No two drummers’ stories are exactly alike. From heavy rotation on MTV in the heyday of ’80s hair metal to his current role as the driver of the Buddy Rich Band, it’s clear that very few drummers’ career trajectories are like GP’s.
We’re going to begin this story with a little white lie.
We interviewed Gregg Potter by phone while he was traveling in the Buddy Rich Band tour bus. Potter and the group were doing a series of dates whose stated purpose was to help keep alive the music of the man who many consider to be the greatest drummer who ever walked the earth….
Actually, if MD had hooked up with Gregg a couple days earlier, like we’d originally planned, that statement would be completely accurate. As it was, we weren’t able to talk with the journeyman drummer until he returned home to Chicago, where he was taking a break before heading out for more gigs with the group.
But if Gregg Potter knows anything, it’s how to kick a band, and how to tell a good story. And an opening scene featuring Potter doing his Modern Drummer interview while hurtling down the road at eighty miles an hour in a twenty-ton vehicle with The Buddy Rich Band emblazoned on its side—a bus on which, almost thirty years ago, a young Potter, still learning the ropes of the music industry, got to hang with his hero for a quick chat and an autograph—well, that might be worth bending the rules for.
GP, as he often refers to himself, somehow charmingly, is one of drumming’s characters. He once, for instance, mailed a lifesize stand-up cutout of himself to the Modern Drummer offices, which found a home here longer than some past employees did. But on the bandstand, Potter’s all business. His energy and focus are simply undeniable. And even among a group of extremely seasoned players, some of whom worked with the band’s namesake back in the day, his command is clear.
Now, Gregg is the first to admit that in terms of technique, he’s no Buddy. (To be fair, who is? In typically self-effacing Potter fashion, he refers to the band’s 2012 trek exactly as such, calling it the You’re No Buddy tour.) Oh, he doesn’t forsake the flash—the man’s got skills—but he wisely concentrates on communicating Rich’s less talked-about but equally important traits: lighting a raging fire under the soloists, punching the ensemble figures with a velvet fist, and announcing section changes with power and style. And talking to him and to Buddy’s daughter, Cathy, the thing they’re most interested in sharing with fans young and old is the sheer power of the original Buddy Rich Band, whose uniqueness has been, perhaps understandably, eclipsed by its leader’s famous drumming wizardry. And audiences seem to be getting that. Potter is thrilled to report that the band has been doing very well at its recent shows, with standing ovations and sell-out concerts becoming the norm.
After some requisite silly banter, we got serious with Gregg and asked him about his unique gig, and about the often bumpy road he took to get to this point in his career.
MD: What were your early drumming experiences?
Gregg: Well, I wasn’t playing the Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway at three years old. [laughs] But I’m from Chicago, and I had two uncles who played the drums, so I was being put up on a throne by the time I was four or five. By the time I was ten, I was playing gigs with bands. I had an older brother who was already in high school and played bass, and when he’d be trying to put bands together he’d be like, “I’ve got a brother….” “Isn’t he kind of…uh…young?” But I’d play and they’d go, “Yeah, we can deal with that.” In high school I played in the school bands, but always with the interest of playing in a group.
MD: You’ve mostly played with rock groups over the years. Do jazz fans ever give you flack about that?
Gregg: Yeah, I’ve sometimes found that, when I talk truthfully about my career. I grew up with a brother who was listening to Deep Purple and Black Sabbath and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. But I’ve always loved big band music and have played it for a long time. I got Buddy’s Roar of ’74 album in 1974. I’m proud of things like winning a Louis Armstrong Jazz Award, as well as the Slingerland Louie Bellson National Drum Contest at Frank’s Drum Shop in Chicago, when I was in high school. And it’s obvious when you watch me play that I’ve got jazz in my background. But, for instance, we just read this thing where they said, “With a haircut like that, you wouldn’t think it would be conducive to swinging.” Really, dude? Does that matter? And Cathy talks about this: Buddy himself would say, “You either know how to play the drums or you don’t know how to play the drums.” He accepted all types of drummers.
If you watched me back when I was on MTV during the glory days of MTV, those cymbal hits and stuff are more from Buddy than from rock sources. The finesse of Buddy’s playing has definitely been in my mind since the beginning. You can always see who’s been influenced by whom.
It’s interesting—this tour is covering state fairs, with a couple thousand people from all different walks of life, as well as theaters and some hip jazz clubs. Now, the hipsters in the clubs give you that arrogant thing. I mean, I’m putting double bass in “Nutville,” and that’s sacrilegious to some. But then the audience comes in, including people who are total Buddy fans, and they love it. I’ll still hear, “So, who’d you play with? Where do you come from?” And they want you to say, [in a mock hipster voice] “Yeah, man, I dig Coltrane and Miles….” They don’t want you to say, “Hey, do you remember when Tommy Aldridge played double bass with the Pat Travers Band—now that was interesting.” [laughs]
MD: You tell a story about when you met Buddy, for the second time, on his tour bus, and that when you shook his hand you were struck by the complete lack of calluses. What do you chalk that up to?
Gregg: Buddy was playing drums since he was like eighteen months old, and his body probably thought that sticks were supposed to be in his hands. I think there was no callusing because there was never a layoff in his playing. And though there’s no lack of power, watch him play—the sticks float in his hands. I’m not saying I have Buddy’s technique, but watching him play while I was growing up, I definitely picked up on that.
MD: Does the way you set up your cymbals come from Buddy too?
Gregg: I was a Slingerland endorser, and I would ask them what Buddy asked for. Slingerland made him cymbal stands with no tilters on them. I’d have them set up my bass drum pedals like Buddy’s too, where the beater is closer to the bass drum, which is basically a jazz setup. I always had a fascination with Buddy as opposed to Bellson or Krupa—I mean, I loved those guys, but I grew up in that era where Buddy on Carson was the thing.
MD: What are the most important elements of Buddy’s playing that, no matter what else happens on a gig, you feel you need to supply?
Gregg: The first thing that’s always in my mind is: Don’t try to do Buddy. You can always have the thought of him in your mind, but remember that you’re keeping time for sixteen guys. When you play in a rock band, there are four or five instruments to listen to. When you’re playing big band, you’ve got the sax section, the bones…and they’re all doing different layers. So during the entire gig, I have to really listen—in any gig you have to, but here you have to do it that much more. On the other hand, if you’re driving that big stagecoach, you better hold those reins. You hit that bass drum hard enough that the horns know where the accents are, and that you’re there with them. You can’t be the wallflower in the background. The other thing is, be very afraid when you know that snare drum fill in “Love for Sale” is looming. You watch Buddy do it a hundred times, and it’s scary each time. And you have to do it, because you know there are people waiting for it.
MD: Do you read charts live?
Gregg: I’ll look at the charts at the beginning, but after that it can be a hindrance. I’m not knocking reading—there are sections that you have to count out just to get accents and stuff. But it’s probably better when you get off the book and just start playing it with your ears.
MD: Beyond the chops, Buddy had an element of excitement even when he was playing time. Is keeping that intensity just part of the way you always play?
Gregg: This is where I’m going to say that this fit was always sort of looming out there. Because if you had seen me playing at any point in my career…you know, there are guys you meet and go, “That guy would make a good airline pilot. He seems pretty laid back—if the engine was on fire he’d probably not get too riled up.” But when you met me, you probably went, “That guy belongs either lighting fireworks on the Fourth of July or playing drums.” My personality would probably have been more attuned to…uh…the showy side of things, but my attention to detail saves it.
MD: You had some interesting music business experiences pretty early on in your career.
Gregg: Right out of high school I landed a gig with a DJ named Steve Dahl, who was famous for blowing up disco records in Comiskey Park and basically coining the phrase disco sucks. He had this band called Teenage Radiation and recorded parody songs like “Do You Think I’m Disco?” And we would go on tour on weekends and then play these songs on his morning radio show, The Breakfast Club. Then it became a weekly television show, then a daily TV show called It’s Too Early. I had become a Slingerland endorser, and I remember they made me a bass drum with a working clock built into the head—they’d always pan back to this Slingerland bass drum with a yellow clock in it, like, “Coming up at the top of the morning…” and I’d be playing a drum roll or something.
Then they started filming a bunch of movies in Chicago at that time, and somebody who saw me on TV said, “Hey, Potter, did you ever think about being in the movies?” “Uh…I guess so.” And next thing I know, I’m on my first movie audition, with Dan Aykroyd and Al Franken, a thing called One More Saturday Night, and I get the part. At this point I’m like, “Hey, this isn’t too tough.”
So the next thing I do is a movie called Lucas. Everyone in that film went on to be major motion picture stars—you’ve got Corey Haim, Charlie Sheen, Jeremy Piven, Courtney Thorne-Smith, a little girl named Winona Ryder…and Potter.
Then director John Hughes, who had known me from being on TV, cast me in Uncle Buck with John Candy and this new little kid, Macaulay Culkin. This is 1988, and now I’m not with Steve Dahl anymore but with this band Siren, who had just signed a record deal with Mercury/Polygram. But then I get a phone call from Mercury Records, and I’m thinking they’re calling to congratulate me on getting the movie role. But they go, “Uh, we’re spending a lot of money on this band, and we’re filming a video. We have guys who are living in their cars here in L.A. waiting for opportunities like this. Our production costs are $300,000 a minute. So either you’re in L.A. on this date, or we’ll get someone to do the video.” I’m thinking, Really? And they’re bringing up other drummers’ names: “You know, we can get soand-so….” Because it was the real deal. The bass player in Siren [Jon Brant] had just left Cheap Trick to do it. So you get a lesson.
The bottom line was, I knew I was a drummer. And the Siren album, All Is Forgiven, did well. We were on MTV and toured. But it lasted four months. And Uncle Buck went on to become the highest-grossing comedy of 1989. It even spawned a sitcom. So needless to say, with my decision, John Hughes didn’t call me for any more auditions. [laughs]
A side story that’s related: Backstage at a Siren gig, Jack Blades from Night Ranger, who are done at this point, comes up to me and says, “I like what you’re doing. I’m putting a band together with Tommy Shaw. And don’t tell anybody, but we think we’re gonna get Ted Nugent in the band.” I’m like, “Uh, o-kaaaaaay…” Because, remember, this is 1989. You actually walked the streets airbrushed back then. Nowadays it’s cool to say, “I love Nugent! I love Night Ranger!” But in ’89, it’s unproven territory.
So I say, “Jack, this is my first real big tour; let me at least do this so that I get my sea legs.” Instead they hire drummer Michael Cartellone, who was playing with Tommy. And that band goes on to become something called Damn Yankees. So Potter does the ball bobble, and they’re eventually like, “Hey, kid, we’re going to forge ahead here.” Again, another life lesson. When life taps you on the shoulder, don’t wait; otherwise you’ll be driving in your car and you hear “Coming of Age” on the radio and you’re like, “Holy cow…”
And there are tons of stories like that, so when it comes down to this Buddy Rich thing, I think I’ve pounded the friggin’ pavement. [laughs] What I’m saying is that there’s so much more if you want to survive in this business than sitting in your basement doing paradiddles. Sure, we can talk about some guys—first band, first record, 10 million sold. But for most of us it’s a matter of filing these experiences in your hard drive and pulling them out again when you need them.
If you really want to say, “This is what I make a living doing,” you have to understand what’s involved. I’m not knocking the fact that there are many, many people who sell insurance during the week and play their hearts out on Friday and Saturday nights. But when Cathy gets asked, “So, who’s this guy playing drums?”—it’s like, don’t judge until you know what someone’s all about. And this is on any level—a guy asking you for a buck at a train station. You don’t know what that guy’s gone through. Not that I’ve quite been there [laughs], but you know me—I like to work in broad strokes.
MD: Your point is well taken. The first time we put Dave Grohl on the cover, we actually had a few readers write negative letters because they thought Nirvana was just this band of punks. Some people thought his cover story wasn’t deserved. He was just being him, same as you’ve always been you.
Gregg: Yeah, and when you look at Dave’s career…maybe technically the man wasn’t Rod Morgenstein, but just that ability to make the right decisions and play that music so well—those are lessons that could fit in any magazine. I mean, not to get too spiritual here, but this stuff is about life. All those clichés—it’s been said a million times, but you give your life to this. For me it’s been thirty years. I’ve known Cathy Rich since 1991, when we met at the Buddy Rich Memorial Concert in New York. But it was never like, “You know, you could put me in there….” We talked about bad ’80s horror films. Much later we got closer and decided to do this band. [Potter and Rich have shared a personal relationship for several years.]
Our relationship is based on more than Buddy’s left-hand snare drum technique. After Cathy moved to Chicago, me playing in the Buddy Rich Band came about in our living room as we sat looking at Buddy’s drumkit adorning our home. We wanted to do something together to honor Buddy’s last wish, which was to keep the band working and keep the music alive. It’s not like Cathy went on a nationwide search for the next Buddy Rich Band drummer. This is a family endeavor, which is why audiences not only see me play the drums but also experience Cathy telling Buddy stories, singing, and occasionally selling a tour T-shirt.
That’s how life is. We never planned this out, like, “If we cut Potter’s hair, put a turtleneck on him, and give him Buddy’s necklace, then it’ll be accepted when he plays through ‘Groovin’ Hard.’” It’s more like what you said: “Potter, you’re you wherever you go—there’s no pretense.” Yeah, you’re always gonna get a dose of this. [laughs]
Gregg’s Buddy Rich Band Setup
Drums: Ludwig Classic Maple in white marine pearl finish, with Buddy Rich’s design and dimensions circa 1980. Details include blue-and-olive badge, single-tom mount on bass drum, full-size lugs on all drums, and canister throne.
A. PimpCo U.K. 5×14 custom Buddy Rich snare drum
B. 9×13 tom
C. 16×16 floor tom
D. 16×24 bass drum
Cymbals: Sabian in brilliant finish, all made to Rich’s specs, weights, and sizes
1. 14″ prototype hi-hats
2. 18″ AA Medium crash
3. 18″ prototype extra-thin crash
4. 6″ prototype splash
5. 20″ prototype small-bell ride
6. 18″ prototype medium-thin crash
7. 19″ AAX X-treme Chinese
Heads: Aquarian custom Buddy Rich signature, including Texture Coated white snare batter and clear Hi-Performance bottom, Response 2 Texture Coated white tom batters and single-ply Texture Coated white bottoms, and Force I Texture Coated white bass drum batter and video-gloss smooth white front head with custom shield graphics by MaxHeads
Hardware: Gibraltar, including 9609 series brake tilter cymbal stands with Swing Nuts, snare stand, and Liquid Drive hi-hat stand with Quick Release clutch; Tama Iron Cobra Power Glide HP900PSWN double pedal; Trick Pro 1-V Detonator bass drum beaters
Sticks: Vic Firth wood-tip hickory custom “One of a Kind” Buddy Rich model with Gregg Potter signature
Accessories: Drum EARZ DRM-2X Dual Driver Custom Fitted in-ear monitors, Slug Percussion Batter Badges, Humes & Berg custom color Enduro cases