Bernard "Buddy" Rich (September 30, 1917 – April 2, 1987) was an American jazz drummer and bandleader. He is widely considered one of the most influential drummers of all time and was known for his virtuoso technique, power and speed. Rich performed with many bandleaders, most notably Tommy Dorsey, Harry James and Count Basie, and later led his own big band.
Rich was born in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn to Jewish-American parents Bess (née Skolnik) and Robert Rich, both vaudevillians. His talent for rhythm was first noted by his father, who saw that Rich could keep a steady beat with spoons at the age of one. He began playing drums in vaudeville when he was 8 years old, billed as "Baby Traps the Drum Wonder". At the peak of his childhood career, he was the second-highest paid child entertainer in the world after Jackie Coogan.
At age 11, he was performing as a bandleader. He received no formal drum instruction and went so far as to claim that instruction would only degrade his musical talent. He also never admitted to practicing, claiming to play the drums only during performances and was not known to read music.
Rich first played with a major group in 1937 with Joe Marsala and guitarist Jack Lemaire. In 1938, he was hired to play in Tommy Dorsey's orchestra, where he met and performed with Frank Sinatra. He then played with Bunny Berigan (1938) and Artie Shaw (1939); during his tenure with Shaw, he instructed a 14-year-old Mel Brooks in drumming for a short period. At 21, Rich participated in his first major recording with the Vic Schoen Orchestra (who backed the Andrews Sisters). In 1942 Rich joined the United States Marine Corps, in which he served as a judo instructor. He did not see combat, and was discharged for medical reasons. After leaving the Marines, he rejoined the Dorsey group. In 1946, with financial support from Sinatra, Rich formed his own band, and he continued to lead different groups on and off until the early 1950s.
In addition to Tommy Dorsey (1939–42, 1945, 1954–55), Rich also played with Benny Carter (1942), Harry James (1953–56–62, 1964, 1965), Les Brown, Charlie Ventura, and Jazz at the Philharmonic. He led his own band and performed with all-star groups, including Charlie Parker and his Orchestra, featuring Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk (on the 1950 album Bird and Diz). In the early '50s, Rich again played with Dorsey and began to perform with trumpeter Harry James, an association which lasted until 1966. That year, Rich left James to develop a new big band. From 1966 until his death, he led successful big bands in an era when the popularity of big bands had waned from their 1930s and 1940s peak. In this later period, Rich continued to play clubs, but stated in multiple interviews that the majority of his big bands' performances were at high schools, colleges, and universities, with club performances to a lesser degree. Rich also served as the session drummer for many recordings, where his playing was often more understated than in his big-band performances. Especially notable were Rich's sessions for Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, on which he worked with pianist Oscar Peterson and his famous trio featuring bassist Ray Brown and guitarist Herb Ellis. In 1968, Rich collaborated with the Indian tabla player Ustad Alla Rakha in the studio album Rich à la Rakha by Buddy Rich and Alla Rakha.
Perhaps his most popular later performance was a big-band arrangement of a medley derived from Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story, first released on the 1966 album Swingin' New Big Band. The "West Side Story Medley" is a complex big-band arrangement which highlights Rich's ability to blend the rhythm of his drumming into his band's playing of the musical chart. Penned by Bill Reddie, Rich received the West Side Story arrangement of Leonard Bernstein's melodies from the famed musical in the mid-1960s and found it challenging. It consists of many difficult sections which feature 4/4 and 6/8 time signatures; it took almost a month of constant rehearsals to perfect. It later became a staple in all his performances, clocking in at various lengths from seven to fifteen minutes. In 2002, a DVD was released called The Lost West Side Story Tapes that captured a 1985 performance of this along with other numbers.
After the "West Side Story Medley", Rich's most famous performance was the "Channel One Suite" by Bill Reddie. Like the "West Side Story Suite", the "Channel One Suite" generally was a quite long performance ranging from about 12 minutes to about 26 minutes and usually contained two or three drum solos. A recording of one of his live performances was released in January 2001, which contained a 26-minute "Channel One Suite".
A live recording of the "Channel One Suite" is featured on the 1968 Buddy Rich Big Band album, Mercy, Mercy, recorded at Caesars Palace in 1968. The album received acclaim as the "finest all-round recording by Buddy Rich's big band".
In the 1950s Rich was a frequent guest on The Steve Allen Show and other television variety shows. Beginning in 1962, Rich was a frequent guest on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and The Merv Griffin Show, among others, and appeared with his big band on British television, on Michael Parkinson's talk show Parkinson and on the Terry Wogan Show (the last time on October 29, 1986, several months before Rich's death). Rich starred in a 1967 summer replacement television series called Away We Go along with singer Buddy Greco and comedian George Carlin.
In 1973 PBS broadcast and syndicated Rich's February 6, 1973, performance at the Top of the Plaza in Rochester, New York. It was the first time thousands of drummers were exposed to Buddy in a full-length concert setting, and many drummers continue to name this program as a prime influence on their own playing. One of his most widely seen television performances was in a 1981 episode of The Muppet Show, in which he engaged Muppet drummer "Animal" (played by Ronnie Verrell) in a drum battle. Rich's famous televised drum battles also included Gene Krupa, Ed Shaughnessy and Louie Bellson.
On an episode of Michael Parkinson's British talk show, Parkinson kidded Rich about his Donny Osmond kick, by claiming that Rich was the president of The Osmonds' fan club.
Rich was married to Marie Allison, a dancer and showgirl on April 24, 1953, until his death in 1987. The marriage produced one child in 1954, daughter Cathy, who later became a vocalist and carried on her father's band. Rich was also cousin of actor Jonathan Haze.
In 1980 Buddy Rich was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Berklee College of Music.
On September 30, 2017, Buddy Rich was honored with a Star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars. This was on the occasion of the Centennial of his birth 30 September 2017. The address of the star is 124 S. Canyon Dr., Palm Springs, CA.
Buddy Rich continued touring and performing until the end of his life. In early March 1987 he was touring in New York when he was hospitalized after suffering a paralysis on his left side that physicians initially believed had been caused by a stroke. He was transferred to California to UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles for tests, where doctors discovered and removed a brain tumor on March 16. He was discharged a week later, but had been receiving daily chemotherapy treatments at the hospital when, on April 2, 1987, Rich died of sudden, unexpected respiratory and cardiac failure after his treatment for the malignant brain tumor. His wife Marie and daughter Cathy, buried him in the outdoor crypt in the Sanctuary of Tranquility corridor at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles. He was aged 69 years.
Rich cited Gene Krupa, Jo Jones, Chick Webb, Ray McKinley, Ray Bauduc and Sid Catlett as major influences on his style.
He typically held his sticks using the traditional grip. He also used the matched grip technique at times when playing on the floor toms (as captured in early video footage) and sometimes around the drum set while performing cross-stickings (crossing arm over arm), which was one of his party tricks, often leading to loud cheers from the audience. Another technique he used to impress during his performances was the stick-trick, a fast roll performed by slapping two drumsticks together in a circular motion using "taps" or single-stroke stickings.
He often used contrasting techniques to keep long drum solos from getting mundane. Aside from his energetic, explosive displays, he would go into quieter passages. One passage he would use in most solos started with a simple single-stroke roll on the snare picking up speed and power, then slowly moving his sticks closer to the rim as he got quieter, and eventually playing on just the rim itself while still maintaining speed. Then he would reverse the effect and slowly move towards the center of the snare while increasing power.
Though well known as an explosive, powerful drummer, he did occasionally use brushes. On one album, 1955's The Lionel Hampton Art Tatum Buddy Rich Trio, Rich played with brushes almost exclusively throughout. In 1942, Rich and drum teacher Henry Adler co-authored the instructional book Buddy Rich's Modern Interpretation of Snare Drum Rudiments, regarded as one of the more popular snare-drum rudiment books. One of Adler's former students introduced Adler to Rich. Adler said, "The kid told me Buddy played better than [Gene] Krupa. Buddy was only in his teens at the time and his friend was my first pupil. Buddy played and I watched his hands. Well, he knocked me right out. He did everything I wanted to do, and he did it with such ease. When I met his folks, I asked them who his teacher was. 'He never studied', they told me. That made me feel very good. I realized that it was something physical, not only mental, that you had to have."
In a 1985 interview, Adler clarified the extent of his teacher-student relationship with Rich and their collaboration on the instructional book. "I had nothing to do with [the rumor that I taught Buddy how to play]. That was a result of Tommy Dorsey's introduction to the Buddy Rich book", Adler said. "I used to go around denying it, knowing that Buddy was a natural player. Sure, he studied with me, but he didn't come to me to learn how to hold the drumsticks. I set out to teach Buddy to read. He'd take six lessons, go on the road for six weeks and come back. He didn't have time to practice. ... Tommy Dorsey wanted Buddy to write a book and he told him to get in touch with me. I did the book and Tommy wrote the foreword. Technically, I was Buddy's teacher, but I came along after he had already acquired his technique."
When asked about Rich's ability to read music, Bobby Shew, lead trumpeter in Rich's mid-60s big band replied: "No. He'd always have a drummer there during rehearsals to read and play the parts initially on new arrangements... He'd only have to listen to a chart once and he'd have it memorized. We'd run through it and he'd know exactly how it went, how many measures it ran and what he'd have to do to drive it... The guy had the most natural instincts."
In a Modern Drummer interview, Buddy had this to say about practicing: "I don't put much emphasis on practice anyhow. I think it's a fallacy to believe that the more you practice, the better you become. You can only get better by playing. You can sit in a basement with a set of drums and practice rudiments all day long, but if you don't play with a band, you won't learn style, technique, and taste, and you won't learn how to play for a band and with a band. It's like getting a job, any kind of job, it's an opportunity to develop. And practice, besides that, is boring. I know teachers who tell their students to practice three, four, six hours a day. If you can't get what you want after an hour of practice, you're not going to get it in four days."
In the same article, Rich also discourages playing drums with one's bare hands. When asked if he could do such a thing, he replied, 'Yes, but why destroy your hands? I could think of a hundred ways to use my hands rather than to break them on the rim of a drum.'
Rich was known as a performer and endorser of Ludwig, Slingerland, and Rogers drums. While endorsing Slingerland in the '60s and '70s, Rich sometimes used a Fibes snare drum together with a Slingerland drum kit. He switched exclusively to Ludwig in the late 1970s through the early 1980s. While recovering from a heart attack in 1983, Rich was presented with a 1940s-vintage Slingerland Radio King set, refurbished by Joe MacSweeney of Eames Drums, which he used until his death in 1987. Rich's typical setup included a 14"×24" bass drum, a 9"×13" mounted tom, two 16"×16" floor toms (with the second tom usually serving as a towel holder), and a 5.5"×14" snare drum. His cymbals were typically Avedis Zildjian: 14" New Beat hi-hats, 20" medium ride, 6" or 8" splash, two 18" crashes (thin and medium-thin), and later a 22" swish. He also used Remo drumheads and Slingerland drumsticks.
Rich was known to have a short temper. Dusty Springfield reportedly slapped Rich after several days of "putting up with Rich's insults and show-biz sabotage". He was also known for his rivalry with Frank Sinatra—which sometimes ended in brawls—when both were members of Tommy Dorsey's band. However, the two remained lifelong friends and Sinatra delivered a eulogy at Rich's funeral. Billy Cobham related that he once met Rich in a club and asked him to sign his snare, but Rich dropped it down the stairs.
According to bassist Bill Crow, Rich reacted strongly to Max Roach's increasing popularity when he was the drummer for Charlie Parker, especially when a jazz critic stated Roach had topped Rich as the world's greatest drummer. Drummer John JR Robinson told Crow he was with Roach when Rich came driving with a beautiful woman next to him and Rich yelled: "Hey, Max! Top this!". Nonetheless, the two worked together on the 1959 album Rich Versus Roach, and Roach appeared on the 1994 Rich tribute album Burning For Buddy.
Rich preferred to concentrate his efforts on big band and jazz music, rarely venturing outside of those genres. He held a low opinion of country and rock and declined to involve himself with those genres. During the medical therapy prior to his death, a nurse asked him whether he was allergic to anything, to which Rich replied "Yes, country and western music". Mel Tormé wrote in his book on Rich, Traps: The Drum Wonder, that although Rich was not much of a rock and roll fan, "Yet, whenever some rock drummers came to greet him after a show, he was always very charming and polite. And he never, at least in my presence, disparaged them in any way."
The Beastie Boys songs "Sabotage" and "Nervous Assistant" include the lines "I'm Buddy Rich when I fly off the handle" and "Like Buddy Rich, try me. Need a brain that's stress resistant" respectively, both referring to Rich's temper. Rich held a black belt in karate.
Rich's temper, mercurial attitude, and imposing personality were documented in secret recordings that pianist Lee Musiker made of some of his outbursts, on tour buses and backstage in the early 1980s. These recordings, long circulated in bootleg form, have done much to fuel the reputation of Rich's personality. The tapes were popular with comedian Jerry Seinfeld, who used three quotes from them more or less verbatim on Seinfeld:
On one recording, Rich threatens to fire trombonist Dave Panichi for having a beard. While he threatened many times to fire members of his band, he seldom did so, and for the most part he lauded his musicians during television and print interviews. The day before Rich died, he was visited by Mel Tormé, who claims that one of Rich's last requests was to hear the tapes that featured his angry outbursts. At the time, Tormé was working on an authorized biography of Rich, which was released after Rich's death, titled Traps – The Drum Wonder: The Life of Buddy Rich. Tormé included edited excerpts of the tapes in the book, but never played them for Rich.
Rich's technique, including speed, smooth execution and precision, is one of the most coveted in drumming and has become a common standard. Gene Krupa defined him as "the greatest drummer ever to have drawn breath".
Rich's influence extended from jazz to rock music and jazz fusion. He influenced drummers such as Led Zeppelin's John Bonham, Deep Purple's Ian Paice, Black Sabbath's Bill Ward, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer's Carl Palmer. Genesis drummer Phil Collins stopped using two bass drums and started playing the hi-hat after reading Rich's opinion on the importance of the hi-hat. Queen drummer Roger Taylor has acknowledged Rich as the best drummer he ever saw for sheer technique. Topper Headon of the punk rock band The Clash often stated Buddy Rich and Billy Cobham as his favourite drummers.
Since Rich's death, a number of memorial concerts have been held. In 1994, the Rich tribute album Burning for Buddy: A Tribute to the Music of Buddy Rich was released. Produced by Rush drummer/lyricist Neil Peart, the album features performances of Rich staples by a number of jazz and rock drummers such as Joe Morello, Steve Gadd, Max Roach, Billy Cobham, Dave Weckl, Simon Phillips, Steve Smith, and Peart himself, accompanied by the Buddy Rich Big Band. A second volume was issued in 1997. Phil Collins also featured in a DVD tribute organized by Rich's daughter, A Salute to Buddy Rich, which included Steve Smith and Dennis Chambers.
In the 2014 film Whiplash, a first-year jazz student at the prestigious (fictional) Shaffer Conservatory aspires to become one of the greats like Buddy Rich; though both the film's treatment of music in general and jazz in particular, and the choice of Rich as a jazz personality to aspire to, have been criticized by jazz aficionados.
In 2016 readers of Rolling Stone magazine ranked Buddy Rich No. 15 in their list of the 100 Greatest Drummers of all time. In a readers' poll in 2011, he ranked No. 6.
With Count Basie
With Benny Carter
With Charlie Parker
With Harry James
With Zoot Sims and Bucky Pizzarelli
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