Doug Riley (1945-2007), 2020 Lifetime Achievement Award

Article by Charlie Gray

He was known as Doctor Music — or, around the Toronto music scene, “Doc.” In print, he was Doug Riley.

Photo credit: Don Vickery

Born in 1945 and raised in Toronto, having played the piano since the age of three, Doc graduated in music at the University of Toronto and studied at the Royal Conservatory of Music, then went on to do postgraduate work on the music of the Iroquois.

In his teens he played with the Silhouettes, a Toronto R&B band. In a 2006 interview with The Toronto Star, he said, “Ray Charles was my first influence, outside the boogie-woogie and stride pianists like Albert Ammons and Fats Waller.” In 1969, Doc was the arranger and keyboardist on Ray Charles’ album, Doing His Thing, on which Ray played organ, Doug played piano — and vice versa. Doug told me that when he was first called by Ray Charles to arrange and play on the album, he hung up the telephone — twice! The third call was from Rays manager who convinced Doc that the call was legitimate and not a friend playing a prank. He took the gig.

When Doc arrived at the airport, he was picked up by Ray and his chauffeur. They drove some distance, and arrived at a long driveway leading to Ray’s mansion. Abruptly, the chauffeur put on the brakes, got out of the car, and walked away. Ray Charles then took the wheel and drove the rest of the way. It was a favourite joke they enjoyed playing on new arrivals!

Doc was Music Director for Famous People Players for 20 years. During the same period he participated as arranger and musician on over 300 albums, in genres that went all over the map, and wrote hundreds of Jingles. Doug worked in or on productions with the Brecker Brothers, Measha Bruggergosman and Placido Domingo (arranging None But The Lonely Heart). He wrote three ballets for the National Ballet of Canada, scored six feature films, and played piano or organ with and/or arranged for Anne Murray, Jackie Richardson, John Roby, Danny B, Phil Dwyer, Bruce Cassidy, PJ Perry, Guido Basso, Bob Seger, Ringo Starr, Dione Taylor, David Clayton-Thomas, Tyler Yarema, Dianne Brooks, Motherlode, Gordon Lightfoot, Moe Koffman, Sonny Greenwich; he also recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra. Doug received Member, Order of Canada in 2003, also in 2003 Doug Riley and Guido Basso recorded a duo album A Lazy Afternoon.

From Guido Basso: “Doug Riley was a musical genius. His knowledge and ability encompassed a diverse range of musical genres from classical, ballet and opera to jazz, R&B and honky tonk. He was a brilliant composer, arranger, conductor and an inspired musician who could bring out the best in any kind of keyboard, from piano, to church or Hammond organ… and in any musician who worked with him. He was respected worldwide and his easygoing warm nature and ‘light up a room’ smiles are still sorely missed and fondly remembered by any who were fortunate enough to call him their friend.”

Through the 1970s, he founded and toured with the progressive jazz/rock band Dr. Music, which had Canadian hits. With Doc at its core, they recorded two albums: Bedtime Story and Sun Goes By. Other Riley albums include Dreams, From Canada With Love from 1976, and Freedom from 1990.

From Bruce Cassidy – member of Dr. Music: “Doug’s musical accomplishments are legendary, but his prowess was built on an insight into the building blocks of music and a love of life. His range of musical expression ran the gamut: from the raucous to the sublime, from the basic to the experimental. I enjoyed his respect as did everyone else who worked with him. I was floored by the care he took in the people he loved. Apart from the Dr Music incarnations, we played in each other’s jazz quartets and shared a fascination with the mystery of music making, musical curiosities and little known composers. I modelled my way with musicians after his… I miss you Doc.” Doc spent his last years composing at his home on Prince Edward Island and playing Festivals. Douglas Brian Riley died on August 27, 2007, while returning home from being a featured performer at the Calgary Blues Festival.