Photograph by Don Nolte

Photograph by Don Nolte

Drummer Dawn Richardson in her music studio, where she gives lessons to adults and children. Photograph by don nolte

February 2013

Hill Resident Dawn Richardson Keeps the Beat

Sasha Lekach

Former 4 Non Blondes drummer Dawn Richardson has called Potrero Hill home since 2001, when she moved from the Castro to Arkansas and 19th streets. Richardson launched her career in San Francisco in the early-1990s. Since then she’s taught music through a range of media, while playing drums in various bands and projects. 

After moving to her North Slope home with her partner, she realized she’d come full circle; the music video for pop-rock band 4 Non Blondes’ hit 1993 single “What’s Up” included scenes of McKinley Square, with sweeping downtown views from 20th Street.

Richardson was introduced to the ensemble that would issue “What’s Up” through a connection from Los Angeles, where she was born and raised. A friend there knew 4 Non Blondes were looking for a new drummer in 1991, after they fired percussionist Wanda Day, who died in 1997. Richardson — who’d studied music education and percussion at California State University, Los Angeles — traveled to the Bay Area, where the band was based, and quickly joined the group, which had recently signed with Interscope Records. Richardson, reflecting on her successful audition, called it her “big break.” 4 Non Blondes’s 1992 album Bigger, Better, Fast, More! went platinum in the U.S.

After the band broke up in 1994 Richardson pursued several musical endeavors, including drumming for locally-based blues-rock singer/songwriter Tracy Chapman, and Van Morrison’s daughter Shana Morrison, who Richardson labeled a “pop meets blues meets country” singer. Richardson’s current focus is teaching. “I do a lot of that, that's my main gig,” she said. At Outer Mission-based Francisco Studios Richardson holds lessons for all ages and skill levels. 

In addition to teaching, Richardson has written drum lesson books, and created online teaching videos, with more in the works. According to Richardson, “there's not just one way to…” teach, especially with some of her students learning for fun while others aspiring to go pro. Her clients range from elementary school students to middle-aged rockers. Teaching invigorates the longtime drummer. “It is really fun playing,” she said. “It doesn't matter what form it takes for me.” 

Over the years Richardson has had to supplement her career by waiting tables and taking other odd jobs. She’s thankful for the opportunity to teach. “Sometimes people recognize me,” she said. She was once eating in the Castro when the chef came out to tell her about his interest in drumming. She still gets letters and emails from fans, something she enjoys.

4 Non Blondes, with Richardson handling the sticks, made it to the big screen when the band’s song “Mary’s House” was featured in the 1993 film Wayne’s World 2. A cover of Van Halen’s “I’m the One” was part of the 1994 Airheads soundtrack. Sometimes the band’s tunes can be heard on television shows, which prompts phone calls from friends and family closely listening, Richardson said.

Aside from teaching, publishing five books through Mel Bay Publications, and contributing to online teaching videos for and her self-produced videos — the first episode of “The Beats of San Francisco” featured Potrero Hill’s very own crooked Vermont Street — Richardson has toured with Chapman since 2009, and is still working with Morrison. Although her long-distance touring days are mostly over, when accompanying Morrison — who also is a Pilates instructor — she often finds herself in small California towns. Occasionally, the band will cover Van Morrison’s songs, and opened for him when he performed in 2010 at the Masonic Center in San Francisco.

Richardson is also part of a female rock band, “Dolorata,” which has played at Bay Area venues, including Bottom of the Hill and The Independent on Divisadero Street. In addition, she plays locally in her instrumental rock duo “Mental 99” with Joe Gore, who also performs with Tracy Chapman and does sound design for Apple. She called the duo a “big giant experiment.” With her on drums and Gore on guitar, the two write their own songs and perform covers of classics. Because of the group’s small size, “I get to play a lot,” Richardson said. 

Mental 99 — whose name is a riff off the Daly City Asian supermarket 99 Ranch Market — is a chance for Richardson to use what she calls her growing collection of “percussion toys,” such as a timpani mallet, various shakers, and a water drum. “We try to bring in a lot of sound and texture,” she said. They recorded their self-titled debut album in 2010 at a one-day live studio session in Berkeley, and expect to release another set of tracks this year. 

Richardson sees herself playing drums indefinitely. “It's clearly not a phase. I’ll be playing ‘til I die.” After all, she said, being a fulltime drummer is “not a horrible job to have.”

More information about Richardson and drum lessons can be found at

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