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:
Greg Caputo, Ned Ingberman, Billy Klock, Chet Pasek, and Vic Thomas… With additional comments by Not So Modern Drummer staff writer – David Barsalou
The Swing Era lasted only about 10 years. Swing - just what is it? It's a pulse that makes one want to move…Whether it be to dance with your main squeeze, or just tap your foot to the groove. Buddy Rich was ‘THE’ drummer of the Swing Era. He continued to power swing a big band when everyone thought that swing was dead. How ridiculous Buddy Rich made them all feel. He had complete control of the drum set. He simply could do what he wanted when he wanted.
Buddy Rich was the son of talented vaudevillians - his mother a singer, his father a respected tap dancer. Buddy was born into the Jazz era of the 1920's. Perfect timing, along with genetics created a one- time genius of the drum set. Buddy acquired an incredible swing feel. His ability to give the band what it needed when it needed it was uncanny. His solos left drummers in awe.
Buddy gave the audience 100% of his abilities at a performance. If anyone on the bandstand chose not to do the same, they would soon know about it. In no uncertain terms. Why? Because Buddy never wanted to cheat his audience out of the best he, or the band could be.
Buddy Rich's talent is no less than that of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Harry James, or Louis Armstrong. I have toured with the bands that Buddy played drums for - Count Basie Orchestra, Harry James, Tommy Dorsey and Artie Shaw big bands.
There is an extreme responsibility that one feels when playing the Carioca, Hawaiian War Chant or Wind Machine. The challenge of attempting to play those blistering singles in the chart, Love for Sale, will haunt drummers forever. It’s just an incredible drum break by Buddy.
I don't think that Buddy Rich influenced my drumming directly. But there is an anecdote I could offer. When I took lessons with Ted Reed in New York City, he had me study from his ‘Famous Drum Solos & Fills…Volumes 1 & 2’. Ted told me that he transcribed each solo in book two from a Buddy Rich performance that I no longer remember. He didn't cite Buddy in the book as the source. Ted also told me about a colossal solo Buddy once did, I can't remember the venue, but he said “….Your ears would fall off if you could hear it".
I remember learning the drum music for West Side Story with the Plattsburg State Jazz Band. The main drummer was at home with the flu. I had to fill in and perform the entire piece. Buddy’s drumming was very challenging… Buddy Rich was one of a kind. He had amazing control, speed, and stamina.
As a young drummer growing up, I would watch Buddy as a featured guest on the Johnny Carson Show. I also loved when Mr. Rich was on Sesame Street having a drum battle with Animal. To me, Buddy Rich changed our musical reality. As a kid, ‘Buddy’ was a household name. He was very tough, very passionate and was a real Beacon.
In 1982, Buddy Rich was playing at a small club in Northampton Massachusetts called ‘Rahars’.I didn’t’ have the money for a ticket so we hung out at the club and kinda’ hid, and stayed out of sight in the poolroom. When his bus pulled up he walked in with a few other people. By then, I was sitting at the bar and stood up to greet him. It must have startled Buddy…I was about to get a karate chop, or kick in the head (or somewhere else). Luckily that didn’t happen and I got to shake his hand and tell him he's great. He said Yeah… He was great!
~ Photo – Vic Thomas
My relationship with Buddy Rich began in living room of my home in West Springfield, Massachusetts where two pieces of critical technology resided. One was a massive RCA record player whose tone arm more resembled a baby’s arm in size and heft (partnered with a single 12-inch speaker in a cabinet the size of a washing machine and was incapable of reproducing any convincing low or high tones). The other was a television, which could at times receive up to three channels. Critical to the RCA was the library where I checked out every album I could find that had Buddy Rich on it. The television required a Rosetta Stone--The TV Guide-- which I scanned every week for Buddy appearances on The Tonight Show, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, etc. There were no media recording devices for TV, no Hulu, no YouTube, no nothin’. There was no margin for error. If you missed the show, you missed the show. I never missed a show.
The relationship expanded to another room, the attic. Which was either stifling hot in the summer, or Siege of Leningrad frigid in the winter. It was there that my sainted mother installed perhaps her greatest gift to me-- A 1969 six lug Silvertone snare drum with a very unstable flat stand. It brought me untold delight, a high frequency hearing loss, and to this day I’m convinced drove my father from the house. I augmented the snare with cardboard box toms and presto, the one up, two down BR kit. I’d listen to the music down stairs and run up to the attic. When I thought I’d mastered it, I’d scurry down to the record player only to discover that I did not. After countless and fruitless attempts to mimic him, I stopped trying. It was like trying to bottle lightning without a bottle. That’s a lie. I never stopped trying.
But that is the way Buddy was. So mercurial and effortless. If you closed your eyes, you heard things you didn’t see. If you watched him, you saw things that you might not have heard. There was always more to his sound than the sound he made, and more to his appearance than what you saw. The aura that surrounded him never abandoned him and to this day still hovers over his legacy.
I never met him. He never gave me a pair of sticks or signed an autograph. I have no stories of chance meetings or club sightings. To me Buddy always seemed to be just out of reach. He came to me through the speakers and television and he left just as abruptly. I’m sorry that I never had the chance to see him live. He was such a colorful and notorious guy. Looking back, I would have loved to bask in his largesse--or even his legendary temper. But as a young man, I doubt that I was well equipped to handle either. Maybe it was best the way it was.
Sadly, the seventies weren’t kind to him. It was easy to deride the big band sound as a relic of a bygone era. But Johnny Carson never abandoned Buddy and The Tonight Show still served as a platform for his pyrotechnics until he passed. Disco was king and his sound couldn’t have been less cool, but oh man Buddy driving that band! The thrill of him exploding and imploding all over those kicks never failed to thrill me and it still does. I can say this with a great deal of certainty, no one since has combined technical skill and showmanship the way that Buddy did.
The internet has cheapened the discussion over “the world’s greatest drummers “. What was once a cerebral discussion hashed out over finger rolls on table tops and spilt beer is now click bait and popup ads. Was he the greatest? Who knows? Who cares? What I know is, he was great--really great. And he was Buddy. There was never anyone like him before, and there won’t be another one like him again.
I was lucky to have seen Buddy Rich on seven different occasions… The first time I was only fourteen years old, and holding a front row ticket. The show was really amazing except for comedian Jackie Mason who opened for Buddy using me as the target for some of his jokes. Yet, in retrospect, it was really cool. After the show, Jackie shook my hand and thanked me for being such a good sport.
Up to that point, I had only seen Buddy on television in a program called, ‘Away We Go’, and also The Johnny Carson Show. Seeing Buddy live was incredible since I was already familiar with his music from the LP’s ‘Swingin’ New Big Band’, and ‘Big Swing Face’…Sitting right in front of ‘The World’s Greatest Drummer’ was magical to say the least. That night’s performance was the only time I had ever heard Buddy live on Rogers Drums. Every performance after that he was using either Ludwig or Slingerland.
I was able to shake Buddy’s hand and get his autograph; which I still have to this day. Every time I saw him play was just like getting a two-hour drum lesson with the finest drummer who ever lived. When Buddy passed away in 1987, I was deeply saddened by the news. When you think about, he was only 69 years old…Yet, in that short period of time - Buddy had almost single-handedly changed the direction of modern drumming forever.