Biography of Buddy Rich, Legendary Jazz Drummer

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Buddy Rich (born Bernard Rich; September 30, 1917–April 2, 1987) was one of the most celebrated American jazz drummers of all time. Known as a virtuoso with phenomenal power and speed, he had his own big band and performed with jazz greats including Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie, and Harry James.

Fast Facts: Buddy Rich

  • Born: September 30, 1917 in Brooklyn, New York
  • Died: April 2, 1987 in Los Angeles, California
  • Occupation: Drummer
  • Musical Genre: Jazz
  • Top RecordingsWest Side Story Suite” (1966), “Channel One Suite” (1968)
  • Spouse’s Name: Marie Allison
  • Child’s Name: Cathy Rich
  • Famous Quote: “Primarily, the drummer’s supposed to sit back there and swing the band.”

Early Life

Born into a family of Jewish-American vaudevillians in Brooklyn, Buddy Rich experienced the world of stage performance from an early age. His father claimed that his son could keep a beat with spoons by age 1. At age 3, Rich began appearing on the vaudeville stage as “Baby Traps the Drum Wonder,” despite having no formal training. Buddy Rich had other talents beyond drumming and incorporated tap dancing, singing, and comedy routines into his act. He was reportedly the second-highest paid child entertainer at the peak of his early popularity.


At age 11, Buddy Rich became a bandleader. However, in 1929, the negative economic impact of the Great Depression destroyed many careers in entertainment. Buddy’s father, Robert, retired from vaudeville in 1931, and Rich himself struggled to put together gigs through much of the rest of the decade.

Career as a Jazz Drummer

In 1937, Buddy Rich played as a member of his first significant jazz group, a band led by clarinetist Joe Marsala and guitarist Jack Lemaine. Buddy Rich’s big break came a year later when he was hired to play with Tommy Dorsey. Later, he met Frank Sinatra, who became the band’s lead vocalist in 1939. In addition to playing with Tommy Dorsey, Buddy Rich was the drummer at various times for Artie Shaw, Benny Carter, and Harry James.


In 1942, World War II interrupted Rich’s drumming career, and he served with the U.S. Marines. Upon his return from the war, Rich became the highest paid sideman in history, earning $1,500 a week.

In 1946, Frank Sinatra provided the financial backing for Rich to form his own band. However, the band failed to bring in enough money to support itself. Years later, in 1966, Rich formed his own big band once again—this time with much more success.

In 1966, Buddy Rich recorded a big-band style medley of songs from the musical West Side Story on his album Swingin’ New Big Band. The album highlighted Rich’s drumming skills in addition to the talents of the entire band. Soon, the medley became a staple of Rich’s live performances. The complexity of the piece required almost a month of continual rehearsals to perfect for the live stage.

Rich is also commonly associated with Bill Reddie’s “Channel One Suite.” The piece ranges from about 12 minutes to 26 minutes in live performances and contains two or three drum solos. A live recording of the piece appears on Buddy Rich’s 1968 album Mercy, Mercy recorded at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada.


Television Appearances

Beginning in the 1950s, Buddy Rich was a frequent guest on television talk shows including The Tonight Show, the Merv Griffin Show, and the Dick Cavett Show. In 1967, he appeared in the TV series Away We Go with singer Buddy Grieco and comedian George Carlin. One of Buddy Rich’s most celebrated television performances was his 1981 appearance on The Muppet Show. He engaged the character “Animal” in a drum battle. It echoed famous drum battles of the past with Gene Krupa and Louie Bellson.

Personal Life

Buddy Rich married dancer and showgirl Marie Allison on April 24, 1953. They remained together until his death. Their daughter Cathy, born in 1954, became a vocalist in her father’s band.


Buddy Rich’s short temper was legendary. His fights with Frank Sinatra when they were both members of Tommy Dorsey’s band occasionally ended in outright brawls. However, they remained friends until Rich’s death, and Frank Sinatra delivered a eulogy at Rich’s funeral. Singer Dusty Springfield once told a story about slapping Buddy Rich after having to put up with days of his insults.

Rich continued performing live almost until the end of his life. In March 1987, he entered the hospital after suffering paralysis on the left side of his body. Doctors at first believed he’d suffered a stroke, but they discovered a malignant brain tumor. Buddy Rich endured surgery to remove the tumor and went home a week later. However, on April 2, 1987, he suddenly died of respiratory and cardiac failure after receiving a chemotherapy treatment. He was buried at the Westwood Village Memorial Cemetery in Los Angeles, California.

Style and Legacy

Buddy Rich’s style of drumming was known for being explosive and powerful. Fellow drum legend Gene Krupa called Rich “the greatest drummer ever to have drawn breath.” He didn’t take lessons until well into his career, and even then, his drum teacher Henry Adler emphasized that Rich had already honed his technique before he began taking lessons. Rich and Adler published the 1942 book Buddy Rich’s Modern Interpretation of Snare Drum Rudiments together. Among Buddy Rich’s technique innovations were the use of drumstick crossovers and the extensive utilization of hi-hat cymbals on drum solos.

Rich also took a dim view of practice, and he didn’t read music. He said that the only way to improve one’s technique was to play with an actual band.


Buddy Rich’s influence on other drummers extended well beyond the world of jazz to some of the greatest rock drummers of all time. Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, Genesis’ Phil Collins, and Queen’s Roger Taylor have all acknowledged debts to the style of Buddy Rich.

Sources

  • Torme, Mel. Traps, the Drum Wonder: The Life of Buddy Rich. Oxford University Press, 1991.

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