Richard R. Coker

(1852 – 1919)


Richard Coker was born at King’s Lynn, Norfolk, England on 26 March 1852 and baptised as Richard Rose Coker on 8 August 1852 at Wells-next-the-Sea, Norfolk, where his parents (William Coker [1814-1881] and his wife Fanny Fleming née Rose [1812-1900]) kept a drapery and grocery shop on The Quay. In 1857 the family emigrated to the United States, settling in Brooklyn (241 Bridge St), where Richard went to school and his "exquisite performance" of a solo song at a public school examination when he was ten years of age led to vocal tuition, firstly under the English music teacher and tenor George Harrison, who lived near the Coker home; then in 1864 when he joined the Trinity Church Choir, New York (where he was known as "Dick Coker") he came under the tutelage of the choirmaster Dr H.S. Cutler. His salary there was $1000, when the starting rate for a chorister was $50 and the choirmaster received $3,500. In 1866 his fee for concert appearances was 20 guineas (about $105) per evening. Richard’s voice was changing by April 1867 and had completely failed by October, when he left America for England with his parents. He seems at first to have gone into food retailing, like his father, until he decided to take up singing professionally.

He studied piano, music and languages in Peterborough (1870) and London, studying at the Royal Academy of Music under Professor Ciro Pinsuti in 1871; with Giulio Alary in Paris 1873-75 and then in London again with the French lyric baritone Sgr Tagliafico and was in Paris in 1877 with the actor Régnier, developing a high baritone voice and acting skills, apparently spending £5,000 ($25,000) over five years on his training. He was said to have contemplated returning to New York to perform as early as 1872 and again in 1877, but nothing came of it. After visiting his family in 1877, he made a successful operatic debut as Alfonso in Donizetti’s La Favorita at the Teatro Pantera in Lucca, Italy, under the name Signor Riccardo Della Rosa, the local press commenting on the strength and beauty of his voice. No reports have been traced of further engagements and it may be that he only sang thereafter in supporting roles. His parents had returned to Brooklyn in the early 1870s, re-joining three of Richard’s older brothers, but Richard stayed in Europe, living mainly in the Kensington area of London as a "musical artist" during the 1870s to 1890s. In the mid-1880s his bachelor older brother Henry joined him in London and by 1905, when Henry died, they had moved to Brighton on the south coast of England. At his death it was reported that ill health had forced him to abandon the stage (it is unclear when this occurred) and made only rare appearances on the concert platform. Health problems were the reason he shot himself with a revolver at his home on 12 May 1919 at 9 Montpelier Crescent, Brighton, where he had been living, unmarried, using the name Richard Della Rosa Coker, with his widowed sister Elizabeth. A newspaper report said that he had inherited a fortune some years earlier and from 1881 he was describing himself as of independent means, but his estate at death was valued at only £275 (nearly $1400). In his later years he had taken an active part in the Brighton musical scene and gave private concerts for small groups of friends where he sang with a "tenor voice of sweet silvery quality".

BJP April 2015

Copyright © 2015 Brian J. Pearson - Used with permission


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