September 30, 1917 – April 2, 1987
“I can’t think of a lot better things to do with my hands than to cut them up on the rim of a drum.”
He acted as though he always needed to prove to the world that he was the greatest drummer who ever lived, of which he boasted often. Besides impelling him to prove that every time he performed, he also naively expected the average guy on the street – even the hapless janitor running the spotlight in a high school gym – to bow down and treat him special because, Buddy believed, he was superior to all other human beings because of his talent on the drums.
-Trombonist Ed Byrne
Beyond his flamboyant, volatile character, beyond his hipster wardrobe and his status as a preferred guest on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Buddy Rich was a magnificent drummer. Don’t believe me? Then just ask him yourself. Oh but you can’t.
And another thing – he was a prick. To everyone.
Born into a vaudevillian family, Rich was performing onstage with his family act at age two. Rich started playing the drums and tap dancing for the Broadway show Pinwheel. With little time for a formal education, Buddy toured Australia at the age of six under the stage name as “Baby Traps – the Drum Wonder” under the guidance of his parents, who also doubled as his managers. In between gigs, Buddy was beaten by his father (hey, I’m looking at you Joe Jackson).
By age eleven, Buddy was playing his first jazz gig with Art Shapiro and Hot Lips Page. Two years later, Buddy was at the forefront of the swing era playing with Bunny Berigan, Harry James, and Tommy Dorsey. With Dorsey, stayed on nearly five years and often roomed with then teen idol Frank Sinatra. Buddy hated Sinatra for all the attention he received in the press. And despite playing on nearly 200 Dorsey hit recordings, Buddy really hated Dorsey for choosing ballads over hard-swing to showcase Sinatra. Buddy also hated Artie Shaw and Bunny Berigan. I sense a common theme building here.
In 1946, Frank Sinatra bankrolled the first of many Buddy Rich Big Bands, but they all were critical and financial failures that further dissolved Buddy and Frank’s tenuous friendship. During the late forties, Rich modernized his drum style to adapt to the bebop movement. Touring with Norm Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic show, Buddy also cut sides with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. By the end of the decade Rich managed to appear in three movies: Symphony of Swing, Ship Ahoy, and How’s About It.
Throughout the fifties and most of the sixties, Buddy teamed up with the former Mr. Betty Grable, Harry James, on many of his performances and recordings. True story, Harry James was the first “name band” to employ vocalist Frank Sinatra, in 1939. He wanted to change Sinatra’s name to ‘Frankie Satin’ but Sinatra refused. Anywho Rich’s showmanship, flashy drumming, and talent for self-promotion made him the group’s centerpiece. Aside from a two-year hiatus from a heart attack, Rich was now the highest paid orchestral musician at $1,500 clams a week. Not bad for a musician who never had a lesson or practiced outside of rehearsal.
Buddy left James for good in 1966 to re-form his own group. Fronting a 16-piece big band, Rich emphasized raw power over tone, color, or mood. Touring the world, Buddy performed for President Kennedy, Queen Elizabeth, and King Hussein of Jordan. Much to the howl of jazz purist, Buddy added Beatles and Paul Simon tunes to the lineup. Buddy dismissed the critics with a wave of the hand and the F-bomb – after all they came to see first-rate arrangements with flashy, technically brilliant drum solos. It didn’t matter to him in the least that blotted swing bands were out of favor.
Here is an example of Buddy’s loveliness. Language – not safe for work. Thanks, Buford.
Despite his abuse of musicians, promoters, and stagehands Buddy Rich finally started to see the financial rewards of his great talent. Well that and the fact he didn’t pay his musicians. Just ask former Rich sideman Ed Byrnes:
First, I talked to lead trombonist Gerry Chamberlain, who I knew had just been on tour with Buddy. It seems that while the band was on the road, Buddy had not paid the musicians for over two weeks – which is like Napoleon not feeding his troops. In his narcissistic arrogance, however, Buddy responded to mounting complaints by buying a brand new Mercedes Benz sports car and having Leo drive him to the next concert – in Houston, Texas – in front of the bus for everyone to see.
Another infamous Buddy Rich story involves the great Gene Krupa (drum legend formerly with Benny Goodman). Sammy Davis, Jr. played host to the mighty two on a 1966 broadcast of his ABC television program. Sadly, Gene was clearly not well that night suffering from leukemia that would take his life shortly. Buddy Rich showed no mercy and took that opportunity to wipe the floor with him. Niiiice.
Now a bonafide jazz legend, Buddy was acknowledged by his peers through numerous awards and honors including Modern Drummer Hall of Fame and the Downbeat Magazine Hall of Fame.
Buddy lived for the most part in a home in Palm Springs. Thank you to Find a Death friend Jeff Stork for snapping.
Unfortunately his active schedule came to a sudden halt when he was diagnosed with brain cancer in summer of 1986. Prior to being wheeled into surgery at UCLA Medical Center for the malignant brain tumor,
the nurse asked the legend if he was allergic to anything. Buddy Rich responded, “Only two things – country and western.”
Best. Line. Ever.
Buddy returned to his Bel Air home to recuperate and shortly upon returning home he suffered “an unexpected respiratory and cardiac failure.” He was taken by ambulance back to UCLA where he died at 2:27 p.m. on April, 2 1987. He was 69 years old.
The day after Buddy died, the phone rings at his home. Lady answers. Gentleman asks – “Is Buddy there?” Lady says “No, I’m sorry – Buddy died.” Gentlemen says, “Thank you,” and hangs up. Next day, phone rings again. Same question: “Is Buddy there?” Same answer. This goes on for a week. Finally the lady says, “I know you, you played in Buddy’s band. You’ve called everyday asking for Buddy. Don’t you understand? Buddy is dead!” The gentlemen says: “Oh I understand. I just never get tired of hearing it”
Who says death isn’t funny?
Guests at the funeral included Johnny Carson and Jerry Lewis. Carson said that Buddy “was not afraid of dying, he was afraid of living without his drums.” After a lengthy eulogy from the Chairman of the Board Frank Sinatra, Buddy Rich was interred at the Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles, California within spitting distance of Marilyn Monroe. As you enter the cemetery, take an immediate left and look for the Sanctuary of Tranquility on your left. Walk into the alcove and look down to your right for Buddy’s crypt. It’s not unusual to find drum sticks in place of flowers in the urn. Rich shares this permanent residence with neighbors such as Frank Zappa, Roy Orbison, good friend Mel Torme, Minnie Riperton, Carl Wilson, Peggy Lee, and Dean Martin.
Photo by Mark Masek.
Got time for one more Buddy Rich story? Buddy was notorious for neglecting to introduce the members of his band – having them each stand for a moment of recognition. It was while he was speaking during his break a person in the front row yelled, “Hey Buddy, how about introducing the band members.” Without missing a beat Buddy fired back, “That’s not necessary. They all know each other by now.”
– by Scott Stanton
Thank you to EJ Fleming and Lisa Burks.