He was a man with an explosive temper. He had no ability to read music. His tirades were infamous among the musicians who played with him. And yet, he is considered one of the most talented and prolific musicians of the 20th century, and is most cited as ‘inspiration’ for successful drummers today.
Billed as “the world’s greatest drummer” during his career, Buddy Rich was born in Brooklyn, New York in September of 1917. His ability to ‘keep rhythm’ was recognized almost immediately, and by the age of two was performing in Vaudeville as “Baby Traps the Drum Wonder”. At the peak of his Vaudeville career, Rich was reportedly the second-highest paid child entertainer in the world.
Buddy got his first important gig working with Italian-American jazz clarinetist Joe Marsala in 1937. Soon after, he came to the attention of Bunny Berigan and later Artie Shaw. He was barely drinking age when he make his first major recording with Vic Schoen (the band that backed the Andrews Sisters). By 1938, bandleader Tommy Dorsey hired Buddy, where he remained until his induction into the Marine Corps in 1942. While with Dorsey, Rich got into a number of brawls with another famously short-tempered performer, Frank Sinatra. However, the two remained lifelong friends and Sinatra provided Rich the financial support needed when Buddy started his own band in 1946, and Sinatra delivered the eulogy at Rich’s funeral.
After the war, in addition to running his own band for a time, Rich played with other greats of the big band era including Harry James, Les Brown and Benny Carter. In the mid 1960’s, Rich left the Harry James band to develop his second band. For most of that period until his death in 1987, Rich led successful big bands in an era when the popularity of big bands had waned from their peak.
With the advent of late night television, Buddy became a popular and frequent guest on ‘The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson’ and ‘The Merv Griffin Show’, among others. In addition to recording and traveling with his band, Rich performed on multiple recordings for other well-known big band artists of the period, including Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and pianist Oscar Peterson. One of Buddy’s most memorable television performances happened during an appearance on ‘The Muppet Show’ in 1981, where he engaged Muppet drummer “Animal” in a drum battle. Other famous televised Rich drum battles included Gene Krupa and Louie Bellson.
Buddy Rich’s contribution to the music world is impossible to measure. He inspired dozens of other popular, successful drummers that followed Rich’s technique. His speed, smooth execution and precision has become a common standard for modern drummers. Buddy was once called “the greatest drummer ever to have drawn breath” by another drumming great, Gene Krupa. Ironically, while cited as ‘inspiration’ by many rock musicians, he held a low opinion of both rock and country music, and declined to involve himself with either genre.
As recent as 2016, readers of ‘Rolling Stone Magazine’ voted Buddy in the top 15 of their list of greatest drummers of all time. In another readers’ poll in 2011, he ranked number 6 best drummer in history.
Buddy Rich continued performing until the very end. On April 2, 1987, he died of heart failure following surgery for a brain tumor. He had made his last public performance just a couple of months before.