Rich was born in Manhattan to Jewish vaudevillians Bess (née Skolnik) and Robert Rich. His talent for rhythm was first noted by his father, who saw that Buddy could keep a steady beat with spoons at the age of one. He began playing drums in vaudeville when he was 18 months old, billed as "Traps the Drum Wonder." At the peak of Rich's childhood career, he was reportedly the second-highest paid child entertainer in the world (after Jackie Coogan).At age 11 he was performing as a bandleader. He received no formal drum instruction, and went so far as to claim that instruction would only degrade his musical talent. He also never admitted to practicing, claiming to play the drums only during performances and was not known to read music.
Rich first played jazz with a major group in 1937 with Joe Marsala and guitarist Jack Lemaire. He then played with Bunny Berigan (1938) and Artie Shaw (1939), and even instructed a 14-year-old Mel Brooks in drumming for a short period when playing for Shaw. At 21, Rich participated in his first major recording with the Vic Schoen Orchestra (the band that backed the Andrews Sisters). In 1938, he was hired to play in Tommy Dorsey's orchestra where he met and performed with Frank Sinatra. In 1942, Rich left the Dorsey band to join the United States Marine Corps. He rejoined the Dorsey group after leaving the Marines two years later. In 1946, Rich formed his own band with financial support from Sinatra, and continued to lead different groups on and off until the early fifties.In addition to Tommy Dorsey (1939–42, 1945, 1954–55), Rich also played with Benny Carter (1942), Harry James (1953-56–62, 1964, 1965), Les Brown, Charlie Ventura, and Jazz at the Philharmonic, as well as leading his own band and performing with all-star groups. In the early fifties Rich played with Dorsey and began to perform with trumpeter Harry James, an association which lasted until 1966. In 1966, Rich left James to develop a new big band. For most of the period from 1966 until his death, he led successful big bands in an era when the popularity of big bands had waned from their 1930s and 1940s peak. In this later period, Rich continued to play clubs and stated in multiple interviews that the great majority of his big band's performances were at high schools, colleges and universities, with club performances done to a much lesser degree. Rich also served as the session drummer for many recordings, where his playing was often much more understated than in his own big-band performances. Especially notable were Rich's sessions for the late-career comeback recordings of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, on which he worked with pianist Oscar Peterson and his famous trio featuring bassist Ray Brown and guitarist Herb Ellis.
Drumming technique and well-known performances
Rich's technique, including speed, smooth execution, and precision has been one of the most standardized and coveted in drumming. While Rich typically held his sticks using the traditional grip, he could also play using the matched grip. One of his party tricks was to cross over his arms while drumming, often to loud cheers from the audience. Another technique he used to impress during his performances was the stick-trick – a fast roll performed by slapping two drumsticks together in a circular motion.He often used contrasting techniques to keep long drum solos from getting mundane. Aside from his energetic explosive displays, he would go into quieter passages. One passage he would use in most solos started with a simple single-stroke roll on the snare picking up speed and power, then slowly moving his sticks closer to the rim as he got quieter, then eventually playing on just the rim itself while still maintaining speed. Then he would reverse the effect and slowly move towards the center of the snare while increasing power.However, though well known as an explosive, powerful drummer, he did occasionally use brushes. On one album, 1955's The Lionel Hampton Art Tatum Buddy Rich Trio
, Rich played with brushes almost exclusively throughout. In 1942, Rich and drum teacher Henry Adler co-authored the instructional book Buddy Rich's Modern Interpretation of Snare Drum Rudiments,
regarded as one of the more popular snare-drum rudiment books.One of Adler's former students introduced Adler to Rich. "The kid told me Buddy played better than [Gene\] Krupa. Buddy was only in his teens at the time and his friend was my first pupil. Buddy played and I watched his hands. Well, he knocked me right out. He did everything I wanted to do, and he did it with such ease. When I met his folks, I asked them who his teacher was. 'He never studied,' they told me. That made me feel very good. I realized that it was something physical, not only mental, that you had to have."In a 1985 interview, Adler clarified the extent of his teacher-student relationship with Rich and their collaboration on the instructional book: "I had nothing to do with [the rumor that I taught Buddy how to play\]. That was a result of Tommy Dorsey's introduction to the Buddy Rich book"
, Adler said. "I used to go around denying it, knowing that Buddy was a natural player. Sure, he studied with me, but he didn't come to me to learn how to hold the drumsticks. I set out to teach Buddy to read. He'd take six lessons, go on the road for six weeks and come back. He didn't have time to practice. ... Tommy Dorsey wanted Buddy to write a book and he told him to get in touch with me. I did the book and Tommy wrote the foreword. Technically, I was Buddy's teacher, but I came along after he had already acquired his technique."
When asked about Rich's ability to read music, Bobby Shew, lead trumpeter in Rich's mid-60s big band replied,
The "West Side Story Medley"
Perhaps his most popular later performance was a big band arrangement of a medley derived from the Leonard Bernstein classic West Side Story
, first released on the 1966 album Swingin' New Big Band
. The "West Side Story medley" is a complex big band arrangement which highlights Rich's remarkable ability to blend the rhythm of his drumming into his band's playing of the musical chart. Penned by Bill Reddie, Rich received the West Side Story arrangement of Leonard Bernstein's melodies from the famed musical in the mid-1960s and found it challenging. It consists of many rapid-fire time changes and signatures and took almost a month of constant rehearsals to perfect. It later became a staple in all his performances, clocking in at various lengths from seven to fifteen minutes. In 2002, a DVD was released called The Lost West Side Story Tapes
that captured a 1985 performance of this along with other numbers.
Channel One Suite
After the "West Side Story Medley", Rich's most famous performance was the "Channel One Suite" by Bill Reddie. Like the "West Side Story Medley", the "Channel One Suite" generally was a quite long performance ranging from about 12 minutes to about 26 minutes and usually contained 2 or 3 drum solos. Although 26-minute performances of the "Channel One Suite" were not common, they were not unheard of. A recording of one of his live performances was released in 2006 which contained a 26-minute "Channel One Suite".A live recording of Channel One Suite is featured on the 1968 Buddy Rich Big Band album, Mercy, Mercy, Mercy
, recorded at Caesars Palace in 1968. The album received acclaim as the "finest all-round recording by Buddy Rich's big band"
In the 1950s, Rich was a frequent guest on The Steve Allen Show
and other television variety shows. Beginning in 1962, Rich was a frequent guest on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson
and The Merv Griffin Show
, among others, and appeared with his big band on British television, on Michael Parkinson's talk show Parkinson
and on the Terry Wogan Show (the last time on October 29, 1986, several months before Rich's death). Rich starred in a 1967 summer replacement television series called Away We Go
along with singer Buddy Greco and comedian George Carlin.In 1973, PBS broadcast and syndicated Rich's February 6, 1973 performance at the Top of the Plaza in Rochester, New York. It was the first time thousands of drummers were exposed to Buddy in a full-length concert setting, and many drummers continue to name this program as a prime influence on their own playing. One of his most widely-seen television performances was in a 1981 episode of The Muppet Show
, in which he engaged Muppet drummer "Animal" (played by Ronnie Verrell) in a drum battle.On an episode of Michael Parkinson's British talk show, Parkinson kidded Rich about his Donny Osmond kick, by claiming that Rich was the president of The Osmonds' fan club.
Rich was known as a performer and endorser of Slingerland and Rogers Drums. He switched to Ludwig drums for much of the 1970s to the early 1980s. While recovering from a heart attack in 1983, Rich was presented with a 1940s-vintage Slingerland Radio King set - refurbished by Joe MacSweeney of Eames Drums - which he used until his death in 1987. Rich's typical setup included a 14"X24" bass drum, 9"X13" mounted tom, two 16"X16" floor toms (with the second tom serving as a towel holder), and a 5.5"X14" snare drum. His cymbals were typically Avedis Zildjian: 14" New Beat hi hats, 20" medium ride, 6" or 8" splash, two 18" crashes (thin and medium-thin), and later a 22" swish.
Rich was known to have a short temper. While he threatened many times to fire members of his band, he seldom did so, and for the most part he lauded his band members during television and print interviews. Dusty Springfield reportedly slapped Rich after several days of "putting up with Rich's insults and show-biz sabotage"
.In the Beastie Boys song "Sabotage", the lyrics "I'm Buddy Rich when I fly off the handle", referred to Rich's temper. Rich held a black belt in karate, as mentioned in a CNN television interview with Larry King around 1985.Band member and lifelong friend David Lucas says that "Rich had a soft heart underneath it all. His favorite song was "It's Not Easy Being Green."
The Bus Tapes
Rich's temper, mercurial attitude, and imposing personality were documented in secret recordings that pianist Lee Musiker made during some of his tantrums on tour buses and backstage in the early 1980s. These recordings, long circulated in bootleg form, have done much to fuel the reputation of Rich's personality. The tapes were popular with comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, who used three quotes from them more or less verbatim on Seinfeld
- "If I have to tell you again, we're gonna take it outside and I'm gonna show you what it's like!" ("The Opposite")
- "This guy – this is not my kind of guy." ("The Understudy")
- "Then let's see how he does, up there, without all the assistance!" ("The Butter Shave")
On one recording, Rich threatens to fire Dave Panichi, a trombonist, for wearing a beard. The day before Rich died, he was visited by Mel Tormé, who claims that one of Rich's last requests was to hear the tapes that featured his angry outbursts. At the time, Tormé was working on an authorized biography of Rich, which was released after Rich's death, titled Traps - The Drum Wonder: The Life of Buddy Rich
. Tormé included edited excerpts of the tapes in the book, but never played them for Rich.
Rich married showgirl and dancer Marie Allison in 1952, and the couple had a daughter, Cathy, in 1954.
Death and legacy
Buddy Rich remained active performing until the end of his life. On April 2, 1987, Rich died of heart failure following surgery for a malignant brain tumor. He is interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles. He was 69.Since Rich's death, a number of memorial concerts have been held. In 1994, the Rich tribute album Burning for Buddy: A Tribute to the Music of Buddy Rich
was released. Produced by Rush drummer/lyricist Neil Peart, the album features performances of Rich staples by a number of rock and jazz drummers such as Kenny Aronoff, Matt Sorum, Dave Weckl, Steve Gadd, Max Roach, Steve Smith, and Peart himself, accompanied by the Buddy Rich Big Band. A second volume was issued in 1997.Rich's grandson, Nick Rich, also plays drums and was briefly in the post-hardcore band Falling in Reverse.