Ask 100 percussionists to name the greatest drummer of all time, and chances are that the majority of them will respond by saying “Buddy Rich.” The litany of jazz drummers is long, but Rich was one of a kind, distinguished by his virtuosity, speed, and precision. His long career exposed his talents to countless listeners, and even those whose knowledge of drummers is minimal are likely to have heard of him.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1917, Rich’s performing career began before he was two years old. His parents, who had a vaudeville act, showcased their son as “Traps, the Drum Wonder.” In his most popular routine, young Rich would tap out the rhythm to “Stars and Stripes Forever” on his drum. His performances as “Traps” continued through the 1920s; he went on an Australian tour in 1924 and appeared in a short film, Buddy Traps in Sound Effects, in 1929. His nickname, “Buddy,” evolved from “Pal,” his parents’ pet name for him. By the time Rich was 15, he was earning $1,000 a week and was the highest paid child star next to Jackie Coogan, the actor most famous for his role in Charlie Chaplin’s 1920 film The Kid.
Born Bernard Rich, September 30, 1917, in New York City; died of heart failure after surgery to remove a brain tumor, April 2, 1987, in Los Angeles, CA; son of Robert and Bess (Skolnik) Rich (both vaudeville performers); married Marie Allison, 1952; children: Cathy.
Performed in parents’ vaudeville act, beginning 1919; toured United States and Australia, beginning at age 6; led own stage band, 1932; played drums with several big bands in 1930s and 1940s, including those of Joe Marsala, 1937, Bunny Berigan, 1938, Artie Shaw, 1938, Tommy Dorsey, 1939-42 and 1944-45, and Harry James, on and off from 1953-66; led own big bands, 1946-48, 1950, and 1966-87; performed with Jazz at the Philharmonic, 1950s and 1960s; opened own clubs, Buddy’s Place and Buddy’s Place II in Manhattan, 1974-75. Appeared with various bands in several motion pictures, including Buddy Traps in Sound Effects, 1929, Dancing Co-ed, 1938, Ship Ahoy, 1941, DuBarry Was a Lady, 1942, Presenting Lily Mars, 1942, How’s About It?, 1942, Thrill of a Romance, 1944, Thrills of Music, 1948, Harry James and His Music Makers, 1953, and Melodies by Martin, 1955. Military service: U.S. Marine Corps, 1942-44.
Rich became interested in jazz drumming while he was still in his teens. For a brief period in 1932, he had his own band, Buddy “Traps” Rich and His Orchestra. He frequented the Crystal Club in Brooklyn, admiring the drumming of Tony Briglia, who played in the Casa Loma Orchestra. In 1937 Artie Shapiro, a bassist who performed at the Crystal Club, suggested that Rich sit in on drums during the Sunday jam sessions that were held atthe Hickory House, a club thatfeatured the band of Joe Marsala. Rich waited for his chance for three consecutive Sundays, and on the fourth, finally got an opportunity to play. Marsala was impressed, and asked him to join the band. But Marsala’s Dixieland style was not to Rich’s taste, and he left after a short time.
Rich had a brief stint in Bunny Berigan’s band in mid-1938 but in December of that year joined Artie Shaw’s orchestra. By this time, big bands were the musical phenomenon in the United States, and Shaw’s was one of the best. Rich’s playing made the band swing as it never had before. The Shaw orchestra appeared on a weekly radio show, Melody and Madness, and in the feature film Dancing Co-ed, with Hollywood star Lana Turner.
Rich was hired by bandleader Tommy Dorsey in 1939. Dorsey’s band was phenomenally popular and featured a young singer named Frank Sinatra. Rich and Sinatra roomed together on tours, and because they both had strong personalities, they often clashed with each other. In addition, several critics have suggested that Rich was bored by the inordinate number of ballads the Dorsey band played—ballads often sung by Sinatra—and most likely resented the attention that was heaped on Sinatra by his adoring fans. Regardless of their rocky relationship, they respected each other’s musical talents.
In 1942, the year after the United States became involved in World War II, Rich left the Dorsey band and enlisted in the Marines. He never saw active duty and in 1944 was discharged for medical reasons. He rejoined Dorsey in 1944, becoming the highest paid sideman in the business. During the 1940s, motion pictures featuring big bands were the rage, and the Dorsey orchestra performed in several, including Ship Ahoy in 1941, Cole Porter’s musical DuBarry Was a Ladyln 1942, Presenting Lily Mars with Judy Garland, also in 1942, and Thrill of a Romance, starring Esther Williams, released two years later.
Rich started his own band in 1946, receiving $50,000 in backing from Sinatra. “In two years, I was flat broke,” Rich told jazz critic Whitney Balliett in a New Yorker article that became part of Balliett’s book American Musicians: 56 Portraits in Jazz. “But [the band] went down swinging and it went down in one piece.” He formed another unsuccessful band in 1950, and in between performed with Norman Granz’s “Jazz at the Philharmonic” (JATP) tours. The JATP performances were famous for their drum “battles,” in which one drummer tried to outshine the other, and Rich took part in many of these, often emerging as the “winner.”
Rich’s playing displayed an astounding capacity for endurance and velocity, and his ability to get around the drums quickly and with minimal effort was amazing. Rich claimed that he never practiced—apparently believing that practicing squelched spontaneity. “I’ve never had a lesson in my life, and I never practice,” he told Balliett. “That way each night is an expectation, a new experience for me.”
In addition to his percussive gifts, Rich was also a rather good singer who performed ballads and uptempo numbers in a style similar to Sinatra’s. In 1957, he made an album, Buddy Rich Just Sings, but never pursued his singing career very doggedly, since his obvious talents lay elsewhere.
Rich’s dynamic approach to playing reflected his lifestyle and personality. He drove himself as hard as he drove his players, and many an alumnus of Rich’s bands has a story to tell about Rich’s violent temper. A close friend, Mel Tormé, talked to the drummer’s surviving siblings while doing research for the biography Traps, the Drum Wonder. Tormé discovered that Rich had been beaten as a child by his father; Rich’s sisters and brother believed that this “harsh treatment of their brother molded and shaped him into the sometimes difficult man he became later in life,” according to Tormé. Rich himself freely admitted to Balliett: “I have the worst temper in the world. When I lose it, oh baby.”
Rich married showgirl and dancer Marie Allison in 1952, and the couple had a daughter, Cathy, in 1954. He performed with various ensembles in the 1950s and early 1960s, and in 1966 formed a new big band of his own. From this time on, Rich led his own bands. These groups—which featured young, unknown players—performed largely at colleges and universities, and Rich won over an entirely new generation of jazz listeners. Rich’s friend Johnny Carson invited him on the Tonight Show frequently, and the drummer became familiar to television audiences not only as a phenomenal musician, but as a witty and engaging personality.
Rich, who suffered from a heart condition for many years, died of heart failure in Los Angeles in 1987 after undergoing surgery for a malignant brain tumor. Sinatra gave the eulogy at his funeral, and many other show business figures, including Johnny Carson, Jerry Lewis, Artie Shaw, and Robert Blake, also paid tribute to him. In 1988 Rich’s daughter, Cathy, established the Buddy Rich Memorial Brain Tumor Research Foundation at the UCLA Medical Center and started a scholarship fund in his name. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., acquired Rich’s drums in 1989.
Buddy Rich Just Sings, Verve, 1957.
This One’s for Basie (recorded 1956), Verve, 1987.
Time Being —The Amazing Buddy Rich, Verve, 1987.
Buddy Rich, Verve, 1988.
(With Gene Krupa) The Drum Battle (reissue), Verve, 1988.
No Jive, Novus, 1992.
One Night Stand (recorded live 1946), Bandstand, 1992.
Buddy and Sweets, Verve.
Rich versus Roach, Mercury.
Balliett, Whitney, Super Drummer: A Profile of Buddy Rich, Bobbs-Merrill, 1968.
Balliett, American Musicians: 56 Portraits in Jazz, Oxford University Press, 1986.
Korrall, Burt, Drummin’ Men: The Heartbeat of Jazz —The Swing Years, Schirmer Books, 1990.
Meriwether, Doug, Jr., We Don’t Play Requests: A Musical Biography/Discography of Buddy Rich, Meriwether, 1984.
Tormé, Mel, Traps, the Drum Wonder: The Life of Buddy Rich,
Oxford University Press, 1991.
Down Beat, April 11, 1974; February 9, 1978; February 23, 1978; July 1987; February 1994.
Modern Drummer, January 1986; August 1987.
New Yorker, January 21, 1967.
New York Times, April 3, 1987.
"Rich, Buddy." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 18, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/rich-buddy
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