Recollections: Buddy Rich - Chapter Five

Not So Modern Drummer continues to celebrate the legendary Buddy Rich in 2017. Recognizing the 100th anniversary of his birth… Providing their personal commentary on Buddy are: John DeChristopher, Shawn Meehan, Todd Sucherman, and Paul Wertico

John DeChristopher

I began playing the drums at the age of 11, and although my early influences were mostly rock drummers, Buddy Rich was a huge influence in my formative years. Buddy transcended musical genres. He was the greatest drummer ever to play the instrument and drummers of all stripes readily acknowledge it. There’s always a healthy debate over the greatest athletes, but I don’t think anyone will debate that Buddy was the greatest. He could do it all… and he did!

My drumming journey began during an era when Buddy would make regular appearances on the Johnny Carson Show, which were both jaw-dropping and hilarious. I’d stay up past midnight on a school night to see Buddy sit-in with the Tonight Show Band and play one of his mind-blowing drum solos. Sometimes Buddy and Ed Shaughnessy would play together with the band, then close out with a drum battle. His rapport with Johnny Carson was legendary. To some, he might have seemed cocky, but that was Buddy’s personality. Gene Krupa elevated the role of the drummer, but Buddy took it to another level with his virtuoso abilities, which in my opinion are still unmatched today, 30 years after his death. 

Buddy had lighting fast single stroke rolls and incredible chops, but he could swing. When he played time on his ride cymbal, he could drive the band like nobody’s business. Even though he had all that incredible technique, he was about playing musically. In other words: he put his superpowers to good use!

I was fortunate to see Buddy play live five times. On every occasion, I left feeling inspired to play better. On three of those occasions, I got to meet him. The first time, I was 18 years old and a friend and I went to see him at a local high school. My friend was a huge Buddy fan, and was actually shy, but during the intermission he suggested we sneak backstage to meet Buddy. We went through a door off the stage and in the dressing room we saw Buddy, Armand Zildjian and Lennie DiMuzio. This was in 1979 – ten years before I would work for Zildjian. I sheepishly asked Buddy to sign my program, which he did and my friend asked him if he could recommend a book on syncopation, to which Buddy replied, “Syncopation is up to you.” My friend said, “How about Ted Reed’s syncopation book?” And Buddy said, “Syncopation is up to YOU!” We slithered out of there.

The next time I met him was three years later, in 1982. I was working at EU Wurlitzer Music in Boston and I had become friends with Lennie DiMuzio, and had met Armand Zildjian a couple of times, and Lennie invited to me to see Buddy at a club in Salem, Mass. After the show, Lennie and Armand brought me to Buddy’s bus to meet him. He was sitting on a drum case, wearing a NY Yankees jacket and I recall him saying something like, “How you doing kid.” A few months later Buddy was playing in the area and Lennie invited me again and after the show Lennie brought me back to say hello. There are some things that are forever etched in my mind, and meeting Buddy is one of those things. Little did I know that my future would bring me further into Buddy’s orbit…

Fast forward to 1986… I began working for Drum Workshop in Los Angeles. Through DW, I met Freddie Gruber, Buddy’s close friend and confidant, who became my dear friend until he passed away in 2011. I remember Freddie calling in tears on April 2, 1987, the day Buddy died. A couple of years later, in May 1989, I began working for Zildjian, where I met Buddy’s daughter Cathy, and grandson, Nick, who are my friends to this day. I was part of many of the Buddy Rich Memorial Concerts. I also got to know another one of Buddy’s close friends and contemporaries, the legendary Louie Bellson. I can’t describe the feeling of sitting at a table having dinner with Louie Bellson, Armand Zildjian, Lennie DiMuzio and Freddie Gruber, Buddy’s “inner circle”, all regaling with Buddy stories.

Buddy died at the age of 69, five months before his 70th birthday, and his playing was as incredible as ever, right up to the end. Armand and Lennie used to say Buddy got better as he got older, rather than slowing down, or losing any of his technical facility. I don’t think anyone would disagree. 

Thankfully, Buddy’s legacy lives on through his recordings, videos, YouTube and various other mediums, so future generations of drummers can continue to be inspired by his “not of this earth” abilities. I know I continue to be… 

John P. DeChristopher/Viper Representation & Consulting

Artist Representation for Steve Gadd, Peter Erskine, Rick Marotta & Danny Seraphine
Skype: john.dechristopher
Twitter: @JDeChristopher
Instagram: johndechristopher


Shawn Meehan

One of my earliest recollections of Buddy Rich is seeing him on the Tonight Show in the late 70s. I was probably eight or nine years old and hadn’t yet taken up the drums, but was already in the habit of staying up past midnight in the summertime. I remember watching the Carson show many nights on a little Black and White at my grandmother’s house. Doc’s big band was the best part of the show, but never seemed to get the airtime that would satisfy my musical craving. Then one night out comes Buddy playing alongside Ed Shaughnessy. I had never seen or heard anything like that in my life! Buddy’s motions around the kit were smooth as silk. I was struck by the sheer power but also the speed, grace and fire. What I witnessed that night I had not imagined to be possible at my young age. I remember thinking that it must have been an illusion.

The next morning I asked my grandparents if they had ever heard of Buddy Rich. They actually knew a bit about Buddy and also mentioned a guy named Gene Krupa to me that morning. It turned out that my grandmother had two brothers and a couple of nephews who played drums and she herself was a Swing Kid who cut up the rug in the early 40s. I was starting to get the bug, but it would still be a few years until I started playing.

When I told my parents that I wanted to play drums I remember my mom being concerned that I wouldn’t be able to sit still. Upon seeing my look of confusion she explained, “Even when Buddy Rich is sitting down for an interview, he can’t keep still”. I really enjoyed hearing Buddy talk with Carson. I didn’t actually notice the fidgeting that my mom was concerned about. Buddy was hilarious with a wit as lightning quick as his drumming. He always seemed comfortable in the spotlight and definitely wasn’t lacking confidence. After I did start playing, around the age of twelve, I would always keep an eye out to see if Buddy would be on the Tonight Show. I was able to VCR a few more appearances and picked up a vinyl copy of West Side Story and studied Buddy a bit more. His control of rudiments and incredible singles, doubles, and buzz rolls were second to none. What really impressed me was his sense of swing and drive. The way he would cut the figures at blazing tempos was astounding. There was such grace behind every note. He drew the sound out of the drums, and the cymbals shimmered under Buddy’s spell.

The fact that Buddy Rich has remained at the forefront of drumming 30 years after his passing is a testament to his solid legacy. His name is still the one that everyone knows when we mention drumming to non-drummers. I inevitably find myself telling my students and their parents to check out some Buddy clips on YouTube. His legacy is one that reaches across many generations.

There are so many examples of Buddy’s playing that represent his breadth of musicality. Chelsea Bridge comes to mind as a great example of control at a slower tempo with its anticipations. Then Bugle Call Rag, which I remember him tearing up on Carson, is a great example of up-tempo timekeeping and immense swing soloing based around the rudiments. Buddy’s crossovers and hand foot combinations often stood out to me, but it all seemed to come back to his snare articulation and control of rudiments. I would highly recommend the concert video, Rich At The Top for an entire set’s worth of Buddy in action.

There is also a great clip of him that I believe is from the Mike Douglas show. Buddy gets up from the couch and goes over to the drums after the interview portion. He sits down at the drums and does a quick little buzz roll on the snare. A huge smile comes across his face and a look of surprise, as though he is happy that his chops showed up that day. I can’t imagine Buddy’s chops ever not showing up, so it is a funny moment, but also gives us a glimpse into Buddy’s world. Supposedly he never practiced or warmed up before a gig. Buddy didn’t need to. He was always ON whether it be playing the role of bandleader, talk show guest, drummer or entertainer.

Buddy set the bar high for everyone. His playing represents the utmost of what can be achieved on the instrument while, at the same time, always serving the music at hand, first and foremost.

Listening to Buddy in my formative years was revelatory and also, seemingly worlds apart from most of the rock music that I was listening to and playing. The whole concept of setting up and cutting figures seemed almost unattainable as a young rock drummer. It wasn't until years later, after I had some experience playing big band music in college, that I came to understand and appreciate Buddy on a different level. Also evident to me years later is the connection that so many of the great rock drummers from my youth had to the big band and jazz tradition.

On a personal note, I remember the day that I received my acceptance letter from Berklee College of Music in ’87 and how exciting that was. I went over to my grandparents house to tell them. They informed me that Buddy Rich had passed away that day. I couldn’t believe it! Talk about a bittersweet day. I was hoping to get to see him perform, but never had the chance. Thankfully, his legacy lives on in the many recordings, transcriptions and video clips. Most importantly, we still have many amongst us who knew Buddy and can help to keep his legacy alive.


Todd Sucherman

Buddy. One word says it all. Icon, household name, a celebrity with a comics wit, a virtuoso unequaled.  He was a force of nature to behold.  He commanded the best out of his musicians because every time he sat down behind the kit he was the best in the world. Quite simply, no one drove a big band like he did. Beyond his soul shattering technique, it was just the time feel—the drive that he had that was like nobody else.  His time felt like a cigarette boat with the front end hiked up in the air cruising on the water at a ferocious speed.  At the same time utmost musically always prevailed and he could be just as sensitive too. His astonishing brush playing clearly demonstrated this.

Sometimes some big band material can sound a little hokey but his band and his whole “thing” was always hip.  Such depth to the ideas.  From whimsy to severe badassery that only he could pull off on a dime. Buddy pushed his band and his listeners to extremes. Growing up in the 70s with a father for a drummer, I would stay up to see so many of the legendary Tonight Show appearances (as well as any time he was on television.) My father always said, “look at that left hand” in pure amazement. I believe that’s why I’ve pushed myself to get my left hand to a high degree but I can’t come within a mile of Buddy’s…but it remains a constant goal which has no finish line. His left hand just danced comping through the time. When the Buddy VHS (now DVD) came out (Buddy Rich-Jazz Legend) I just devoured it.  It is a must own for all drummers.  He was a constant wellspring of exceptional ideas, execution, virtuosity and above all—musicality.

I really think his ’67 and ’68 bands were particularly smoking. “Big Swing Face” is one of my favorite records of Buddy’s and the last track, “Apples” is a face melting 2 minutes and 44 seconds of kick ass swing.  I’m so glad there is no shortage of recorded or filmed works that documents this once in a lifetime genius.

I only saw him perform live once in my life. It was at the auditorium in what would become my future high school. It was 1978 if memory serves me, so I was only 9 and far too young to fully comprehend what was going on but I knew how incredible he was and I’m so thankful I had that experience. I do vividly remember one moment where he was addressing the audience out from behind the kit. He looked down at the proscenium of the stage and he saw a (now old-fashioned) cassette tape recorder just sitting there by his feet.  It clearly belonged to someone in the front row.  He bent down and ejected the cassette and slipped it into his pocket and said, “That’s why we make records.”  It generated laughs and applause from the audience. His audience banter and playing created a lifelong memory for me from that night as well. Buddy Rich…what more can you say?

-Todd Sucherman


Paul Wertico

I’m honored to be asked to share a few memories about the great Buddy Rich, since I was fortunate enough to not only have seen Buddy play live many times, but I also met him on several occasions, and even opened for him a couple of times. I hope you find them interesting. 

Like so many others, I became a drummer after hearing and being inspired by great music and the world’s great drummers. In my case, Buddy Rich played a pivotal role. I vividly recall riding in my mother’s car one day while she was driving with the radio on, and that’s when I heard Buddy’s version of “Uptight” from his 1966 album, Swinging’ New Big Band for the first time. Although I actually didn’t get my first drum set until a year later, I believe I decided I wanted to be a drummer from that day on!

I also want to add that although (because of the infamous bus tapes, as well as his acerbic wit) Buddy had a reputation for being a difficult artist and a stern bandleader, all of my personal encounters with him were pleasant and he was always nice and very engaging with me. 

The first time I met Buddy in person was when my wonderful Cary-Grove High School band director, Mr. Donald Ehrensperger, brought our jazz band to see Buddy’s big band play at a venue called The Blue Moon in Elgin, IL. Mr. E (as we affectionately called him), brought us there many times to hear various touring bands, like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Stan Kenton, Les Brown, etc. and those famous bandleaders (as well as their drummers) often sat down and talked with us during their breaks! Imagine that!!! 

Anyway, on one of his breaks, I went up to Buddy and asked if I could take a picture with him, which he seemed more than happy to do. However, for some reason the flash on my camera didn’t work and although I didn’t know how he might react, he was sympathetic and said to come back when I got it working, which eventually took three more tries. Each failed attempt was obviously more frustrating and embarrassing for me, but each time Buddy was totally kind and supportive, and told me to come back and try again. Finally, on the fourth attempt, it worked, and I finally got a photo of me with the great Buddy Rich!

Another memory as an audience member was when (after hearing Buddy perform live many times) he was playing at a venue called Amazingrace in Evanston, IL. On that particular night, he was truly on fire and playing like I had never seen before. At one point during his solo, he started doing his “stick tricks” (stick-on-stick routine) that I had heard about, but had never seen him do in person. I was totally thrilled to finally get the opportunity to see him do this, when all of a sudden, some guy in the crowd yelled out “Westside Story” and, as if coming out of a trance, Buddy’s eyes opened, he stopped playing his solo, and counted in the band. I couldn’t believe that this clueless audience member had just ruined a maybe once in a lifetime performance experience for the rest of us because of his ignorance, and after the show I made sure I found the guy and really read him the riot act!!! (Thanks to the internet, I later saw a version of Buddy performing his entire his stick trick routine, but unfortunately, never while being in the audience.)

Besides being an audience member for Buddy and his bands many times, I also played in front of him two times, and although I’m almost embarrassed to tell these stories, they’re true, so here goes. 

Although Buddy was untouchable as a drummer and I would never compare myself to him in any way, I was also never shy to play in front of anyone. This included the time when a band I was playing with (one wintery night in a club near Barrington, IL), opened for Buddy’s big band. However, Buddy and his band were delayed getting to the club due to the snowy weather, so we kept on playing our set until Buddy and his band finally arrived. Then, even though things were already running behind schedule, I made sure I played a drum solo after Buddy arrived, hoping he might hear it (and maybe even like it). Afterwards I went to his dressing room to say “Hi!”, and he was very gracious and gave me a nod and a wink. I can’t help think he probably liked the fact that as a young drummer, I wasn’t afraid to play in front of him. (Ah, the arrogance of youth!!!)

The other time I played in front of Buddy (but this time unknowingly) was when I was playing drums in the Simon & Bard Group at ChicagoFest at Navy Pier and a friend of mine (who was the singer in a rock band I had played with in the past), was off on the side of the stage watching us perform. I didn’t know it at the time, but apparently, Buddy was also there watching us play for a while. After our set was over, I talked with my friend who then told me that Buddy was standing right next to him and at one point Buddy asked him what he thought about the drummer (me), and my friend said “He’s good,” to which Buddy replied, “No, he’s great!” Well, as you can imagine, I was totally blown away to hear that, and to this day those words mean more to me than I can say!

Finally, although the following story doesn’t involve me and Buddy personally, it may help to shed some light on the real reason for Buddy’s sometimes severe treatment of his bands. Once, when I was traveling in a car while being on tour with my dear friend, the late, great guitarist Larry Coryell, Larry told me a story that his friend, the late, great sax player Steve Marcus (who played in Buddy’s big band for years), had told him. It was about one of the times Buddy was scolding his band in his dressing room. When Buddy finished his rant, he told them all to get out, but then said, “Marcus, you stay here!” Steve closed the door, not knowing what to expect. Buddy then leaned his chair back against the wall, put his feet up on the desk, and said “So, Steve, how did I do?”

I think this story is important in helping to remember that Buddy Rich was a true master of his profession. He was someone who played with many of the greatest musicians on the planet for decades and he wasn’t going to settle for getting anything less than 100% out of his fellow (especially younger and less experienced) musicians!

Anyway, there are many more memories of Buddy that I could reflect on, but again, I consider myself so very lucky to have seen him play in person, and to this day, I don’t think anyone can touch his unique talent on the drums. Buddy Rich was truly one of a kind!!!

Paul Wertico

Associate Professor of Jazz Studies

Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University