Ok we got there at last. I give you the subject of this month’s Groovers & Shakers – Buddy Rich. We could just say: “Bernard ‘Buddy’ Rich, born September 30th, 1917 – the world’s greatest drummer, ever” and leave it at that because it’s the truth and nobody who knows anything at all about drums could possibly give you a plausible argument on the subject. But that wouldn’t be value for money and certainly not in the spirit of this series.
Anyhow we’ve finally got there and I wasn’t deliberately leaving him out, nor was I simply building-up the excitement in the style of all the ‘best?’ reality TV shows. The reality of it (pun intended) is he was the greatest and unfortunately, unlike a lot of the drummers of my generation, I never actually got to meet him. He did come into my Drumstore, but I never got to meet him because I was away touring in America. So sadly I didn’t have the personal rapport with the great man I had with some of the other drummers in this series and would like to have had with Buddy. That said you certainly don’t have to look too far on the internet to find out general info on him.
Buddy was born in Brooklyn, New York into a Jewish family and his parents were Bess and Robert Rich. At one year old his father discovered he could keep a steady beat on the spoons and six months later started him out on the stage in the family business, a vaudeville act called ‘Wilson and Rich’. He was appearing on Broadway at four billed as ‘Traps The Drum Wonder’ with a large bass drum which announced that indisputable fact, which he hid behind. The bass drum was changed every so often by the Ludwig Drum Company as he grew taller – although eventually they must have run out of bass drums for him around the time he got to 28” tall unless, that is, they built special sizes for him.
To tell the truth I’ve scoured the internet and don’t know what the act consisted of but chances are it had the young Bernard hiding behind the bass drum and jumping-out at an opportune moment while wearing a sailor suit. He could sing and dance and at the time was the second highest earning juvenile in America earning $1000 a week, close behind Jackie Coogan.
Buddy evidently went to Australia with the act and seems to have stayed there for quite some time and there’s talk that this was because of the education laws in the USA. Certainly Dave Panici claims Buddy had no formal education and it’s difficult to see how he could ever have gone to school with the work schedule he had. Mind you his education should have been completed by 1980 when he received an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music!
His early drum influence was Tony Briglia who played in the Casa Loma Orchestra and when he got to 11 years old he was a fully-fledged bandleader. By the time he was 20 he was playing firstly with Joe Marsala and Jack Lamaire then in consecutive years with Bunny Berrigan and Artie Shaw. In 1937 when he wasn’t on the road he was teaching comedian and film-maker Mel Brooks to play drums. Having sat earlier (and he thought secretly) at Buddy’s drums, once discovered Brooks was deemed by him to be – “Not bad, but not good!”)
His first recording was in 1938 with Vic Schoen whose band backed the Andrews sisters. Around this time he played with Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra where he met and played with Frank Sinatra with whom he remained friends throughout his life. He left to join the US Marines where he stayed for a couple of years before (some reports say) being given a Medical Discharge whereupon he rejoined Tommy Dorsey. Frank Sinatra put up $40,000 to get Buddy’s first big band on the road which lasted for a couple of years before it went out of business. After this he played with anybody who mattered including Harry James, Benny Carter, Les Brown, Charlie Ventura and Jazz at the Philharmonic.
He stayed with Harry James from 1954 to 1966 possibly because he paid him more than anyone else in jazz was getting ($15,000 a week) before starting another Big Band. It’s a testament to his temperament, tenacity and (possibly) pure bloody-mindedness since by this time the Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion had arrived and Big Bands were definitely on the wane. As I said he’d played gigs and made records with jazz greatness like Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Herb Ellis, Dizzie Gillespie as well as just about all the greatest contemporary drummers of the time.
Buddy Rich was such an explosive drummer that you’d be forgiven for thinking that he didn’t play with brushes but that wouldn’t be true. Notably he used them almost exclusively to great effect on ‘The Lionel Hampton, Art Tatum, Buddy Rich Trio’ album in 1955. And it’s interesting to note when he accompanied other people his playing was generally accepted to be more understated, sympathetic and less explosive – but still recognisably Buddy Rich.
It turns out his favourite song was “It’s Not Easy Being Green” which is of course Kermit the frog’s torch song so it does seem to demonstrate he has a soft side. Of course, because of YouTube we know all about his tirades although, in my humble opinion, these certainly don’t diminish him as a drummer, nor as it happens, as a responsible bandleader. Whilst he was arguably not the world’s most diplomatic person all the time he was indisputably its best drummer.
Buddy Rich is famous for never having a drum lesson in his life. He claimed they would mess up his musical talent. The closest he got to any formal musical education was with Henry Adler with whom he co-wrote a tutor book called ‘Buddy Rich’s Snare Drum Rudiments’. Adler always claimed he taught him nothing because it wasn’t necessary although he did try unsuccessfully to teach him to read music. He failed mainly because his pupil was so busy working he never had the time to devote to it, although to get around any problem, Buddy always had a drummer on hand to read new music at rehearsals whereupon he would listen intently to the piece and memorise it completely. Adler realised by watching Buddy that it was something physical and mental you had to have to be a drummer. He claims he never practiced, and simply played the drums when he was performing. His view was you only get better by playing.
His formative years ‘on the boards’ were good training for show business and besides drumming he could act, dance and sing. He even made several vocal albums one where he sang the songs of Johnny Mercer, another called ‘Buddy Rich Just Sings’ and yet another ‘The Voice Is Rich’.
Buddy’s all-round-entertainer instincts died hard and because of his caustic wit he was in great demand on talk-shows around the world including Johnny Carson’s ‘The Tonight Show’, Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett, Steve Allen and Michael Parkinson.
He was a serial endorser playing WFL, Ludwig, Slingerland, Rogers and Vox before he ended up with a vintage ‘Radio King’ set. He seems to have stuck to the same sizes: 24 x 14 bass, 13 x 9 mounted tom, two 16 x 16” floor toms (one for his towel) and mostly a 14 x 5.5” snare drum. This snare drum was something of an anomaly because while he used Dynasonics, Supra-phonics and other high-end snare drums made by the companies he endorsed, for quite some time he used a Fibes drum without using any other instruments from Bob Grauso’s company.
Somehow he made all his kits produce a different sound to anybody else’s – better and more drummy. He even made that restored Slingerland Radio King set he used from 1983 until the end, sound brighter than they usually are. As far as cymbals were concerned he played Zildjian: 14” New Beat hi hats, 20” Medium Ride, 2 x 18” Crashes, 8 (or 10”) splashes and a 22” Swish.
The following quotes may well be apocryphal but having read a lot about him I’m prepared to believe they’re the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. So here goes:
”If you don’t have ability you end up playing in a rock band”.
“There are only two kinds of music – good and bad!”
“Almost everything I’ve done, I’ve done through my own creativity. I don’t think I ever had to listen to anybody else to learn how to play drums. I wish I could say that to 10,000 other drummers!”
If you want to be entertained and possibly educated about the so-called ‘Scream Tapes’ I suggest you go to Buddy Rich on Wikipedia, scroll down to References and click on number 25: “I got nothin’ for you” where a chap called Richard Cooke interviews Dave Panichi, aka ‘The Beard’ and of course the object of Buddy’s derision.
It’s perhaps germane to mention that all over the internet people have hedged their bets about Buddy Rich referring to him as arguably the world’s best drummer (even his own website does this!). For me there is no argument and singer (and also drummer) Mel Tormé encapsulated it in this statement:
“As regards my feelings about drummers, there’s Buddy Rich and there’s everybody else.”
I realise I haven’t dwelled on the subject of his drumming prowess because frankly it’s not necessary. Suffice it to say he played all the rudiments: singles, doubles, multiples, triplets (broken or otherwise), drags and diddles; crisper, faster, with more precision and just better than anybody else. It goes without saying he swung and we don’t even have the satisfaction of saying he couldn’t rock. He could, but perhaps fortunately, he didn’t choose to! As far as what to listen to for the essence of him everybody’s favourites tend to be ‘The West Side Story Medley’, ‘Channel One Suite’ and of course Lennon and McCartney’s ‘Norwegian Wood’ from the album ‘Big Swing Face’.
Buddy Rich died on April 2nd, 1987.