Recollections: Buddy Rich - Chapter Nine

Not So Modern Drummer continues to celebrate the legendary Buddy Rich in 2017. Recognizing the 100th anniversary of his birth… Contributing their personal recollections and commentary on Buddy Rich are: Donn Bennett, Steve Crabtree, Aaron Kennedy, Butch Miles, and Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz


Donn Bennett:

When I was just starting to play drums, I was probably 12 or 13. It would have been around 1973. I was into Rock and Roll. Period. Rolling Stones, Beatles, T. Rex, Faces, Slade and Mott The Hoople. I was really into learning everything I could about the drums but I was really not into jazz. It just didn’t catch my attention. One thing I always noticed was that virtually every time anybody talked about drums, Buddy Rich always came up. He was always the benchmark that every drummer was measured against. Every time I read an interview with a drummer they would always mention Buddy as an influence. I was really surprised that so many of my rock idols were so influenced by Buddy. I stayed up late one night to see him on the Tonight Show. It was a weeknight and way past my bedtime so I had to sneak downstairs and turn the volume down so I wouldn’t get caught. He came across a little gruff, and was making jokes with Johnny Carson I didn’t understand, probably because I was just a kid and they were two grown men with a lot of history. When he finally sat down at the drums and started playing I immediately understood why he was such an influence on virtually every drummer I’d ever heard of. He just sat down and took command. If there was ever a “natural born drummer” it was Buddy Rich. I loved his playing and his commanding vibe. I still didn’t really like big band music but the way he played definitely got my attention. 

Later the same year Buddy and his band came to town and I asked my parents if I could go. It was a school night and a couple cities away. I would have to take the bus and it would require making a transfer pretty late at night in a pretty rough part of Seattle. I remember my parents arguing about it. My dad really wanted to support my interest in drumming (plus he was a huge big band fan), but my mom thought I was too young to be traveling on a bus at night and that I would be up too late on a school night. Somehow my dad prevailed. They let me figure out finding tickets and my bus route. It was really a major rite of passage for me. This was a very “adult” opportunity me. I had never ventured so far from home without a parent with me. 

Buddy and his band were playing in the cafeteria of Shoreline Community College in North Seattle. Even though I was too young to know, virtually every drummer in the Seattle area was there. I didn’t know any of them at the time but over the next several years I would go to local shows and recognize the drummer as someone I’d seen at that show. It was always a great icebreaker to approach a drummer and say I remember seeing him at a Buddy Rich concert. That would always get the conversation started. In the years I had my drum shop I’ve met hundreds of drummers and Buddy Rich is always a very popular conversation topic. Every drummer has some Buddy experience or some Buddy story. Every drummer could appreciate Buddy on at least some level.

There are not enough words to describe what an amazing person and player Buddy was. The stories are endless. What I will always appreciate about Buddy was his ability to bring people together, share their common experiences and open up to each other.


Steve Crabtree:

My recollections of Buddy Rich to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth go back to my pre-teen years. As a young boy Buddy Rich had already became the buzz name for drummers and drumming. To me it was like he was from another planet, someone held in the highest regard with the bar raised up very high! It’s amazing that the older I get the more I realize his incredible talent he’s left for the ages. His serious dedication to the art of drumming and demand and for musicians around him to be held to a higher level is legendary. Buddy Rich gave it his all. I’m so proud of Cathy Rich and Gregg Potter for continuing his work with The Buddy Rich Band.  A recent Buddy Rich highlight for me was getting a picture of my snare drum given to Gregg Potter on one of Buddy Rich’s personal snare stands!


Butch Miles:

I was all of sixteen years old and I was in New York City marching in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade with my high school band. Never having been in New York before and knowing nothing about the city I, of course, organized an evening with my friends starting at the Roosevelt Hotel to hear the Tommy Dorsey Band and ending at Birdland for the double bill of Maynard Ferguson’s big band (who?) and the Buddy Rich Quintet with Mike Manieri and Sam Most (both of whom were new to me). Well, astounded is not the word. Stunned is more like it. Sixteen and my musical life was either in ruins or massively challenged. I accepted the challenge.

The next time I heard Buddy in person was with Harry James and his band on a tour that swung through my home state of West Virginia. I got a ticket the night of the show and somehow found myself in the front row of the theater staring straight at The Man. After “Two O’clock Jump” second thoughts began to creep in but I bravely (or stupidly) headed backstage to get an autograph and speak to the Master. I did both and walked on air for a number of days. After that I delved into the mastery of Mr. Rich every whichaway until I had a tiny bit of understanding of what the hell he was doing. Second thoughts be damned – full speed ahead.

I was lucky enough to become Mel Torme’s drummer in the early 70s and, as we all know, he and Buddy had a very famous on again/off again relationship all of their lives and I landed smack in the middle of it. I could not have been happier. Buddy would sneak in to see Mel’s show sometimes and we would do the same. Then it was on again and all was right with the world, laughing and hanging out backstage and elsewhere. Once we all were privileged to attend Count Basie’s 70th birthday bash at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel (Basie played his own party) where Huntz Hall of Bowery Boys fame had Buddy doubled over with laughter until he literally fell over a couch in the lobby. This was just a little of the private Buddy Rich that I saw. Onstage though…that was a different story.

I had contact with Buddy for the rest of his life, sometimes on and sometimes off. A bit like Mel but not as intense. It was no secret that Basie was Buddy’s favorite and Buddy was Basie’s favorite drummer. Once in Toronto we played a university and then I talked the Count into coming with me to a club to see Buddy and his small group. I’ll never forget the change. Buddy saw Basie sitting in the room and said something to the effect of “The last set was a bit rough and mad. This set is all about love. Count Basie is in the house”. And it was.

Many years later I played the Cork Jazz Festival in Ireland and Buddy was scheduled to perform. Weather delayed the band until after midnight but not a soul left the Opera House, me included. There was a packed house sitting patiently when he arrived. I hung out backstage and we had a smoke (not allowed but what the hell). It amused me to look around and see so many fans that were a little awe struck and wary of approaching him as the two of us talked about the beautiful Radio Kings that he had on stage that night. “Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. BUDDY RICH” and he unleashed one of the greatest sets I ever heard. That was the last time I ever saw him.

Over the years I’ve traveled many roads but I’ve always heard his voice in my head telling me how to do something better, faster, grander and more musical. He once said “The trick is to make something easy look difficult and something impossible look easy”. I’m still trying Buddy, you dog!


Aaron Kennedy:

The first time I heard Buddy was at my first drum lesson. This was back in Ireland in the village of Dalkey Co. Dublin, where I studied with the great John Wadham. John was originally from the United Kingdom. When he arrived in Ireland he very quickly established a reputation as a great player and was in demand for live and studio sessions. His passion was Jazz and he revered Buddy. John’s live playing would attract much attention and many wanted to study with him. I was one of those fortunate to have done so.

John’s house sat quite off the village main street of Dalkey opposite the Loretta convent high school gate. My first lesson was a Monday night at 8pm. The last lesson time of the day John would offer.

My Mom Marion had to beg and cry down the phone to Mr Wadham appealing for a space in his schedule for her son Aaron. Whom she assured Mr Wadham had music and drum ability. He agreed to have me as a student. The first lesson was incredible! His room had a natural finish Premier kit and array of cymbals of different brands mostly Zildjian and Paiste. There were shelves all around the room with vinyl I now know were home to some of the rarest Jazz LPs. Over three thousand albums of the greats; Miles, Basie, Coltrane, Sinatra and so on. During our years together we would get to listen to most of them

He said “First we shall listen”. He reached for a record without really looking. He just knew where it was. I was nervous and the silence made me even more so. Then as the needle met the record and the speakers awakened. There he was. Buddy! “Big Swing Face”

First his voice. American. Assertive, humorous (which relaxed me somewhat). His count off and then the band came in!! Through the high end turn table and Wharfedale speakers, John had this filling the room and my spirit. The music was an instant journey. A vacation. It brought me away from where I was in my music mind. At that time in the 80s, I was just a kid but had a broad interest in music and listened to everything. I had not heard anything live like this before. It did remind of music I had heard in many movies I had seen.

As the full melody of “Norwegian Wood” revealed itself and Buddy played the short snare fill to bring in the trumpet solo I was now captivated by the drumming and music genius of Buddy Rich. John sat opposite me at his desk which took the weight off his type writer and smoked his pipe. Relighting it once and with his eyes closed was, he “in” the song confirmed by his timely nods and his left foot tapping quarter notes.

As the tune came to an end John lifted the needle right at the last note. He asked me “what did you think of that” with an expression I feel was to suggest I did not enjoy it. “I loved it. Who is the drummer”? “That is the greatest drummer that has ever lived! Buddy Rich. If you want to learn to play drums and someday be in or lead a band, Buddy Rich is the drummer to study”

I thought, what a cool name. As John said it with such conviction I was fully convinced by his passion and Buddy’s playing. It was apparent John had the utmost respect for Buddy and every student would witness and benefit from that as I surely did!

John had me sit behind the kit and he showed me rudimentary exercises. I loved it. I was still thinking about the drumming on the track I just heard. He showed me traditional grip and had me use his sticks as mine were too big for Jazz.  5b’s. Instantly I felt more in control of what I was doing with his I am going to guess a 7a sized stick. John explained how Buddy motored his left hand and also commanded dynamics through stick control.

 The traditional grip felt weak to me but I was happy to practice that way at home for John and me. He could see I was struggling a little, ha a lot! With the trad’ grip playing through singles doubles and by close to end of lesson he had me working through single paradiddle.

He then put on another Buddy Rich song “Mercy Mercy Mercy”. I was like, wow! This is great! I loved the groove, Buddy's fills and what I called at the time the “Pharaoh” Style tom patterns. Buddy’s playing was like conversation to me. I now wished to be a great drummer someday and play great music. Also, I wanted my kit to sound great - and the imagination of being on a record? Well, that would be just amazing. John saw I was loving this tune so he played it again.

John said “ok, I am going to put on a track you play what you think you hear. My heart sank for fear of not being able to hear anything from being nervous. But I was there to try my best and learn. I shrugged my shoulders in agreement. The needle dropped, the white noise of the speakers began, and the tune “Time and Love” began. The sixteenths I could hear I played with one hand on the hi hats driving the rhythm with the right hand and the accents on the left.

Not well, I might add! It was a real struggle but that’s what I heard. He said he could see why I would think to play it like that but I should divide the rhythm between left and right and play it that way. He had me play the intro over and over. John copied the track from vinyl to a blank cassette which all students were asked to bring. He would then type the title tracks and artists on the inlay card. I actually thought this was a great aspect of the lesson, proving John's dedication to teaching drums. I would listen to the tracks at home and traveling to school and still do today.

The lesson was now pretty much over and had been for fifteen minutes. My Dad was there to get me and he was also listening with us. My dad read my mind and said it would be great to see John play. He said no problem. This was a great moment. John selected a record and took it from its sleeve and yet again placed it preciously on the turntable. It was “Birdland” myself and my Dad Brendan were blown away and clearly John was giving us his tribute to Buddy.

I never got to see Buddy perform live. I was too young. Over the coming years John would show me hours and hours of footage he had on tape at the end of almost every lesson. By the time I saw Buddy playing on screen I was mesmerized. I have never tried emulate him or attempt some of the major works he produced.  I’m certainly influenced by him. His energy his passion and soling. In terms of his playing he was pure Jazz because he lived it. Like John I chose to celebrate Buddy and share his music, his attitude and dedication to drumming to as many drummers as I can.

Before John passed away in 2003, while in the hospital the nurse had some questions.
Nurse: Any allergies Mr Wadham?
John: Country western music
Nurse: Religion?
John: Buddy Rich!

Buddy set the standard for the art of drumming. For that I am truly grateful.

Aaron Kennedy “RhythmSaint”


Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz

He wasn't just a drummer, or a drummer's drummer... he was THE drummer. But he was more, and few other drummers even came close. Buddy had personality, a genuine character that people loved to hate, but more often loved to love. Buddy was a celebrity, known to every drummer and musician, and virtually everyone outside of the music community as well. Buddy had the respect of drummers young and old, and even today's kids with their 20" deep kick drums revere him. Indeed, Buddy would have something to say about those kicks! Buddy's career was lengthy, and he was vital during every phase of it. Buddy's drum battles were famous: Gene Krupa, Louie Bellson, Max Roach, Ed Shaughnessy, Jerry Lewis, and of course, Animal. Buddy was a legend in his own time, and remains so after his passing in 1987. He's still the yardstick by which solos, technical skill, and speed are measured. And of course, who doesn't love "the tapes"? Buddy played like no other, and vice versa. He was, and is, one-of-a-kind. I dare any drummer to top all of that.