Drummer Buddy Rich, born on September 30, 1917, was performing with his parents’ vaudeville act soon after he began to walk. After banging on his high chair with anything available, by the age of 18 months he was playing rhythmic patterns and joined the act as the celebrated “Traps the Drum Wonder.” By the age of four he was a seasoned veteran of the theater and the highest paid child performer of the time. By seven he had toured Australia, performing on snare, cymbals and bass drum and dressed in his little sailor suit. One could say that from infancy, music was his life.
“He never had a childhood,” says Rich’s sister Marge, quoted in Mel Torme’s biography Traps The Drum Wonder: The Life of Buddy Rich. He barely attended school and had no formal musical training. By the age of 12, Traps had to change his image. Dumping the Buster Brown haircut and the sailor suit he fronted an orchestra for a short time, sang and danced, and featured his novelty drum act.
But Rich had been exposed to jazz, and, much to the consternation of his father, his dream was to become a drummer with a swing band. In 1937 he joined the band of Joe Marsala, then Bunny Berigan’s aggregation, and by the end of 1938 was with Artie Shaw whose band was at the top of the charts after their hit recording of “Begin the Beguine.” The timing was perfect for the self-confident young Rich to establish his reputation as swing’s number one drummer, and by 1939 the 22-year-old Rich was fourth in the Down Beat poll.
At the end of 1939 Shaw walked off stage and left his band. Tommy Dorsey lured Rich to his band with the promise of new arrangements by Sy Oliver. When Frank Sinatra joined the band Rich grumbled about the excessive number of ballads. Although he’d won the 1941 Down Beat drummers poll by a wide margin, Buddy became dissatisfied with the addition of strings to Dorsey’s band and was despondent over the end of his romance with Lana Turner. In 1942 he enlisted in the Marines.
The independent Rich was not a good fit for the Marines and was discharged in 1944 when he rejoined Dorsey as the highest paid sideman in the business. At the end of 1945 Rich formed the first of his own big bands, a critical but not a monetary success. For the next few years he alternated between leading a band, touring with Norman Granz’s JATP, and playing with the Harry James band. Torme counts Rich’s live recordings with James in December, 1953, among his best.
During the ‘60s Rich headed up small groups and in 1965 at the Newport Jazz Festival enjoyed his greatest triumph, besting drummers Elvin Jones, Louie Bellson, and Art Blakey. Writer/critic Dan Morgenstern called it “a phenomenal performance” by “...the greatest drummer who has ever lived.”
In 1966 Buddy put together a new aggregation, recorded a concert piece based on West Side Story, and made regular appearances on the Johnny Carson show. In his book Super Drummer: A Profile of Buddy Rich, Whitney Balliett describes Rich’s leadership: “Long the finest and most exhilarating big-band drummer, Rich pushes and lifts the band with a jetlike beat, keeping it airborne and on course with an endless array of accents and fill-ins and regulating its volume and intensity with the softness or loudness of his drumming.” In 1974 Rich disbanded the group and fulfilled his dream of leading a sextet in his own club, but ever restless, he was soon on the road again with a band he called “the Killer Force.”
In 1983 Buddy Rich suffered a heart attack but recovered to perform again. However, in 1987 he was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and died on April 2, 1987, leaving his wife of over 30 years, Marie, and a daughter Cathy. Torme calls Rich one of the giants of jazz: “A musical phenomenon. One of a kind. We will never see his like again.”