I recently re-read Traps – The Drum Wonder: The Life of Buddy Rich. It’s a Buddy Rich biography written by his pal Mel Tomé. Tomé, as well as being a singer (known as “The Velvet Fog”) had a background as a drummer. Rich, as well as being a drummer (one of the first household-names within drumming circles) could hold a tune. He even released a couple of records where he crooned his way through standards – you can buy them now on CD, a 2-for-1, Buddy Just Sings.
So Tomé had a privileged view of Rich, they worked and played together. They were friends. They fought. The fell out. They made up. They were close. And the book was enjoyable. So nice I read it twice. It has me going back to the albums certainly – as any good music bio should do.
My mum played me a Buddy Rich album when I was 10 years old.
It had been decided that it was a bit late for piano lessons and that the saxophone was too expensive. Drums were an option; particularly because my father had played bass in a couple of bands and his friend – the drummer in those bands – still played, still made a living from playing. I was loaned a snare drum (one of his spares) and dad bought me a pair of sticks.
I sat in awe as the vinyl of Big Swing Face circled underneath the needle. I was, quite literally, standing, mouth open, wondering how just one person made those sounds. So many drums, being hit so quickly, so often – how was it happening? – I needed to know. I devoured both sides of the album, several times over; figuring by the end of a side there might be an answer. When there wasn’t I flipped it. Same with side two. Same with side one (again). And then side two (again).
The thing that got me hooked was hearing the big band version of Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) – because I was already familiar with the original by The Beatles. From there it was Bugle Call Rag – a swinging tune that featured the first real drum solo I had heard. It floored me. (I’m not counting Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk – which I did count up to that point!).
The other track I loved was The Beat Goes On featuring his pre-teen daughter, Cathy Rich. Buddy even jokingly introduces her as being “drunk”.
This record opened so many worlds for me. It was the inspiration to play the drums – creating a lifelong love affair with the instrument and an annoying habit of tapping on desktops, clicking fingers and slapping at my legs. It was also my introduction to jazz, to the world of the big band. And – thinking about it now for the first time – it was likely my first real understanding of covers, The Beat Goes On and Norwegian Wood were songs I knew already; recognising them instantly. And that throwaway intro from Buddy – where he also jokes that they are recording both nights for the live album so if the audience doesn’t like what they did on the first night they can come back and fix it the following evening – made me just as curious to find out more about this man as his playing on the record did.
It was all tapes back then – and I picked up whatever I could find. Then on to CDs – finding out about some of his enduring later works like his version of West Side Story and then I bought an album called The Greatest Drummer That Ever Lived…With The Best Band I Ever Had. On the version of Birdland Buddy is beating the hi-hat cymbals like they owe him money.
Buying Buddy Rich CDs introduced me to so many other great jazz players, great jazz tunes – and particularly to some of my favourite jazz drummers. Buddy’s battle CDs with Gene Krupa and especially with Max Roach were formative; I’d pick Roach over Rich as a player – but it all goes back to Buddy. It all goes back to discovering him. And how alert I was to what he was doing – at 10 years old I was obsessed. At 15 it was probably worse. And at 19 I thought I was a Buddy Rich encyclopedia.
Nowadays it is about going back to the music for visits. I’ve been playing Mercy, Mercy a wee bit but mostly I get my, erm, fill of Buddy by watching a few YouTube clips.
Buddy Rich was a tough man – a hard task master, an often grueling band leader – and many people, even those perhaps not familiar with his music, have heard about (or heard) some of his recorded tirades. If Buddy had a problem with the band he spoke out. Check it out (make sure you’re wearing headphones if you’re around anyone that offends easily – unless you don’t like that person. If that’s the case, turn the volume all the way up!)
As a wise drummer said recently, “Buddy never demanded anything out of people that he wouldn’t give himself”. That’s very true.
Rich hit the stage when he was 18 months old. He was known as “Baby Traps” – his vaudeville parents build a show around him as The Drum Wonder. By the time he was four he was the highest paid child entertainer in the word – drawing big money for his parents who then began competing for his love and attention. And fell out of love due to not paying attention to one another.
Buddy grew up to fit what used to be a novelty oversized bass drum. He worked the circuit, playing in the big bands of the 1940s, working with people like Tommy Dorsey – developing a very competitive relationship with Frank Sinatra. He and Frank were both suave, cocky and bursting with the twin juices of talent and ambition.
Yes, Buddy Rich often overplayed. Yes, he traded on his ability to perform tricks. But he was also the leader of some tight big bands; he developed some great players and worked hard, touring relentlessly, recording sides, collecting charts – putting it out there. Playing every gig like it was the one that matter. Because every gig mattered. He was precision-engineering. He didn’t ever fail and couldn’t stand failure in his musicians.
I just wanted to tell you a bit about Buddy and my introduction to him and how he still, to this day, blows me away with his single-stroke rolls, his eclectic set lists, his gruff demeanour. That bullish approach, that gift that he was born with – the fact that he hit whatever got in his way, playing the instrument as an extension of himself – that is the stuff that I think of when I think about Buddy Rich.
I still have the copy of Big Swing Face on vinyl; originally part of the LP collection that mum and dad introduced me to at a young age. I still put it on. I still laugh when Buddy says his 12 year old daughter is drunk and about to sing The Beat Goes On. I still marvel at parts of the solo on Bugle Call Rag. I still think – for those moments when the sticks are a blur and the energy of Buddy is pulsing through the band, every one hanging on to him as he steers the ship hard – that Buddy Rich was the greatest. The showman. The life-force. The embodiment. The icon of the drum kit.
And one of my earliest musical heroes.
Drummers You Just Can’t Beat started life as a series of posts on the Phantom Billstickers Facebook page