Johnny Shamber and Eric “Ricco” Richardson were fast friends who played in a band together while they served as soldiers in South Vietnam.
Today, their relationship thrives even though the men experienced a 39-year break in friendship after they left the Army, until a chance meeting four years ago.
On New Year’s morning in 2008, Shamber, now 63, had just finished a gig at the Ramada Conference Center in downtown Augusta when he felt a tap on his shoulder.
As he turned to acknowledge the gesture, he saw Richardson’s face for the first time in 39 years since the group disbanded and left Long Binh, a military post in the city of Saigon.
The men embraced each other in the hotel lobby as tears streamed down their faces, Shamber said.
As fate would have it, Richardson had worked a New Year’s Eve gig at a North Augusta venue with his current group, The Educators, and had booked overnight rooms for his band at the Ramada before heading home to Columbia.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” said Richardson, 67, who was so affected by his old group that he continues to carry a wallet-size photo of the band in his billfold. “It was a heckuva band. We not only played great music, but we also had the chemistry.”
Although the band stayed together for slightly less than a year, Shamber said, “We were just like brothers.”
In Vietnam, they once performed in a traveling variety band sanctioned by the USO Military Tour.
Unlike performers such as Bob Hope, Lena Horne and James Brown, who entertained for thousands of troops, Shamber and Richardson’s five-piece group performed for small groups of soldiers at clubs, outdoor parties and cafeterias.
T.R. & The Untouchables featured Shamber on drums and Richardson on saxophone. The group played the hits of the era, including Top 40 songs of the 1960s.
My Girl, Mustang Sally and Sam & Dave’s Hold On, I’m Comin’ immediately come to mind, said Richardson, who is more commonly known by his nickname, “Ricco.”
These days, Shamber and Richardson can be found using their talents during Sunday morning church services.
Richardson offers mellow saxophone tones at Hopewell Baptist Church in Dalzell, S.C. He also manages the media and audio ministry. Shamber is the rhythm maestro at Bath Pentecostal Church in Warrenville.
“It’s a blessing to be able to interact with my brother again,” Richardson said.
“We talk almost every week about our families, our children and grandchildren,” Shamber said.
Both men hail from varied backgrounds. Shamber comes from blue-collar environs of Pittsburgh. Richardson perfected his craft while playing Washington, D.C.-area nightclubs.
In August 1967, Shamber was drafted into the Army after shunning a predictable steel mill career at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works. Richardson joined the Army in June 1968 after attending St. Emma Military Academy in Powhatan, Va.
“At the time, we didn’t realize the impact we were having on our fellow soldiers,” Shamber said, referring to the band.
“We simply wanted to produce good music, have fun, and that’s what we did,” Richardson said.
Army Gen. Creighton Abrams officially credited the band for its impact. Both men are proud of citations they received from the general, who was named commander of all U.S. troops in Vietnam after assuming the duties of Gen. William Westmoreland in June 1968.
The December 1968 citations specifically commend both soldiers for demonstrating commitment toward the “morale and welfare” of their fellow troops.
Though both men say they suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, they agreed they would not trade their cherished Vietnam musical experiences.
“We have so much to be thankful for,” Shamber said.