When Buddy Rich took charge behind the kit, the air crackled.
Buddy aimed to excite, to give audiences their money’s worth with precision, sophistication, and world-class quality. Oh, he could be as sensitive on a brush ballad as anyone. But his true trademarks—what people still marvel at today— were his ferociously powerful swing and his mind-boggling solos.
In this special issue commemorating Rich on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his passing, Jeff Potter tells the tale of his ascension and eventual unrivaled billing as “the World’s Greatest Drummer.” Next, Steve Fidyk analyzes some classic performances. Then Ken Micallef chats with MD Pro Panelists Antonio Sanchez, Jim Keltner, and Terri Lyne Carrington about Buddy’s ongoing relevance.
Buddy Rich’s story, like his drumming, has many fascinating angles, and it’s one for the ages.
Born to it. It’s an expression too casually used. In rare cases, though, it truly fits. Think Judy Garland, Andre Agassi, Michael Jackson. Think Buddy Rich. The historic early photos of the tiny Buddy wunderkind are showbiz cute and even a tad haunting. There he stands, on stage in a bell-bottom sailor suit and a Buster Brown haircut. His adult-size sticks are poised above an angled snare as he poses, dwarfed behind an ear-high Ludwig bass drum.
Rich’s life was the stage from start to finish, and the drummer was an artist bred in the hardworking, hard-traveling world of vaudeville. Much has been made of the amazing “natural talents” of Rich, who learned by doing, not through formal instruction, and who claims to have rarely practiced. But those who bandy about the “born to it” label must remember that natural talent is a nebulous gift. Having the guts to embrace it, nurture it, and work hard with unyielding tenacity is the only road to greatness; it’s the road that Buddy chose and never took for granted.
In his cover story in the January 1977 debut issue of Modern Drummer magazine, Buddy said, “You only get better by playing. You could sit around in a room, in a basement with a set of drums, all day long, and practice rudiments and try to develop speed. But until you start playing with a band, you can’t learn technique, you can’t learn taste, you can’t learn how to play with a band and for a band.”
As the great painters humbly revered a blank canvas, Rich respected the stage as a sacred place where artists must give their all. Every time he manned the kit, it was with a committed intensity. He performed at a high level of musicianship and technical skill, with a consuming, passionate, even fierce attitude that earned his reputation as one of the greatest—some say the greatest—drummers of all time.
Bernard “Buddy” Rich was born in Brooklyn, New York, on September 30, 1917, to the vaudeville performers Robert and Bess Rich. The couple kept their eyes and ears open for hints of talent in their toddler that could be nurtured for future inclusion in the family act. What followed astonished even the seasoned stage par ents. By one year old, Buddy revealed rhythmic talents, keeping steady beats with silverware and anything at hand, whacking rhythms about the house before he could walk.
By eighteen months, he was centered in a vaudeville spotlight, playing under the billing “Traps, the Drum Wonder.” At four, he was a highly paid professional and appeared singing and dancing on Broadway in Pinwheel. By seven he was touring nationally and traveled to Australia for an extended eighteen-month stint.
The itinerant entertainer eventually expanded his solo act, using an orchestra behind his singing, dancing, and drum bits. With little time for schooling or socializing, Buddy once reflected, “My education took place on the road.” His sister Marge put it more bluntly: “He never had a childhood.”
In his teens, Buddy was increasingly exposed to jazz and gravitated to swing music, which offered possibilities beyond the novelty limitations of his touring act. He came to admire the big band drumming of seminal greats such as Chick Webb, Jo Jones, Dave Tough, and Gene Krupa; with the latter he would eventually maintain a long friendship and share the spotlight of swing-era drum stardom.
Following a succession of gigs with lesser-known artists, Rich seized an opportunity at age eighteen to flash his jazz chops in a higher-profile setting, swinging behind clarinetist Joe Marsala. The bandleader took the confident upand- comer aboard a steady 1937 engagement at New York City’s Hickory House. Known for discovering future stars, Marsala hit pay dirt with Buddy and, later, a young Shelly Manne.
Rich’s stock climbed higher in 1938, when the drummer joined trumpeter Bunny Berigan’s band for six months, while Berigan was basking in the success of his classic hit, “I Can’t Get Started.” Another career advance occurred the following year, when Buddy was enlisted by star clarinetist Artie Shaw, whose big band was touring in the wake of the smash hit “Begin the Beguine.” Buddy can be heard kicking the group on sides such as “Serenade to a Savage” (1939).
Shaw unexpectedly abandoned his prize lineup, and Tommy Dorsey—famous for raiding other bands for their MVPs—swooped in and nabbed Rich. The round-toned trombonist, known as “the Sentimental Gentleman of Swing,” enjoyed a career peak with Buddy at the helm. But things would get even bigger when a self-assured, skinny crooner named Frank Sinatra joined the act. The phenomenal success of th
e new vocalist brought heightened fame to the band but also increased the load of ballads, miffing the restless drummer. Nevertheless, Sinatra and Rich were roommates and became longtime friends.
By 1941, Buddy had won the top slot in the prestigious DownBeat polls. Outside of Dorsey’s dance-oriented format, he got the chance to blow off steam on more jazz-oriented gigs, like his 1942 stint with alto sax great Benny Carter. But when Dorsey added strings to his band that same year, Rich became further disheartened and decided the outfit was no longer the best forum to spotlight his talents. With mounting professional dissatisfaction compounded by personal relationship problems, he quit dramatically to join the Marines.
Following his discharge in 1944, Buddy rejoined Dorsey for a fat fee. The rejuvenated drummer can be heard floor-tom pounding and kicking up a storm behind his signature white pearl Slingerland Radio King drumset on Dorsey tracks such as “The Minor Goes Muggin’” (1945). But soon he again grew restless, realizing that the only career move that would truly satisfy him and provide a proper platform for his talents was to lead his own big band. Sinatra, now a superstar, believed in Buddy’s grit and in 1946 helped finance his first ensemble.
But times were changing. The big band era was ebbing, and Buddy was swimming against the tide. His fine band featured charts by the top arranger Tadd Dameron and stellar soloists including Al Kohn and Zoot Sims. Yet despite the positive reception, the band was a financial bust. Still, it’s an endeavor that the proud Buddy never regretted.
In addition to traveling with his band, Rich played several tours for the legendary Jazz at the Philharmonic series, cutting loose behind a myriad of the era’s top stars. He also worked with Charlie Ventura’s “Big Four” in 1951, and in 1953 he began a long, intermittent association with star trumpeter Harry James and his big band. Buddy can be heard in high gear on the 1954 live LP Harry James at the Hollywood Palladium, firing off a fine solo feature on “Sugar Foot Stomp.”
Although Rich is most commonly associated with the big band format, he also cut sides outside of that mold with a host of giants. Taking on bop, he played with the kings, as heard on a collection of 1950 sides by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Bird and Diz—listen to his snapping drive on cuts like “Bloomdido.” The drummer also lent a lighter, elegant touch to charming classic tracks by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong on Ella and Louis (1956), an album that also included pianist Oscar Peterson. Other standout recordings include Rich’s work with Lester Young and Nat Cole, heard on the 1946 cuts collected on Lester Young Trio; his spirited swinging partnership with Harry “Sweets” Edison on the 1955 LP Buddy and Sweets; and the mega-chops team united on The Lionel Hampton, Art Tatum, Buddy Rich Trio (1955), an album that showcased Buddy’s crisp brushwork. Rich also occasionally featured his singing talents and even cut three vocal-focused LPs for Verve, best heard on Buddy Rich Sings Johnny Mercer (1956).
Between the late ’50s and early ’60s, Buddy recorded frequent dates as a sideman and also led his own quintet while continuing with James. But his true calling continued to beckon. Despite the further decline of big bands—most were now nostalgia acts—Buddy left James and once again started his own big band. According to Rich, many of his peers warned him, “You’re going to lose everything you have.” This time, though, momentum took hold, and from 1966 until his passing in 1987, he led many successful configurations of the Buddy Rich Big Band.
Unbound by the constraints of a “dance” group, Buddy was free to swing at full burn. And he could now put his best foot forward with new arrangements deftly designed to incorporate dazzling centerpiece drum solos.
The new group proved a winner right out of the gate with its classic performance of the exciting and complex “West Side Story Medley” from the LP Swingin’ New Big Band, Live at the Chez (1966), a ten-minute tour-de-force that featured one of Buddy’s breathtaking solos and would become a concert staple. Another signature piece from this period that Buddy owned was the harrowing rockettempo “Channel One Suite,” from one of his finest discs, the live Mercy, Mercy (1968). Other signature crowd pleasers were “Groovin’ Hard,” featured on Keep the Customer Satisfied (1970), and the chops-buster “Time Check,” from The Roar of ’74 (1973).
Further highlight LPs among the big band’s sizeable output include Big Swing Face (1967), Buddy Rich in London (1972), Big Band Machine (1975), the boldly named The Greatest Drummer That Ever Lived With…the Best Band I Ever Had (1977), and a fine final recording, Mr. Drums: Live on King Street, San Francisco (1985).
Always visually dynamic, Rich arched over his kit with a big-toothed beam that was half smile and half snarl. His pointed, explosive, and precise chart interpretations lent full-blooded drama to arrangements. And his commanding injection of swing adrenaline coursed through every player on the bandstand, pushing the ensemble and soloists ever harder, ever more transcendent.
If all that weren’t enough, his centerpiece showcase was designed to leave ’em drop-jawed. One of the great soloists, Buddy never noodled around. The arc of his solos took listeners through escalating energy tiers, finally climaxing in a barrage that would show all the drummer fans in the front rows who was boss.
When soloing, Buddy could easily unleash complex combinations, but his phenomenal technique also allowed him to deliver startling thrills with the “simplest”—yet ultimately most challenging—of stickings, such as basic single-stroke rolls, double strokes, and triplets. In one effective showpiece, Buddy would pause dramatically, initiate a slow alternating left-right, and then gradually close it into a roll at shocking hyper-speed. Smoothing things to a blurring hum, he’d crescendo to high volume, then decrescendo to a whisper without compromising the tightness of the roll. Just when the audience thought they’d been hit with the knockout punch, Buddy would angle the sticks and, yes, the tight roll would be continued on the rim. For the climax, he’d bring it back to full throttle, then drop-kick into a blazing ensemble finale. In the crowd, heads would shake in disbelief.
Brilliant musical prowess certainly took the drummer far, but Rich also enjoyed the rare position of being a star—not just in the limited sense of being a jazz star, but one recognized by the general public. He was able to parlay his extroverted, quick-witted personality into a wider media presence. By the early ’40s he had appeared in Hollywood films and was a star drummer along with Gene Krupa, but it was his later frequent presence on television that reinforced his household name.
“The World’s Greatest Drummer” moniker was good promo for media bites, and Buddy was frequently seen joking it up on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show couch, splitting boards with karate chops, then bounding behind the kit for a knock-’em-dead solo. He also made celebrity rounds on staples such as The Merv Griffin Show and The Mike Douglas Show, along with cameo pop-ins on sitcoms. And who could resist his famous Muppet Show drum battle with Animal?
Buddy’s life was a survival success story in the tough, bare-fisted world of show business: Remaining vital for nearly seven decades was a fighter’s task. It was no secret that this man of complex personality could often be scrappy, and tales of Rich abrasively chewing out his young musician employees are infamous. Yet Buddy had honed his own professionalism under similarly stern leaders such as Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey. While many band alumni found his leadership style excessive, others shrugged it off merely as “Buddy boot camp.” Undeniably, the person Rich drove the hardest and demanded the most from was himself.
Singer Mel Tormé, a longtime friend of Buddy’s, also experienced the difficult side of the man, but through ups and downs they remained dear friends until the end. In his final days of illness, Rich asked Tormé to write his biography. In his loving tribute, Traps, the Drum Wonder: The Life of Buddy Rich, Tormé says in the introduction, “Cantankerous, abrasive, witty, charming, charismatic, sentimental, and loving, he was the stuff that authors’ dreams are made of.”
In 1974, Rich briefly diverted from the road and led a septet at his own nightclub, Buddy’s Place in New York City, and then resumed with the big band. He continued touring his brand name around the world until a heart attack necessitated a performing hiatus in 1983. Ever unsinkable, Buddy returned to drumming and traveling despite doctors’ warnings, but the heart and the beat continued strong, and he eventually resumed a schedule of nine months on the road a year.
Through the ’80s, the master appeared with several major orchestras, performing an augmented arrangement of the “West Side Story Medley,” including an appearance in London with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. But Rich’s seemingly endless energy faltered in 1987, when he was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. Buddy died on April 2, 1987, following surgery, at age sixty-nine.
It’s a testament to his art that Rich remains highly influential to drummers today. Even as musical styles continued to change, the phenom inspired several generations. When big bands faded after the ’40s, he remained a vital force. In the ’60s, as jazz shifted radically and pop music morphed with the dominance of rock, Buddy charged on successfully, and drummers in those newer scenes still looked to him as a standard. Buddy was often unblinkingly critical—even dismissive—of anything he deemed superficial, and plenty of rock drummers caught his ire, spurring comments like “Very few of them can play.” Yet despite the questionable carps, drummers from those genres continued to embrace him as an inspiration. Buddy’s influential longevity authenticated his values. Never claiming to be at the forefront of innovation or on top of trends, Buddy simply contended rightly that music and musicians of class and quality would endure.
In a final television interview a short time before his death, the indomitable Buddy Rich, who’d grown from the tiny “Traps” to become a true musical giant, beamed excitedly as he spoke of his ongoing rigorous touring schedule. “I am having my childhood now,” he said. “I’m having the best time of my life right now.”
by Steve Fidyk
Buddy Rich was the first jazz drummer I saw perform live as a kid, and experiencing his intensity in a club at such a young age left a deep impression on me. It’s an understatement to say that he was one of a kind. His sound was always supportive, but it also cut through each section of his band like a razor blade. He used big drums—which had a major influence on his sound and projection. His setup included a 14×24 bass drum (with a moleskin patch and a wooden beater), a 9×13 rack tom, two 16×16 floor toms, and a 5×14 snare drum. His Avedis Zildjian cymbals, which included a 20″ ride, two 18″ crashes, a pair of 14″ hi-hats, and a 6″ splash, shimmered when he struck them. He preferred wood-tip sticks—slightly heavier than a pair of 7As—and the sensitivity of Remo Coated Diplomat drumheads helped complement his exceptionally wide dynamic range.
Most drummers are in awe of Buddy’s technical command in playing drum solos. But if you dig a little deeper into his style and listen to the way he interprets section and ensemble figures, you’ll also hear a supreme, articulate accompanist. Buddy’s time feel was right down the middle of the beat. The late Jim Chapin once told me that, in his opinion, Buddy had the most accurate time, from beat to beat, of any drummer he ever heard.
For a taste of Rich’s intensity, check out “Come Back to Me” from the Sammy Davis Jr. recording The Sounds of ’66. For an example of Buddy’s hi-hat phrasing and articulation, listen to “Chelsea Bridge” from his own solo album Mercy, Mercy. For a sample of his early soloing, pick up the 1940 Tommy Dorsey recording That Sentimental Gentleman and listen to the tom and snare drum solos on “Quiet Please.”
Excerpts from two of Rich’s most famous drum solos are transcribed below. The first one features his trademark single-stroke roll and appears on the track “Love for Sale” from Big Swing Face.
This second transcription comes from the beginning of Buddy’s legendary solo on “West Side Story Medley,” which appears on the album Swingin’ New Big Band, Live at the Chez. (The complete “West Side Story Medley” drum solo is posted at moderndrummer.com.)
The Bar Is Here
Buddy Rich set the bar for technique and dazzle at a level that many observers feel will never be surpassed. MD Pro Panelists Antonio Sanchez, Jim Keltner, and Terri Lyne Carrington remind us why his skills are as important to examine today as they’ve ever been.
GIVE THIS DRUMMER SOME MORE!
Pat Metheny’s current rhythmic foil received the Buddy Rich Memorial Scholarship while he was attending Berklee in 1994, so he’s well equipped to speak volumes, not only about the master drummer’s technique but also about his musical legacy. In fact, here Sanchez tells us he believes that Rich is long overdue for a stylistic reevaluation and greater inclusion academically.
When I first arrived at Berklee, I was really impressed by speed and technique. When I heard Buddy Rich, I couldn’t believe somebody could play like he did, and with only a single pedal. And Buddy wasn’t the youngest guy when he was playing with all that technique and control. He played that way to the end, which was startling.
When I started getting more into music and not just chops, I realized that Buddy’s swing was also ridiculous, and his feel and use of dynamics were remarkable as well. He could play a super-long solo and keep his stamina up forever. And he kept it interesting by playing with such nuance and change of tempos and dynamics and extreme volume shifts; he’s a real lesson in musicality, technique, chops, and showmanship. This guy was a regular on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Can you imagine a drummer being a regular guest with Jay Leno now?
Buddy Rich is a huge example to follow for any drummer in terms of proficiency and technique. But his legacy goes beyond that. He didn’t play only for musicians—he could really dazzle non-musicians, and that’s why he was a regular on The Tonight Show. Buddy could play drum solos and keep anybody entertained. It’s amazing when you can cross over like that and connect with a regular audience.
And he could swing. You always think of Buddy as this flamboyant drummer with huge technique, but listen to him playing with Lester Young. He’s playing brushes most of the time, and he’s superswinging. Or with Lionel Hampton, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, or Herb Ellis. He’s swinging his butt off. A lot of guys back then had great feel, but they didn’t have Buddy’s chops.
There are so many drummers today with crazy chops, but I don’t think these guys could entertain everybody like Buddy did. Drummers are amazed by chops, but if you asked those guys to play a long drum solo for regular people, most would be lost. Buddy had this combination of technique and passion on the drums—he was a force of nature. It’s like an incredible athlete: His talent speaks to you even if you don’t understand what he’s doing. And Buddy wasn’t one of those guys who made it look effortless. It was effortless for him, but there was so much passion on his face.
Another aspect of Buddy is his big band recording of “West Side Story.” The music is very challenging. It’s a really long composition, and [composer] Leonard Bernstein himself was impressed by Buddy’s interpretation. It’s very nuanced, detailed, energetic, and dynamic.
Buddy is really underrated. When you go to music school, people discuss Philly Joe Jones, Papa Jo Jones, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Tony Williams, Elvin Jones…but they don’t mention Buddy that much, except for his chops. He’s underrated, because when it comes to swing, feel, dynamics, and his actual music, he’s amazing. He was a leader for such a big part of his career, then people related to him more as a showman. Then the chops and the tantrums, all these things took over. He had a larger-than-life personality, and that may have overshadowed his music and his musical legacy.
I first saw Buddy Rich play at the Playboy Jazz Festival when I was eleven. I was blown away—he played so fast. I actually didn’t care about jazz then. But I was trying to understand his hands and how he was moving. I was really floored by his drumming. It was also special that he was a drummer and the bandleader; that made a huge impression on me.
While I was still living in Mexico I was really into Vinnie Colaiuta, Dave Weckl, Dennis Chambers, and Steve Gadd. I got into Buddy through the Buddy Rich Memorial Concerts on VHS. They featured all those guys as well as Gregg Bissonette and Louie Bellson. At the end of the tapes there was footage of Buddy playing. I couldn’t believe what this guy could do. The drummers in the concerts were great in terms of technique, but Buddy was in a league of his own.
The weirdest thing about Buddy is the disconnect between his legacy as a drummer and his legacy as a musician. It’s a strange phenomenon. Everybody says, “Check out the greats,” but they don’t mention Buddy that much. That should change. When I do clinics or weeklong workshops, I always talk about Buddy Rich. People have to be aware that he was not just an amazing technician, but he was an amazing musician. He has an incredible musical legacy. We’re way overdue for a reevaluation of Buddy Rich.
BUDDY RICH: BEYOND COMPARE
The revered Los Angeles drummer went to unusual lengths to express to Rich what his drumming meant to him. Here Keltner recounts that tale and puts the great one’s uniqueness in historical perspective.
I am convinced that Buddy was not normal. He was a savant. There’s no other logical, rational way to understand it. I’ve heard tapes of Buddy at five years old, and he’s already playing with that incredibly sophisticated sense of syncopation that a lot of grown men today would love to have. Freddie Gruber, who was Buddy’s best friend, played me those tapes. On the first one, Buddy’s playing on the floor, on a cabinet, on a chair…. By the time he finally gets to his snare drum solo, your jaw has already dropped. I was crying.
Later, after Freddie’s death, his lawyer found another tape, and on that one Buddy’s playing everything including a small teacup, which he treats like a cowbell. Very sophisticated rhythmically for anyone, let alone a five-year-old. Then he starts scatting, and you wonder, How can a little kid be doing this? He goes on to play “Stars and Stripes Forever” on a snare drum, accompanied by a pit band. It’s remarkable.
Buddy will always be relevant for all generations, because everything about him was completely above everyone else. He was the highest-paid sideman of the 1940s, and he was definitely the champion when it came to technique—Buddy was a technical freak of nature. Papa Jo Jones, Gene Krupa, Dave Tough, and Big Sid Catlett are other beautiful drummers of the swing era, but none of those guys had the hands that Buddy had. Philly Joe Jones famously said, “I don’t want to play what Buddy plays, but I want that machine.” He told that to Freddie Gruber, who told it to me. That says it all right there.
Once, back in the ’70s, I went to see Buddy with a friend, percussionist Emil Richards, at a supper club in Glendale. Buddy played with his band, and it was astonishingly good, as it always was. After the show Emil said, “Let’s go back and see Buddy.” We go backstage, and there he is, sitting on a barstool, smoking a cigarette with his pants off, and he’s got a towel over his legs. I guess that’s how Buddy was most comfortable after a show. He was soaked. The man truly gave a hundred percent every night. He never coasted, ever. I never saw Buddy not deliver one hundred percent—and I saw him play all the time. I went to Disneyland often, just to see him. It was truly something to behold. And remember, Buddy didn’t have a double pedal; he did it all with one bass drum pedal and his hands. Incredible.
Anyway, there’s Buddy in the middle of all these L.A. session guys, sitting above them on this high barstool. They’re all looking up at him, like they’re worshipping him. Everybody was kind of quiet. I looked at Buddy for a second and had this urge to go over and speak to him. I said, “Buddy, I’ve seen you many times, and that was the most amazing show I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen you play like that before. It was unbelievable.” He’s smiling. And then I say, “Can I give you a kiss?” Emil said everybody in the room looked at each other, like, “Oh my God, Buddy is going to deck this guy!” But Buddy said, “Sure.” So I kissed him on the cheek and said, “Man, there is nobody like you in the whole world.”
Now, Buddy was very aware of the younger drummers at the time. He always said that Steve Gadd was his favorite. Buddy knew who everybody was. And I think that when he saw that I was sincerely blown away, he took that to heart. So when I kissed him, he didn’t flinch. And everybody in the room was relieved that Buddy didn’t kill me.
“He is still the benchmark by which all are measured, and he’s considered by many to be the greatest drummer that ever lived. We’ve done the memorial concerts since 1988, and there’s product and clips on YouTube. After his death, his legacy has taken on a life of its own.
“He set the bar so high that a lot of people are awestruck. Really famous drummers are nervous to play at the memorial concerts. They’ll say, ‘I’m coming here to play in his name, and I’m really nervous because I want to live up to it.’
“He was so much bigger than most people think. He had so many different personalities and was loving and kind, and he never wanted to be given credit for things he did for other people and the charity work he was involved in. He was a true humanitarian.”
—Cathy Rich, Buddy’s daughter
BUDDY AND ME
Terri Lyne Carrington
She’s enjoyed a career of superlatives, including a full scholarship to Berklee when she was eleven, last year’s Grammy win for her album The Mosaic Project, and collaborations with jazz greats from Stan Getz to Esperanza Spalding. But TLC says her greatest career memory is meeting Buddy Rich in 1975—the start of a beautiful friendship.
Knowing Buddy was a life-changing experience for me. He was a very important person in my life, especially in his support of me. “What relevance does Buddy’s drumming have today?” is a funny question. In essence we all come from and rest on the shoulders of our predecessors. And Buddy is just that. He’s important.
If someone wants to give you a show when they play and impress you with their technique, they have to pay tribute to Buddy Rich. He was the first one to do it at the level that he did it at. There’s always an element of what Buddy did that was crowd-pleasing. He gave a good show.
Sometimes people who consider themselves serious drummers, me included, have an aversion to show drumming. The mistake a lot of people make, however, is thinking that Buddy was only a show drummer. There was so much more to it than that. That was something he did well and that paid his bills and made him who he was. But he did it with integrity. He wasn’t doing tricks like wiping his forehead with a towel with one hand while playing the drums with the other. His style happened to be what people enjoyed watching.
I met Buddy when I was ten years old. Clark Terry brought me to the Wichita Jazz Festival to be a part of his band, and Buddy’s band was there too, and I wanted to meet him. Everybody said it wasn’t a good time, because he was in a bad mood. Then somebody from Zildjian brought me to meet him—and he was in a bad mood. They told Buddy I was playing with Clark Terry, and he said, “Oh yeah? Well, you better not be good!” I said, “Well, who’s going to stop me?” Then he said, “Hey, kid, want to play with my band?” That was the beginning of a rather intimate relationship.
My parents wouldn’t let me play with Buddy’s band at that festival, because Clark had brought me out there. But not long after that, Buddy came to Massachusetts [Carrington lived in the town of Medford] and had me play with his band. Then he got me my endorsement with Zildjian, which I still have today, thirty-seven years later. Every time he came to Massachusetts, I played in his band. Then he introduced me on the To Tell the Truth show. That was pretty cool. But Buddy had a horrible toothache. He said, “This is for you. If it was anybody else, I wouldn’t be here.”
Buddy’s talent was obvious. He was a technical genius. But what made him super-special to me was not so much the technique as the compositional aspect of his drumming when he soloed. He was the master at playing drum solos. I’m not talking necessarily about accompanying other people— and I’m not saying he wasn’t good at that. But what stands out is his soloing. A lot of people have great technique, but it’s how you put it all together. Buddy’s solos were pure composition.
Buddy played groups of five and other things that modern fusion and rock and jazz drummers do, very hip stuff. And Buddy was clean and articulate. He taught me that word, articulation. When we were on To Tell the Truth, the host asked Buddy, “What should we look for in young Terri?” Buddy said, “The ability to keep time, and good articulation.” The host said, “Articulation—what’s that?” Buddy said, “So she sounds like she knows what she’s doing!” From that moment on I was a stickler for articulation. You want to be clean with your ideas and pull strokes out from the drums with that articulate sound for each stroke. That made a real impact on me.
“Everybody still loves and adores Buddy. At the last few [memorial] concerts, young kids knew just as much about him as the older drummers.
“A lot of people I meet tell me they were allowed to stay up late at night to watch Buddy on The Tonight Show, and that they would not be playing drums if it weren’t for Buddy. One famous drummer told me that Buddy blessed his drumsticks backstage at a concert, and that’s why he became famous.
“Buddy was a wonderful husband and father and the kindest, sweetest man I ever knew. I’ve never dated after he died, because Buddy was a hard act to follow.”
—Marie Rich, Buddy’s wife
Antonio Sanchez, Jim Keltner, and Terri Lyne Carrington interviews by Ken Micallef. Cathy, Marie, and Nick Rich interviews by Steven Douglas Losey.
“His legacy was giving back to people and not putting your playing up on a pedestal. It’s doing what you can to help others in the drumming and music community.
“I’m a drummer as well, and just from a fan’s point of view, he’s my biggest influence, especially because of his work ethic and how he was as a person. He did everything he could to give back to the colleges and universities. He was a virtuoso player, but he was a good man too. He changed many people’s lives for the better—people like Neil Peart and Dave Weckl, and so many other iconic drummers.”
—Nick Rich, Buddy’s grandson