Richards started playing the xylophone at age six. He graduated from the Julius Hartt School of Music (now part of the University of Hartford) and Hillard College. Richards was a private student of the distinguished and Schillinger accredited teacher Asher George Zlotnik. Even before then, he performed with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and with various jazz artists in New England. After he left the military service, where he had been Assistant Band Leader of the First Cavalry Army Band in 1952 and 1953, his performing career rapidly gained momentum. In the 1950s and 1960s he played various percussion instruments with jazz ensembles first in New York and then in Los Angeles, where he settled permanently in 1959. He became known as one of the most desirable percussionists in jazz, rock and other popular music and was called on to play in countless movie and television soundtracks.
In 1954 Emil moved to New York where he played jazz gigs with Charles Mingus, Ed Shaughnessy and Ed Thigpen while doing studio recordings for artists such as Perry Como, the Ray Charles Singers and Mitch Aires. In 1955 Emil joined the George Shearing Quintet. He stayed with the group for over four years, playing 51 weeks a year. In 1959 he moved to Los Angeles where he worked with the Paul Horn Quintet, Jimmy Witherspoon, the Shorty Rogers Big Band, Don Ellis, Lenny Bruce and Lord Buckley. He also recorded with Frank Sinatra, Nelson Riddle, Judy Garland, Sarah Vaughan and Doris Day. In 1962, in response to a request from President John F. Kennedy, Emil and a small jazz combo joined Sinatra on a tour around the world  for the benefit of underprivileged children. This group helped to found the first hospital in Israel for Jewish and Arab children. This was the beginning of Emil’s interest in, and collection of ethnic percussion instruments. While Emil is renowned for his prodigious recording career, he is also known in the industry for his giant percussion instrument collection, the Emil Richards Collection. He soon began working with the legendary microtonal pioneer Harry Partch around this time too.
After this world tour, Richards returned to Los Angeles where he recorded with such artists as the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, Bing Crosby and Nat Cole. He became a member of Frank Zappa’s Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra and recorded several albums with this large orchestra, including Zappa’s first solo album, Lumpy Gravy, in 1967. He also worked on film scores for Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, Henry Mancini, Elmer Bernstein, Johnny Mandel, Quincy Jones, Oliver Nelson, Neal Hefti, Lalo Schifrin, Dave Grusin, Michel Legrand, Alex North and Bill Conti, to name a few.
Richards soon became a "first call" percussionist for the Hollywood film industry, and has played for hundreds of films. He was involved in The Zodiac: Cosmic Sounds concept album and has played for many groups, including Blondie, The Doors, George Harrison and Frank Sinatra. He has served several terms on the Board of Directors for the Percussive Arts Society, and donated the largest single-donor collection of instruments to the society museum.
Richards is married to Celeste, he had a daughter Camille, and two sons, Claudio and Emilio Jr. from a previous marriage to Elizabeth 
L.A. Percussion Rentals
Part of Emil Richards' Emil Richards Collection was sold to L.A. Percussion Rentals. He wanted his instruments to continue to be heard in recordings and other performances; he also wanted his collection to stay together as much as possible. Emil’s collection included the well-known, standard percussion instruments (such as xylophone and marimba) to the very eclectic (such as flapamba and chromatic sleigh bells). Emil’s instruments have played an integral part in the recordings he’s performed on, which numbers over two thousand in his career. LAPR finalized the purchase of a large portion of the Emil Richards Collection in early 2012.
LAPR works with Odd Art Fabrications to custom design and fabricate instruments and hardware such as chromatically tuned wood blocks and chromatically tuned bell plates, as used in Star Wars: In Concert. Many of Emil Richards' instruments have been restored by LAPR, and continue to be used in recordings and other performances in the Los Angeles area.
- 1961: Yazz Per Favore
- 1968: Journey To Bliss (Impulse! Records)
- 1969: Spirit Of 1976 (Impulse!)
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With Dizzy Gillespie
- The New Continent (Limelight, 1962)
With Alphonse Mouzon
- The Man Incognito (Blue Note, 1975)
With Lalo Schifrin
- Music from Mission: Impossible (Dot, 1967)
- The Fox (soundtrack) (MGM, 1968)
- There's a Whole Lalo Schifrin Goin' On (Dot, 1968)
- More Mission: Impossible (Paramount, 1968)
- Mannix (Paramount, 1968)
- Kelly's Heroes (soundtrack) (MGM, 1970)
- Rock Requiem (Verve, 1971)
- Enter the Dragon (soundtrack) (Warner Bros., 1973)
- Gypsies (Tabu, 1978)
With Gábor Szabó
- Light My Fire with Bob Thiele (Impulse!, 1967)
- Wind, Sky and Diamonds (Impulse!, 1967)
- Magical Connection (Blue Thumb, 1970)
- "NPR Music". NPR. Retrieved 22 November 2012.
- "Emil Richards Website". Emil Richards. Retrieved 19 June 2012.
- "PAS Industry News". Percussive Arts Society. Retrieved 13 June 2012.
- "Odd Art Fabrications website". OAF. Retrieved 5 September 2012.
- "The Santa Clarita Valley Signal". The Signal. Retrieved 5 September 2012.