during an Oasis of the Sea Caribbean Cruise in 2011. The two had been married for more than 20 years. COURTESY OF THE BANKS FAMILY

By Elizabeth Shestak Correspondent

March 2, 2014

When Harrell quickly went to see a specialist at UNC-Chapel Hill, it was Richard Banks who drove him to the appointment, where Harrell learned that he had an injured vocal cord. Banks then spent the next two years helping him through rehabilitation.

An associate professor in the department of music at NCCU, Banks died suddenly in December at the age of 60. After wrapping up the fall semester, he was looking forward to a Sunday watching football with his brother. He went upstairs to his bedroom to lie down for a bit, and he never woke up.

Banks, NCCU’s director of choral activities, conducted the University Choir for 10 years and founded the Alumni Choir. That group began in 2010 as the Centennial Choir to mark the school’s 100th anniversary; Banks enjoyed it so much that he agreed to keep the choir going beyond the celebration.

Banks was a trailblazer as an African-American opera professional and music academic. But he was perhaps most appreciated for his role as a father figure to many of his students.

“Those kids looked at him like a dad. They called me ‘Mama Banks,’ ” said his wife, Deborah Banks, an administrative support associate at NCCU. Together they had four children: three from his wife’s first marriage and a son they adopted together.

“I think he let these kids know it’s OK to love classical music,” Deborah Banks said.

Banks co-founded the school’s Operatorio Ensemble with NCCU artist-in-resident Elvira Green. The two worked closely with each other since she joined the staff in 2005. They typically began their day together with a good laugh.

“There was a level of modesty about him. He never boasted about anything he had done music-wise,” Green said.

Yet when he did perform, his baritone voice was spectacular.

“His performances were not just people sitting in seats, but people absolutely mesmerized by the level of talent this gentleman had,” she said.

Banks was not raised in an opera-loving household. When he and his three siblings washed the dishes, they often turned on The Temptations, said his brother Henry Banks III.

After finishing high school at the Chicago Vocational Career Academy, he earned a bachelor’s degree in music education. His inherent talent and dedication to his art won him acceptance into a performance-based graduate program, colleagues said. Such acceptance to conservatory programs is usually reserved for students who had a performance track starting in childhood.

William H. Curry, the resident conductor for the N.C. Symphony Orchestra and music director for the Durham Symphony Orchestra, marveled upon learning that Banks was a bit of a late bloomer, at least when it came to his performance training.

“I’ve been here 18 years, and Richard Banks was absolutely one of the finest artists and greatest people I’ve worked with in my time here,” Curry said.

Curry, who is also African-American, said he and Banks did not talk about what it was like to be a minority in their field. But he imagined that Banks also knew the courage it took to often be the “first and the only” person of color during performances in their younger days.

In 2012, Curry reached out to Banks to see if he would want to collaborate with the Durham Symphony Orchestra on its annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. concert.

“He was thrilled for his students to have a chance to work with a symphony orchestra,” Curry said. After his death, the students insisted they continue with the MLK concert in his memory, and the concert in January was dedicated to Banks.

His students were determined to see through his hard work – after all, he had done far more than teach them how to sing as a group. Banks was known for helping students when they were in need, whether that meant offering a kind ear, food or even clothing.

“When I felt like giving up because of my voice, he encouraged me to keep going – to always assume it was going to get better,” Harrell said.

Green said: “He left us a magnificent legacy of these young people. He left an amazing footprint that all of our shoes could step into.”

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  • Richard Banks

    Born: July 13, 1953

    Family: The third of four children, he was raised in Chicago. He marries Deborah Banks in 1988, and in addition to raising three stepchildren (Derrick Smith, Tonya Breland and Tamara Smith), also adopts a son, Richard D. Banks.

    Education: Graduates from Chicago Vocational Career Academy in 1971 and goes on to earn a B.A. in music education from Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., in 1978. In 1985, he earns a master’s degree in voice performance from the University of Michigan.

    Profession: Banks begins working at N.C. Central University in 2003. His previous academic appointments included the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, Knoxville College (Tenn.), Talladega College (Ala.), Saint Augustine’s University and Voorhees College (S.C.). His performance career included tours with the Chautauqua Opera Company in New York, the Opera Grand Rapids company in Michigan and the Long Leaf Opera company in North Carolina.

    Dies: Dec. 22, 2013