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In every line of work you have icons, genius that represent the very best the world has to offer. Albert Einstein on physics, Mozart on classical music, Michael Jordan on basketball, Pelé on football; they all shined brighter than most of their peers, innovating and elevating their respective areas of expertise to a whole new level. When it comes to the art of drum set playing, Buddy Rich is THE icon.
Bernard “Buddy” Rich was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1917, to a vaudevillian family comprised of his parents Robert Rich and Bess Skolnik Rich, and his two older sisters Marjorie Rich (1910) and Jo Rich (1914). Robert had been a performer since around 1902, when he was a 15 years old young man. In his late teenage years, Robert formed a duo with singer Sam Wilson, where he worked as a tap dancer and comedian. Robert Rich met Bess Skolnik in 1906. Bess was a very good singer, and thus was included in the Rich and Wilson routine in 1908, after marrying Robert. Bess wasn’t the only one to be included in the act. In 1916, Jo Rich followed her parents footsteps dancing and singing with them live on stage.
The Rich family was filled with talented people that lived for show business. Even Marjorie, who at the beginning seemed to have no real talent as a live performer, would end by finding her way to Broadway at the early age of 15. Thus, it’s was with no surprise that the birth of Buddy Rich brought yet another performer to the family.
From day one, Buddy Rich was a very premature kid. He began crawling early, learned how to talk early, and even began walking early. He was very hyperactive, demanded a lot of attention, showcased a high level of strength for a kid of his age, and refused to be left with anyone, making his parents drag him with them everywhere they went. Buddy’s potential as a drummer and performer was discovered when he was only 18 months old.
It all happened at the Bijou Theater in Fort Wayne, Indiana, United States, while Robert and Bess (Sam Wilson had died in 1918) were rehearsing one of the songs for their stage show. Buddy Rich was sitting on the edge of the stage with a pair of drumsticks the house drummer had given him. As the song began playing he was able to play along with it, to everyone’s amazement.
Robert immediately realized that the addition of Buddy to their act could be of great value, due to the novelty factor of a very young kid playing drums. Robert came up with a stage name for Buddy – “Traps” – and since American patriotism was at a very high level, coming out of a victorious World War I, Robert took advantage of this in designing his son’s live performances. Billed as “Traps, The Drum Wonder”, Buddy Rich was dressed in a white sailor’s suit, playing drums to John Philip Sousa’s “Stars And Stripes Forever”. Buddy became a main stay in his parent’s vaudeville act at the age of 3, being hugely successful with audiences throughout 1921.
Robert never ceased to work on getting the best shows for Buddy to perform at, and was determined on making Buddy make a name for himself outside of the vaudeville circuit. After weeks of negotiation, Robert was able to get Buddy to perform on a Broadway show – Raymond Hitchcock’s “Pin Wheel Revel”. The show debuted in June of 1922 and was received with very poor reviews, except for Buddy’s performance. Following “Pin Wheel Revel”, Buddy worked for another show – “Greenwich Village Follies”. This show enabled Buddy Rich to play on Broadway once again, but was received with mixed reviews.
In 1924, Buddy Rich began performing on his own, and the Rich family saw the birth of its last member – Martin “Mikey” Rich. Almost at the same time, Buddy Rich was invited to tour the Australian Tivoli Circuit (a successful and popular Australian entertainment circuit of music hall venues that flourished from 1893 to the 1950s). Buddy Rich also played a couple of dates on both Honolulu, Hawaii and Pago Pago, American Samoa. This tour was a very successful one. Not only did Robert get to expose Buddy Rich to an international audience, who just loved Buddy’s performances, but was able to earn quite a hefty sum while doing so.
As the years went by, Buddy Rich had to change some of the things in his performance routine, to better suit his age. Under the guidance of his father, Buddy began including tap dancing, singing and comedy in his routine, besides drumming. At this time, Buddy Rich was the second highest paid child performer in show business, just behind actor Jackie Coogan. However, while Jackie was an international celebrity, Buddy struggled to get that type of acknowledgement, and was mostly seen as a vaudevillian act.
In 1929, Wall Street collapsed and the great depression began being felt all over the United States. In 1931, Robert Rich retired from vaudeville, leaving a 14 years old Buddy Rich with little options in his life. Because of the years he dedicated to his live performance as Traps, Buddy wasn’t able to get proper formal education. He got some periodic tutors and basically taught himself how to read and write. His first experience with formal schooling was a short lived one at the age of 14.
The great depression was taking theaters out of business. Some were converted into motion picture theaters, while others were able to offer both vaudeville acts and motion pictures to the audience. Consequentially, there was less work for any act in town. So, with no formal education and by having worked as an entertainer his whole life, Buddy had to fight the great depression with the only things he knew how to do right – tap dance and a drum. His need to survive through his art form made Buddy Rich work a lot for having opportunities given to him, led to the hardcore discipline he would be later known for, in regards to his way of approaching studio and live performances.
In 1936, Buddy Rich performed on the musical “Oh! Say Can You Sing?”, which opened in residence at Chicago’s Great Northern Theater. His stay in Chicago exposed him to a lot of great jazz music. Buddy Rich was getting more and more into the music of big bands like the ones from Count Basie, Benny Goodman, and Glen Gray. After returning to New York City, Buddy began feeling the need to take part in the world of jazz music.
Over the years, Buddy Rich had noticed that some of his favorite players, like Gene Krupa, Chick Webb, Babby Dodds, and Papa Jo Jones, had their own voice, their own particular way of approaching drum set playing. Buddy felt enthralled in honing his own voice as well, and began taking his drumming to a whole new level.
It was around this time that Buddy Rich had his first drum lessons with Henry Adler. One of his friends, which was Henry’s first drum student, introduced him to Henry. Henry had nothing to teach Buddy in regards to technique, since Buddy could do all the things Henry wanted to do himself, and then more. Nonetheless, Buddy couldn’t read music notation, so Henry went on to teach him that.
In 1937, Buddy Rich had his first chance to work as a jazz drummer by playing for Joe Marsala’s band at the New York Hickory House. In 1938, he moved on to playing with Bunny Berigan, and in 1939 with Artie Shaw. During the time he served as Artie’s drummer, Buddy was the drum instructor for a 14 year old Mel Brooks for a short period of time. In that same year he began playing for the Tommy Darsey Orchestra, which featured a very young singer known as Frank Sinatra.
In 1942, Buddy Rich had to vacate his spot as a drummer for Benny Carter and the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, to serve the United States marines in the Second World War. Ensuing his discharge in 1944, he rejoined the Tommy Darsey Orchestra, becoming the highest paid sideman in the history of music until then. He recorded some historical songs with the Darsey Orchestra and Frank Sinatra, earning him the title of world’s greatest drummer.
After playing for the Tommy Dorsey’s band for 2 more years, in 1946, Buddy Rich went on to create his own big band with the financial aid of his good friend Frank Sinatra. On the side, he continued leading different groups until the early 1950s. At that time, big bands were declining, so in 1951, and after losing a lot of money with his band, Buddy Rich had to terminate it. In 1953, he went on to play with a very interesting project by trumpeter Harry James. In the meantime, he rejoined the Tommy Darsey Orchestra for a brief period of time (from 1954 to 1955). In 1966, Buddy left Harry James to revive his big band. For the next two decades he successfully toured the world playing theaters, concert halls, festivals, colleges, and to a lesser degree, clubs.
Buddy Rich also played the role of a session drummer for many recordings. The late-career comeback recordings of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, on which he worked with pianist Oscar Peterson and his famous trio with bassist Ray Brown and guitarist Herb Ellis, were Buddy Rich’s most famous. He was also given the honor to play with such jazz greats as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Ventura. For more details on albums, artists, songs, or projects featuring Buddy Rich, check this compilation of his discography.
Buddy Rich opened two nightclubs, Buddy’s Place and Buddy’s Place II and was a favorite on several television talk shows, like the Mike Douglas Show, the Dick Cavett Show, the Merv Griffin Show and the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He has also made appearances in Hollywood films like Symphony Of Swing (1939), Ship Ahoy (1942), and How’s About It (1943).
Buddy Rich earned a lot of prestigious awards during his illustrious career. Here’s a quick list of some of those honors:
Besides his work with bands and orchestras, Buddy Rich commanded performances for kings, queens, and presidents of the United States. He played for the King of Thailand, Queen Elizabeth II of England, King Hussein of Jordan, President Ronald Reagan, President John F. Kennedy, and for Franklin Roosevelt. Buddy was also a featured soloist with Boston Pops (Boston Symphony Orchestra), Milwaukee Symphony, and the London Philharmonic.
Among the many recording Buddy Rich was a part of, there are two that stand out the most. The first one was released on Buddy’s album Swingin’ New Big Band (1966) and called “The West Side Story Medley”. This was a big band arrangement derived from Leonard Bernstein’s classic West Side Story. This medley became a central piece in Buddy’s performance, which, along with other of Buddy’s acts, was filmed in 1985 and later released on the DVD Buddy Rich and His Band: The Lost West Side Story Tapes (2002). The second one was the “Channel One Suite” by Bill Reddie. A recording of one of Buddy’s live performances of this piece can be watched on the DVD Buddy Rich and His Band: Channel One Suite (2005).
Most of those who are not that knowledgeable about Buddy Buddy, will think that the man was all about displaying chops and playing long solos. If that’s your case, then it’s a good thing you’re reading this article, because by the end of it you’ll hopefully have a different outlook on this great drummer. He was able to play technically challenging solos, as well as music with a high level of intensity and feeling.
Buddy Rich was one of the most technically gifted drummers to ever walk our planet. He had incredible speed and control, power and touch, and all of this while playing in a suit and tie/ bow tie. However, he cared more about the music and his part in an arrangement than about anything else. His timing was machine like, his fills were perfect for the songs, and he drove his bands like no one’s business. Songs like “Green Dolphin Street” and “Time Check”, from his big band are a very good example of what we just talked about. Another cool song to listen to is “Brush Strokes”, a great example of Buddy’s way of grooving and approaching brush playing.
Buddy Rich the man was known for having a very short temper and an imposing personality when it came to handle the musicians from his band. Some years ago one of his band members recorded one of Buddy’s outburst towards the band in a tape. Obviously, this lend itself to some people quickly labeling Buddy’s behavior as inadmissible and inappropriate. We’re introducing this here not to judge Buddy Rich’s behavior, far from that. but to show his commitment, love and respect for the music he played, and for his live performances.
Buddy Rich was known for having a very short temper and an imposing personality when it came down to handling his band’s musicians. Some years ago, one of his band members recorded one of Buddy’s outbursts towards the band in a tape. We’re introducing this here not as a way to judge Buddy Rich’s behavior, but as a way to present you his level of commitment, love and respect for his live performances and the music he played.
Buddy Rich lived his entire life as a performer, an entertainer, a musician. Early on in his life, he was taught by his father to give it all he could, and to fight for what he wanted. Buddy’s career was able to survive the great depression because he worked for it, and by the end of it he was considered the best drummer in the world. It’s in circumstance like this one that even the most talented of persons can falter, especially if they lack that killer instinct, that “do or die” mentality. Buddy had all of this, which helped him keep pushing himself to always give his best under any circumstance. So, over the years, he became a very demanding musician, not only with other musicians but especially with himself.
Buddy Rich had the utmost respect for what he did as a profession. He gave it all he could and expected nothing less from the people he would hire to play in his bands. His outbursts were a result of just that, young band members who couldn’t play that well but thought they could. He couldn’t understand how these players didn’t saw how badly they were playing, and how much they were hurting the music and the performance of the band.
“We had a great band that loved and respected him and he was 95% a sweetheart the whole time. The only time I saw him as he sounds on the tapes is when he had a bad back, or a band full of young guys who couldn’t play well but thought they could, who showed disrespect towards him and thought they were too good to be there (…) that tape hurts because we hear his pain and confusion as to how guys can suck and not know it.” – Ross Konikoff, trumpeter for Buddy Rich’s Band between 1975 and 1977.
Now, what can we learn from this? Plenty, actually. You see, there is no small music, no small event and no small public, there is only a small musician. You should always give all you have as a musician, for every recording session, for every live performance, for every practice session or jamming session. It doesn’t matter how small your audience is, or how small the venue or the money you’re being paid to perform, you should always strive for working at the highest level possible. This is what will ensure your growth as a musician and as a performer. The higher your level of commitment, the greater the chances you’ll have of getting somewhere with your projects and to be recognized as a great musician or performer. Don’t take anything for granted, because it takes a lot more to get to the top than it takes to fall from it.
As for his drum solos, Buddy Rich used a lot of different and cool techniques to give them a very unique personality. His playing of an extremely fast single stroke roll, with a lot of different accent patterns, was his main trademark. To give some more flare to his soloing, since speed can only take you so far, he added some very interesting and creative little nuances that made a world of difference. While playing fast single stroke rolls around the drum set, Buddy would add some crossovers to the mix. The cool thing with his crossovers is that he would cross his left arm either over or under his right arm with a lot of facility and without sticks clicking, and of course, at lightening fast speeds.
He was also very famous for the way he included his cymbals into his solos. He used to play some very cool figures on the bow and bell of the cymbals. Another cool feature of his playing was the use of the hi-hat on drum solos. He would hold the two cymbals with his left hand, while playing the underside of the bottom cymbal with the stick, and the top cymbal with his right hand, for coming up with very intricate pattern. Playing the bass drum with the right stick and rhythms with stick clicks were other of his very interesting compositional tools.
Now, if you take in consideration Buddy played at a time where the hardware quality was far from the one of today, it makes his foot technique that much impressive. He didn’t play with six-hundred dollar bass drum pedals, with direct drive and all the adjustments one can think of. He played with pedals well under par, when compared to some of the cheapest models out there. However, Buddy still managed to have a foot technique to die for, and a very precise and fast hand to feet coordination. So, the next time you decide on blaming your bass pedal of holding you back, think of Buddy Rich, and how he was able to develop a pretty solid bass drum technique with those old pedals of his, and just keep practicing.
If you want to do a more in depth study of Buddy’s technique, there are a bunch of options at your disposal. For learning about the way Buddy Rich approached drum rudiments, check the instructional book Buddy co-authored with Henry Adler in 1942 – Buddy Rich’s Modern Interpretation of Snare Drum Rudiments. To learn how to play the push-pull technique, made famous by Buddy Rich, check Jojo Mayer’s DVD Secret Weapons for the Modern Drummer. This technique allows you to play a very fast stream of notes with only one hand, by throwing the stick into the drumhead and then pulling it up. This is a great tool for playing fast 16th note Samba patterns on the ride or on the snare drum, for instance.
There are also a bunch of DVDs out there for those who want to do a more in depth study of Buddy’s playing in a band setting, drum solos, technique and showmanship tricks – At The Top (2002), Live at the 1982 Montreal Jazz Festival (2004), Buddy Rich and His Band: The Lost Tapes (2005), and Up Close (2009).
During his 68 years of playing drums, Buddy Rich became one of the main references for drummers all around the world, and from very distinctive generations. Alongside Gene Krupa, he was one of the first superstars of drumming to be as known as the guys he was hired to play with. His flashy drum solos, his incredible speed and clearness, and his very intense personality on the drum set, made him a favorite among audiences. Even today, he is one of the most known drummers among non-drummers. What a lot of you might not know is that Buddy Rich was so ahead of his time in what regarded showmanship, that he was actually the first drummer to ever play a drum solo while sitting on a drum set attached to a raiser that rotated 360º. Tommy Lee, Joey Jordison and Travis Barker were not the first ones to do it, Buddy was.
Buddy Rich died on the second day of April of 1987 from a heart attack, when he was 69 years young. He died but left a legacy that keeps him well alive in the minds and hearts of those who knew him personally, and of those who only know and love Buddy Rich the musician. Here’s a salute to the immortal Buddy Rich.