© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
BUDDY RICH «The Monster »
« II a toujours porté un monstre en lui durant sa carrière longue, colorée, explosive et controversée ». C'est en ces termes que Harvey Sidero évoque Buddy Rich dans le texte de présentation du disque Buddy Rich, The Monster CDU. Lorsque Ton ouvre la pochette de ce double album, on est saisi par la photo du batteur, prise de dos. Épaules basses, dos légèrement voûté, la main droite sur la cymbale, Buddy, assis assez haut, est installé à sa batterie les pieds posés sur les pédales tels les racines d'un tronc d'arbre. Sa tête tournée vers la droite atteste un regard attentif et une mâchoire brutale. Le « monstre » s'apprête à déverser un flot ininterrompu d'accents fff sur la caisse claire à J = ± 168, pendant que la grosse caisse marque tous les temps avec acharnement.”
-Georges Paczynski, Une Histoire de la Batterie de Jazz, Volume 1
"He has always had a monster in him during his long career, colorful, explosive and controversial.” These terms are used by Harvey Siders to describe Buddy Rich in his liner notes to the Verve Records double LP set The Monster [– 2-V6S-8824 1973]. When one opens the cover of this double album [gatefold], one is struck by the photo of the drummer, shooting [glaring]back. Low shoulders slightly hunched, his right hand on the cymbal, Buddy, sitting high enough on the drums so that the feet on the pedals look like the roots of a tree trunk. His head turned to the right features a stern look and a sharp jaw. The "monster" is about to release a steady stream of very loud accents … while the bass drum fiercely marks the time.”
“This is the story of an extraordinary artist who, for a brief time, wanted to be a good though unexceptional entertainer. But the public wouldn't permit it. In a remarkable and uncommon display of collective wisdom and astuteness, the public for once was right, proving that greatness is sometimes the least trustworthy custodian of its own gifts.”
- John McDonough
If you are a drummer, watching Buddy Rich play can be a frightening experience. Joe Morello once said: “Give him a long drum solo and he’ll just blow the place up.”
The first time I saw Buddy in action, I wanted to go home and burn my drumsticks.
Mercifully, one day, you come to the realization that, as Mel Lewis, put it: “Buddy Rich has something that no other drummer had, or will ever have. I don’t know how it came about and I don’t think he does either. It doesn’t matter.”
Once you get into the spirit of what Mel is saying, you go about your business as a drummer and do the best you can to play yourself, which is really the point of the whole thing.
As Louis Armstrong said: “Jazz is who you are.”
But if watching Buddy in action is a frightening experience, writing about him is complicated, too.
Which Buddy do you write about?
The Swing Era phenomenon who played with Bunny Berigan, Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey?
Or the big band he led following the close of World War II in 1945, an era which would also see the demise of big bands?
Or the 1950’s drummer who played with the Harry James Big Band and again with Tommy Dorsey’s?
Or the Jazz at the Philharmonic drummer who also went on to accompany myriad iconic Jazz masters on the recordings produced by impresario Norman Granz for his Verve and related labels?
Or the Buddy Rich who led his own powerhouse big band from 1967 until his death in 1987 at the age of 69?
I mean, the man was a monstrous talent.
Actually, what I would prefer to write about is the period from about 1955-1960 when Buddy led a succession of small groups that reflected what fellow drummer Stan Levey once described this way: “Buddy matured, musically.”
During this period, vibraphonist Terry Gibbs noted: “Buddy became a better and better drummer — greater than he ever was — because he opened his mind to what other drummers were doing. At one time, he turned away from the new people. That was in the bebop days. But once he let the contemporary music into his system, he just grew and grew.”
To put it another way, my reasons for preferring Buddy’s drumming during “his small group period” is that it was one in which I found him to be both a superb drummer but, even more importantly, one in which he had become a total musician.
It was this period that gave the piece its title - “The Monster At Rest”
During these years, Buddy played for the other musicians; to help them and the music sound better. The music was not just a platform to demonstrate Buddy’s flashy technique, it was an end in itself and led to great sounding small group Jazz.
I didn’t know this at the time I was listening to Buddy’s small group sessions on Argo, Emarcy and Verve, but after reading John McDonough’s insert notes to the Mosaic Records CD reissue of these recordings [MD7-232], ironically Buddy wasn’t really interested in drumming during this part of his career!
The reasons behind Buddy’s disinterest are expertly explained by John in the following excerpts from his notes to the Mosaic set which John and Michael Cuscuna have graciously granted us permission to reprint.
© -John McDonough/Mosaic records: copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with permission.
“This is the story of an extraordinary artist who, for a brief time, wanted to be a good though unexceptional entertainer. But the public wouldn't permit it. In a remarkable and uncommon display of collective wisdom and astuteness, the public for once was right, proving that greatness is sometimes the least trustworthy custodian of its own gifts.
Years later in the first week of January 1972, years after Rich had secured the fame he desired as a bandleader, Johnny Carson hosted two of his idols on the same Tonight Show couch. For the first and only time on national television Artie Shaw and Buddy Rich sat alongside each other, reminiscing, carping, quipping and cajoling. It made for much good conversation, both sharp and sentimental. Then Rich unexpectedly changed the subject. He turned to Shaw, gave him one of those point-blank looks of his, and began to scold him — that's not too strong a word — for abandoning his music. He was custodian of an extraordinary and unique musical gift, Rich told him, and he had a duty to treat such a gift with care and respect. Shaw, who had become an old hand at handling this kind of talk, barely blinked before delivering a variation of his standard reply.
The irony was that the usually quick-thinking Shaw might have turned the same question back on Rich. You are custodian of a great and unique gift too. What about your duty to that talent? You wanted to be a singer.
For those with still fresh memories of the cocky and confident Buddy Rich who reigned as the supreme drummer in jazz, led one of the great big bands in America from the '60s through the '80s, and spawned more than a few disciples who even caught something of his physical presence and bulldozer grin (Butch Miles, Les DeMerle, Donny Osborne, et al.), it may come as a surprise that in the 1950s Rich nearly followed Shaw's example — up to a point, at least — and abandoned the drums.
During the period of the recordings in this collection, Buddy Rich grew tired of who he was and struggled mightily to become a singer and dancer. It seemed the only way for him to break into the levels of money and fame he believed his skills entitled him. Rich had come of age at a time when jazz was a full partner in the glamour of big-time show business and all that went with it — movies, radio, records, theaters. That all began to change in the 1950s. Jazz withdrew to the sidelines, carrying Rich with it, along with the money and fame that show business offered. "Buddy Rich Quits Drums to Be Song and Dancer," proclaimed Down Beat early in 1956. At the time, he didn't seem to be kidding. He would make several albums as a singer and even join the cast of a TV sitcom produced by Jack Benny and starring Marge and Gower Champion — about which more shortly.
It was perhaps, in Norman Corwin's words, not so wild a dream. He sang well enough. As for dancing, all drummers are dancers, in a manner of speaking, because drumming itself is a kind of choreography. To be a drummer is to be a master of movement and coordination in a way that a pianist or clarinetist can never be. Like a dancer, the drummer visualizes the abstractions of music and imparts to its dynamics the byproduct of a coherent physical beauty that intrigues the eye. When the two are in perfect register, it becomes a fascinating art onto itself. The best drummers are aware of the visual factor in their performances. They not only are aware of how they look; they attend to it with care and at least an instinctive sense of design. This is why the long drum solo can be so compelling in person, but is inclined to wear thin on record. It is also why drummers and dancers often find their skills interchangeable. When Fred Astaire took Ed Murrow on a tour of his home on TV's Person to Person in the 1950s, it was why a full drum set sat in his studio. When Murrow asked for a demonstration, it was why Astaire could put on a record of Benny Goodman's RACHEL'S DREAM, and play a dazzling accompaniment that any jazz fan would admire. Buddy Rich sought to perfect the skills that in other drummers typically lie dormant. But in the mid-1950s this was of small comfort. The public wasn't interested in a singing, dancing drummer.
Perhaps the lesson is that even the greatest and most unique gifts can become burdensome to those whose lives have been privileged by their entitlements but confined by their rigor. In the 1950s Rich was facing up to the limitations of the fame he had earned as the kingpin drummer of the big band era. Slowly the reputation that had brought him so much was beginning to call in its debt by becoming a roadblock to broader show business ambitions beyond the jazz world. He had seen Nat Cole move from a career as a much admired but little known jazz pianist to a major show business star with an audience in the millions as a singer. Could Rich do the same? Artie Shaw would often describe fame as a pact with the devil in which the devil always wins; and Shaw's solution [to leave the music business] was certainly more radical than Rich's. But in the late '50s, Rich was wrestling with the same issue. Maybe he had forgotten all this by the time he admonished Shaw on The Tonight Show. By then he had revived his career and achieved the breakout and stardom he had been looking for in the '50s. He had become a show business star and a household name — rare for a jazz musician — with a star's persona. But he had done it without sacrificing his most basic gift to singing or dancing. He found his way to that tiny place where serious jazz and popular entertainment come together — a place occupied by Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis and precious few others.
Rich's gift seemed to obey most of the laws that generally govern the life of an authentic prodigy. By all accounts his history with the drums began in infancy, far ahead of any capacity he might have developed to actually remember any formative incidents. He was born September 30, 1917, into a family of vaudevillians and promptly showed unusually precocious motor skills. He walked and talked before most kids crawled. Then during a rehearsal in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, in 1919, young Rich grabbed a pair of drumsticks and accurately began tapping out patterns of tempo on the floor of the stage. Onlookers were astonished. He was 18 months old. Encouraged by musicians in the house band and the theater manager, Rich's father, Robert, immediately made a tentative place for him in the act. Later the same day, Buddy Rich toddled out on stage, sat down at a snare, and brought down the house with a sensational performance. Somehow his mind had absorbed and processed the rudiments of rhythm and time; and at less than two years old, his body was acquiring the necessary coordination to physically express them.
Early published reviews of "Traps, the Drum Wonder," as Rich was soon known, seem to confirm what might otherwise be unbelievable. "Traps, the tiny drummer of the fourth act," said the Baltimore News, "runs away from the other acts on the bill. He was worth the price of admission alone." Another account from Wilmington, Delaware, reported him getting "more curtain calls than any other performer..." Rich wasn't yet three. Variety reported in 1922 that "the little chap plunged into the task in the most unconcerned manner and alternately grinned and chewed gum while he tapped the drums...with the ability of a veteran jazz drummer." That was when he was five, appearing on Broadway in The Greenwich Village Follies. Rich became something of a child star functioning purely as an entertainer.
All this is undocumented in any viewable form, of course, and thus subject to the elasticity of legend. (A seven-minute short made by Warner Bros, in 1929, Buddy Traps in Sound Effects, is presumed lost except for the sound track.) But it may help account for the duality of Rich's ambitions in the '50s. One of the glories of the swing era was that it largely put musicians, not entertainers, in control of the agenda, and distinguished between the two in a way that was rare in show business. It erected something of a wall between the two, separating art from artifice, notwithstanding the occasional flourish of section choreography, a spinning bass, or twirling clarinet. The music was so compelling and popular on its own merits that it relieved its best performers of any obligation to play the clown. Swing's most important figures — Shaw, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, the Dorseys, Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington — all had backgrounds in music, not show business. It was enough. But Buddy Rich had come from vaudeville and the Broadway stage. He saw himself as an entertainer with a specialty skill. As he entered his teens and the infant-virtuoso novelty faded, he tried to shore up the loss with dancing, singing and stage patter. It was not enough. Finally as an adult he turned back to that specialty skill.
It must have been like being born again; one can only imagine. "Traps the Drum Wonder" was forgotten, and a scrapbook full of child star clippings was not negotiable tender in the adult world of Fifty-Second Street. Rich arrived in New York late in 1937 with no name recognition or reputation to precede him. A mutual friend prevailed upon clarinetist Joe Marsala to let Rich sit in with his small band at the Hickory House. Twice Rich came by, and twice Marsala forgot to bring him on. Finally, during a third visit he got his chance in a late evening, after-hours encore. Marsala called a fast riff piece, JIM JAM JUMP. Rich apparently fired off a stunning performance, putting childhood memories behind him and setting off a minor buzz of rumor about a "new" drummer in town. Marsala hired him immediately. The next day Rich joined the Musicians Union.
This is where legend ends and the recorded documentation begins. Rich made his record debut late in 1937 at Decca in a pickup unit backing the Andrews Sisters, then marked time playing swing/Dixieland with Marsala at the Hickory House for six months. Despite several record dates, he felt buried. Late that winter, history might have been made, but it wasn't. Gene Krupa left Benny Goodman in March 1938, opening up the most famous drum chair in jazz at the time. According to trumpeter Chris Griffin, Goodman auditioned Rich. "We were down in Atlantic Beach for a week," Griffin told writer Ross Firestone, "and this kid came in one night and sounded exactly like what Benny had just gotten rid of and didn't want. He listened to him for about two numbers and said, 'Okay, kid,' and that was the end of it. He didn't want anybody as flashy as Gene." What might have happened if Rich had succeeded Krupa with Goodman as drummer is a matter for the imagination. But the Slingerland Drum Company, which recognized a star when it saw one — and wasted no time in signing up Rich as an endorser — took note in a full-page ad in the May Down Beat. "Krupa & Goodman Split!" the headline announced, "But SLINGERLAND Stays on with Davey Tough!" It was all true enough, but in the lower quarter of the ad, there was also this: "Buddy Rich, the New Sensation with Joe Marsala...After first performance autograph hounds mobbed him."
Employers did not mob him, though. After departing Marsala in June and a summer lull, he joined Bunny Berigan around September and found himself in his first important swing band. Rich recorded 24 sides with Berigan in five Victor sessions. There is an added brightness to the rhythm section on some of the better sounding discs, but for whatever reason — the nature of the charts or the band's declining fortunes — his imprint is not particularly evident or palpable on the records. All that changed in late December when Rich joined Artie Shaw and made his breakthrough to the big time.
If the Berigan orchestra was afflicted by declining fortunes, the Shaw band was at its peek and rising. Tenor saxophonist Georgie Auld had left Berigan for Shaw in mid-December, and 10 days later Rich followed. Suddenly everything moved to a new level. The recordings, both in the studio and over the air, are unmistakable. Rich became a one-man insurgency, constantly challenging, pressing and literally cheering the band on, sometimes with a wildly delightful lack of restraint. Shaw's Bluebird disc of TRAFFIC JAM sounds more like a live broadcast with its audible shouts of encouragement from Rich — extraordinary for an ostensibly formal studio performance. Many of the band's broadcast performances have become classics, largely because of Rich's galvanizing impact. Nowhere is there a better example of how to drive a band harder at a medium slow tempo than EVERYTHING'S JUMPIN', which Rich pushes with a driving metallic snap and caps with a wonderfully imaginative procession of rolls.
"The beauty of such playing," wrote Mel Torme in his 1991 bio-memoir of Rich (Traps the Drum Wonder: The Life and Times of Buddy Rich), "was that it did not intrude on the featured player. Rich used deep-cut 11-inch Zildjian cymbals on his hi-hat stand, and he devised a unique way of playing them — barely spread apart, with his left hand guiding the angle of the cymbals while his right hand manipulated the drumstick in a manner that produced a thicker, fuller sound from the 'chocked' hi-hats, rather than the 'tip-ta-tip, tip-ta-tip' response that most drummers elicited from their sock cymbals."
As with any drummer, fast tempos gave Rich his most spectacular showcases. He would rip off terse breaks, sometimes in a blur of machine-gun fire, other times with the most unexpected twist of time or phrase. In a two-bar break near the end of a Cafe Rouge performance of DIGA DIGA DO in November, he dashed off a brief riff of rim shots, then seemed to scoop up the entire band in a dramatic, rallying roll. Shaw may have complained that Rich lacked discipline and rushed the tempo.
But he also recognized a kindred temperament whose confidence was exceeded only by his brilliance and his lack of respect for authority. Shaw understood such men well because he understood himself. So he gave him space to grow, which was precisely the kind of authority that Rich did respect.
There is another DIGA DIGA DO from a Melody and Madness program of May 7 in which Shaw opens up the brief chart for a dazzling 32-bar Rich solo. In another program from the same series (March 12), Shaw turns him loose at full-battle speed for seven minutes on THE CHANT, a piece roughly modeled on the Goodman-Krupa masterpiece SING SING SING.
By the time Shaw gave up his great 1939 band, Rich had not only logged enormous record and radio exposure with the country's top orchestra, but valuable screen time as well in MGM's Dancing Co-ed plus two short theatrical features. He was famous. And the Down Beat Reader's Poll of January 1940 reflected his impact. After one year with Shaw, he has gone from complete anonymity to fifth place
among drummers — though he still trailed Krupa by more than 4,200 votes. A year later he pulled to within nearly 200 votes of the top position.
By then Rich had taken deep root in the Tommy Dorsey organization, which he joined directly from Shaw in November 1939. Rich became an even bigger star with Dorsey, whose bandwagon of soloists and singers constituted a full-scale, self-contained variety show. Rich had no trouble competing with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford, Ziggy Elman, Joe Bushkin and, even briefly, his old boss Bunny Berigan. Refereeing this cauldron of talent and temperament was Tommy Dorsey, whose ego yielded to no one.
Rich made the switch to Dorsey at an interesting time. The music of many of the key bands of the time seemed to be changing sharply during the six months or so that bridged 1939—40. The relatively simple stylistic models of the 1930s were wearing thin. The best bands were moving forward and looking for fresher, more challenging paths. It was a transition that brought Eddie Sauter to Goodman, Strayhorn to Ellington, and strings to Artie Shaw. But perhaps no band's fundamental architecture changed more dramatically than Tommy Dorsey's. Rich joined in the last days of Dorsey's two-beat, Paul Weston, Clambake Seven period and just before the arrival of arranger Sy Oliver, whose tight, often brassy and percussive charts such as DEEP RIVER would give Rich something big enough to punch back at. It was a whole new musical context in a band of multiple personalities determined to offer something for everybody. The large repertoire of romantic ballads built around Frank Sinatra may have made Rich restless and inclined to pranks. But Dorsey knew Rich's value and didn't deny him his share of the spotlight. QUIET PLEASE and its sequel, NOT SO QUIET PLEASE, were little more than brief fanfares for a long drum solo. HAWAIIAN WAR CHANT from the '30s was reworked as a Rich showcase with a spectacular duet sequence with Ziggy Elman. And WELL, GIT IT was the kind of wild hard-driving ride that Rich was born to play. The last two numbers were filmed by MGM and featured in Ship Ahoy (1942) and Du Barry Was a Lady (1943) respectively. In the former film, Rich briefly became the dancing partner of Eleanor Powell in I'LL TAKE TALLULAH. The prominence Rich achieved with Dorsey made him among the most famous drummers in the world. In January 1942, Down Beat's annual Reader's Poll finally voted him number one by nearly two to one over the nearest competition, a margin that would grow even larger by early 1943. (Krupa had become a bandleader by then and was not eligible in DB's instrument categories. But as far as the public was concerned he was still the Man. After his incarceration on a trumped-up marijuana charge in 1943, he spent the last several months of the year with Goodman, making him briefly eligible as a sideman again. When the DB poll came out in January 1944, Krupa was back on top. After he resumed his career as a leader later that year, Rich was restored to the top position in 1945.)
Rich left Dorsey early in 1943 and spent most of that year and part of the next in the Marines. In June 1944 he was discharged and resumed his place with Dorsey. Late that year they were all back at MGM for Thrill of a Romance, in which Rich got almost as much screen time in a two-chorus I GOT RHYTHM solo than the Dorsey band received in the entire film. By the summer of 1945 there were constant rumors that Rich was going to leave, and by November he did, not to return for nearly a decade.
In life, it's been said, there is a time for everything. In December 1945 Rich, who had been famous for more than five years but had never made a commercial record under his own name, decided it was time that he should take command with a big band of his own. He had no way of knowing that the time for such things was over. Nor did Frank Sinatra, who backed him with $25,000 in financial support. Nobody knew that Woody Herman and Stan Kenton had already become the last leaders to establish the kind of enduring fame and reputation strong enough to sustain them for life. By the end of World War II, the proverbial window of opportunity for new bands in popular music was effectively shut for good. Not even the experts in the trade knew it in December 1945 when Rich formed the first of his contemporary post-war big bands. They would work consistently through the end of the decade, but record little save for a dozen sides for Mercury in 1946. Rich emphasized fast tempos and big hard-driving ensembles in the manner of Woody Herman's First Herd. Eddie Finckle, Neal Hefti and Tadd Dameron built him the kind of musical ballast that could match his power. Allen Eager and Earle Swope were among the soloists.
It was the singers who seemed to be selling the records after the war, though. And if that was the reality of the music business, Rich was ready. In April, on the second of his three Mercury sessions, Buddy Rich the singer emerged for the first time. As leader of a band now, he knew he would have to get out in front and relate to audiences in ways that hadn't been necessary as a sideman. Stanley Kay, who would later become his manager, served as backup drummer while Rich was at the mike. As a singer he favored medium-tempo rhythm tunes, never ballads. What performances of the band that survive are mostly from broadcasts, not commercial discs. It is easy to see why. Rich was swimming upstream as other bands were going over the falls. His second band lasted the longest, from the spring of 1947 to late winter 1949 and was more in the mold of a dance band. Yet, its impact never took root. At no time in its four-year history did the Rich orchestra ever even come close to breaking into Down Beat's annual top ten list of bands.
Rich was only 30, barely older than most of his sidemen. And if changing tastes weren't enough of a burden, Rich also found himself up against something he had rarely encountered with Shaw and Dorsey. "Unfortunately, those were the junkie days and the band was terrible," says vibist Terry Gibbs, who was with Rich during 1947—48. "Out of about 17 guys, 12 were junkies and three were alcoholics. But Buddy didn't know it, 'cause he was absolutely straight with the exception of a little pot. He was not really aware of the dope scene." The band broke up in April 1949.
Though a full-time bandleader after the war, Rich still found time for moonlighting when the bait was sufficient to draw him out. The bait was enticing indeed in the spring of 1946 when a young producer prevailed upon him to join pianist Nat Cole on Lester Young's first record session since his discharge from the Army. It was Rich's first professional encounter with Norman Granz. A few weeks later, while leading his big band at the Palladium, he joined Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic lineup as a "surprise guest" for a Monday night concert at the Embassy Auditorium. It became his recorded JATP debut.
Through Granz, there was hardly an important figure of the period with whom Rich would not work or record over the next decade: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge, Count Basic, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum and countless others. He joined the fall JATP tour in 1949. The famous DRUM BATTLE with Gene Krupa from the 1952 JATP tour cemented Rich's fame alongside that of Krupa's in the public mind. Without a band to anchor him and siphon off money, Rich enjoyed the sort of freedom that came with the knowledge that his talent alone would always be easily redeemable for the kind of ready cash appropriate to his appetites. For the most part, his could choose where and when to work. When he found that he missed the power of a big band around him, he accepted a long-standing offer from Harry James in April 1953 that would bring him more than $75,000 based on a 52-week year.
He apparently made the move during one of his periodic falling outs with Granz, saying at the time, "I don't want any part of Granz or his Jazz at the Philharmonic.... [He] talks about doing so much for jazz. What has he done? He takes top stars — Flip and Bird — and makes them play loud junk." Granz was more circumspect in his response, saluting his "genius" but saying Rich would never work for him again. But Granz had him under contract; so once past the heat of the moment, reality quickly settled in. Also, because James confined the band's travel as much as possible to California, Rich was still free and available to continue his recording with Granz's growing Clef and Norgran labels. By August 1953 he had done nearly 20 sessions for Granz as a sideman (beginning with the Lester Young date in 1945), and that didn't include the many live JATP concerts over the years. Finally on August 21, his tiff with Granz patched up for the moment, he cut his first sides for Norgran under his own name.
Years later in 1973 Gene Krupa dropped by to see Rich's big band at Mr. Kelly's in Chicago. After the first set, they reminisced about many things in Rich's dressing room — including recording for Norman Granz.
"Those statements I'd get from Granz!" Krupa exclaimed. "They say, 'Now all you owe me is $48,000.'"
"I used to get called to dates when he had Bird," Rich said, "and we'd never talk money. I also never got any money. He'd just say he'd take care of me. I'd said you've been taking care of me for years now, and I don't have any money."
He stayed with James into the summer of 1954, after which he went to Australia for concerts with Artie Shaw, led his second Norgran session, and toured with the 1954 fall JATP unit. There was brief talk about Rich forming another big band, financed by his friend, comedian Jerry Lewis. But the mid-November 1954 target opening came and went without a big band. Then the middle of November he surprised everyone by jumping to Tommy Dorsey, who had reunited with his brother Jimmy in May 1953. The band opened at the Cafe Rouge in the Statler in New York December 3.
Dorsey reportedly agreed to give Rich substantial advances against his salary so that he could pay off a number of accumulated debts. By the time he joined, the band was comfortably ensconced in the Cafe Rouge of the Hotel Statler and had just completed a summer run of Stage Show, a Jackie Gleason-produced variety hour for CBS television. The band (with Rich) would occasionally substitute for Gleason during the 1954—55 season, then resume on a weekly basis in October 1955. By then, however, Rich was gone. He stalked out in mid-April after a major clash with Dorsey in Fort Hood, Texas. During a dance engagement, the two began arguing on stage, at which point Rich threw down his sticks and summarily walked off the stand. Dorsey sought sanctions against Rich from the AFM, claiming among other things that he had not worked off his advances. Rich was angry in a way that only Rich can be. He did not hold back. "I was the one embarrassed by all this," he said, "for having to work for such a man as Dorsey. I should never have gone back to work for him.... I'm going to be my own leader from now on, even if I have to wind up playing in a burlesque pit with two men." The two men never reconciled. Rich was in Australia when Dorsey unexpectedly choked to death in November 1956. According to his friend, producer Jack Tracy, a reporter there asked him for a quote. "He was a prick when he was alive," said an unforgiving Rich. "And as far as I'm concerned he's still a prick." In a Down Beat memorial issue in January, Rich was conspicuously absent from a long list of tribute givers that included Sinatra, Gleason and Paul Whiteman.
Rich did better than a burlesque pit, post Dorsey. He put together a small combo for three weeks at Barney Josephson's Cafe Society in New York, during which, according to reviews, he demonstrated his gift for sardonic wit as an emcee. He found being on his own in front of an audience stimulating. Perhaps it further awakened the childhood vaudevillian in him and the desire to reach audiences as an entertainer. Whatever the reason, he became even more seriously interested in developing his career as a singer. While still with Dorsey, he had turned to Norman Granz, who agreed to record him solely as a vocalist in January 1955. Granz backed him with the Oscar Peterson Trio supplemented by Lee Castle on trumpet, Louis Bellson on drums, and a small string section conducted by Howard Gibeling. "I had never recorded vocals as I wanted," he told Down Beat shortly after the session. "This was the first time I got the feeling I wanted.... I'm very happy with the sides just for my own edification. But if the reaction...is anything like I hope it will be, and if the disc jockeys give it a break, it may mean that a whole new career will open up for me. I hope so because you express more and reach more people by singing than by playing drums." In another interview, he said, "This isn't like a whim. I've had this singing thing in the back of my mind since — oh, since the days I was working in the same band with Frank Sinatra. You know the band I mean." (The one whose name dare not be spoken!)
With Rich under contract it was in Granz's interest to feature him more as a leader. Rich marked time at Cafe Society, then in August and September led another Norgran session with Harry Edison (BUDDY AND SWEETS) before setting off on the 16th on their annual JATP tour. Meanwhile, the January vocal session, supplemented by some Rich instrumental small group pieces made in August, came out in October (SING AND SWING WITH BUDDY RICH). Down Beat gave it four stars. "A much better than average pop vocalist with fine beat, sensitivity to lyrics, and jazz-imbued phrasing," said a review. "...Part like a cousin of Frank Sinatra with a touch of Fred Astaire...he certainly cuts the Tony Bennetts and Eddie Fishers..."
Perhaps the words went to his head. Early in 1956 he announced in Hollywood that he was quitting the drums to do a cabaret act as a singer. With MCA behind him, the "new" Buddy Rich planned to open in Las Vegas as a song and dance man at what was said to be $4,000 a week. He was indeed serious. Norman Granz, meanwhile, was consolidating his Clef, Norgran and Down Home labels under the new brand called Verve, which intended to broaden into popular music. While he expected Rich to continue recording as a jazz player, he now had the resources and incentive to indulge his other ambitions as well. Granz delegated the pop side of Verve to Buddy Bregman, a bright young musician and arranger who had recently broken through as producer/conductor of THE WAYWARD WIND, a huge pop hit for Gogi Grant. Bregman joined Granz around late November 1955. BUDDY RICH SINGS JOHNNY MERCER would be his second project for the new Verve label, right after Anita O'Day and just before conducting the legendary Ella Fitzgerald Cole Porter album. "I was already friends with Buddy," says Bregman, "and the sessions were very relaxed. He was totally cooperative and pretty much let me pick the tunes. He didn't hear the full charts until we actually recorded. I remember he was particularly delighted that Alvin Stoller was the drummer. Buddy was a nice singer with a kind of light voice. I just took care that the charts didn't roll over him. Norman wasn't involved in the session."
But before the Rich-Mercer album was issued, all the grandly announced plans to pursue singing went kaput. The Las Vegas date was postponed so Rich could join a JATP European swing. Then before that announcement was cold, Rich canceled JATP and turned up in San Diego with Harry James, who had been trying to lure him back for a year. In February 1956 the unpredictable Rich signed with James. For the next six months he was totally out of the studios. August found him back at Verve for a busy month that included an album of Basie tunes under his leadership and the famous initial teaming of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong for Verve. Singing seemed for the moment a distant memory, long behind him. In September he played the "show bar lounge" at the Sands in Las Vegas with a small band (Frank Sinatra was in the main room) without once taking a vocal chorus.
Early the next year, 1957, Rich took another pass at singing. BUDDY JUST SINGS was his most informal and laid-back vocal effort, backed by a blue ribbon small group that included Harry Edison, Ben Webster and Paul Smith. "I was happily surprised," Smith recalled recently. "He was very musical, of course. I called him the Tatum of the drums. Singing was sort of a throw-away for him, I assumed. I didn't know he was as serious about it as he was."
Sometime during the spring of 1957 Rich traveled to Florida and recorded IN MIAMI for Verve with Flip Phillips — his last work for Verve under the Granz regime. About the same time, Rich entered into one of his most unusual show business side trips. He became a character actor on a CBS television sitcom called The Marge and Gower Champion Show. The Champions had become famous as a specialty dance team during the climactic years of the MGM musical in the early 1950s. In a program created by Jack Benny's production company to share his Sunday evening time period, a format was created very much in the image of Benny's own show in which the Champions played themselves, a show business dancing act. Rich was brought in to play Cozy, Gower's wisecracking best friend and accompanist. Peg La Centra, who had sung with the Artie Shaw band in 1937-38, was Marge's confident. Six episodes were telecast on alternate Sundays between March 31 and June 9, the first live, the others on film.
"We had a fabulous time on the show and we loved working with Buddy," Marge Champion recalled recently. "I believe it was Gower who wanted him. We wanted to have a best friend that played an instrument. Show business is not very big business, you know. You get to know everybody, whether they're in your little niche or not. Gower thought Buddy was the best drummer he had ever seen, and he had heard that at that particular time he wanted some kind of movie or singing career. That became very clear as we worked with him. It was no secret. And he was wonderful. He definitely could have developed along that line, too, as Oscar Levant had. There were certain people like Levant who had a specialty talent and also a personality that could be used in films and TV in supporting roles as best friend types. Levant was one; Buddy Ebsen was another. With that New York street kid attitude, Buddy Rich probably could have taken that route if film musicals had gone on another few years. But he was wonderful with us — patient, polite, totally professional. And a darling with me."
Alas, CBS canceled the Champion show after six episodes, canceling Rich's potential career as another Oscar Levant — although ironically Rich would later gain his most widespread fame conversing with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show in much the same way that Levant had with Jack Paar on the same program in the late '50s and early '60s.
Rich worked with the James band at its home base, the Hollywood Palladium, through the run of the TV show, and recorded James' WILD ABOUT HARRY album during that period — though under the name Buddy Poor, as his Verve contract was still in effect. He made relatively little news for the next two years, content to be the featured star with James. He toured Europe with the band in October 1957, and upon his return appeared on CBS' The Big Record of November 13, knocking out a brazen, toe-to-toe duet with James on FLASH. His Verve contract continued, but produced no further records. It finally expired early in 1959.
In the late 1950s there was not a lot of competition among record companies to sign up Buddy Rich. So in 1958 when his friend and former Down Beat editor Jack Tracy joined Mercury Records in Chicago and offered him the chance to record, Rich was eager. "In 1950s dollars," says Tracy, "it wouldn't sound like much today. As I recall he got something like $2,500 or $3,000 per album against future royalties. In today's money it might be 10 times that much." Tracy's first project in April 1959 was to bring Rich together with Mercury's most celebrated house drummer, Max Roach. The same week Rich also recorded an album of Ernie Wilkins charts with a handpicked big band of New York veterans.
"I never experienced the kind of behavior and temper some associate with him," Tracy recalled recently. "I saw some of that behavior at work a couple of times, but it was never directed at me. If he dug you, he would not be anything but kind and loving to you. And generous. He was just neat to be with. He related better to peers his own age, I think. With Sweets and quality musicians who could play and had paid their dues, he was a cinch to get along with. When he recorded with Max there were no conflicts, although afterward Max was a little distraught because he felt he had been outplayed. He never believed it would happen. I only once saw him get nasty to a musician. It was a big band album. There were two sessions and on the second day a different trombone player came in. The contractor had gotten a replacement because the first player couldn't make both days. Buddy looked out from the control booth and saw the new guy and asked me 'what's he doing here?' His face turned dark. And later something happened and he started in on the player. The other guys were experienced New York players who knew Buddy — Emmet Berry, Phil Woods, and so on. They'd seen it before."
Rich was still eager to pursue the singing route again and began making new preparations for an act, this despite the fact that there seemed to be little interest in booking him as a vocalist. In October, Tracy brought him back into the Mercury studios for what would become his final album as a singer — THE VOICE is RICH. A few weeks later, to everyone's shock, it nearly became the final album of his career.
Rich had been feeling an unfamiliar stiffness in his fingers during an engagement in New Orleans in December. Before the end of the two-week date it had spread up his left arm. One night on his way back to the hotel, a sudden chest pain struck and he broke out in a sweat. The next day he flew to Atlanta, where he had two days off before his quintet went to work at the Top o' the Pole. Several hours before his opening he excused himself from a Chamber of Commerce luncheon and asked for a doctor. It was just in time. A few minutes later in the doctor's office, he was told at the age of 42 that he had suffered a heart attack and went straight to St. Joseph's Hospital. Shortly before Christmas he was discharged and headed back to New York, where he experienced further discomfort and spent the next five weeks in the hospital.
"When he had that heart attack," Tracy recalled recently, "Buddy was a very frightened man. He was afraid he was never going to play drums again. Buddy never lacked for self-confidence, but he was one scared guy for a while. He thought the drums might be gone, and he was not an old man. So singing suddenly became even more important to him than ever. It might have to be his only livelihood, he thought — that and comedy. With the decline of all but a few big bands, he knew he would never get the financing for anything like that. But Buddy still wanted to be the headliner, a star — and singing seemed to be the only way for an ambitious guy with a vaudeville background to become a star."
Back in New York, Rich talked to reporters about relaunching his forever stalled singing career. "I wanted to sing more than I ever wanted anything," he told Down Beat. But words are cheap and, in Rich's case, always subject to change. In fact, there were few buyers for his singing on the club scene. During January and early February he took things easy, but announced plans for a big band engagement in Birdland in March — with the medical caveat that he would share instrumental duties with a relief drummer. Like many such announcements, nothing came of it. But among his first public forays back into public playing was an unannounced appearance sitting in with his beloved Basie band at Birdland in March. After another drop-in with Max Roach and Allen Eager, in which Rich took the stand and broke up the house, he and Mel Torme were walking back to his apartment at 2 a.m. After a long silence, Torme later wrote, Rich turned to him. "Fuck singing," he said. "I'm a drummer."
With that epiphany, the artist achieved finally defeated the entertainer for the soul of Buddy Rich.
With his energy and enthusiasm returning to normal, and after a brief singing stand in The Living Room, he formed a septet in April that included Seldon Powell and Dave McKenna and broke it in at Birdland. It was during this period that young Mike Mainieri entered the scene on vibes. "We had a mutual friend named Pete Voulo," Mainieri says, "who was a drummer and a very close friend of Buddy's. Pete kept bugging Buddy about my playing. Buddy always told him that the last thing he wanted was another vibes player because Terry Gibbs drove him nuts. Right after his heart attack Buddy was playing at the Village Gate. The place was packed and everyone was wondering whether he'd drop dead on the stand, because he never held back when he soloed. That's where I auditioned one night on the final tune. He made a very caustic introduction — 'We got this kid from the Bronx who looks like he's wearing his father's suit and says he can play the vibes.' He then kicks off something incredibly fast like CHEROKEE; I play 30 choruses, and he hires me on the spot." Rich next went to Pep's Jazz Room in Philadelphia in May, and from there to the Blue Note in Chicago, where, according to Down Beat, he "tore into his drums like a man possessed on a 15-minute solo on THE WORLD IS WAITING FOR THE SUNRISE, which featured every drum stroke known to man — and some new ones." There was no singing, no dancing. When a fan in the audience requested a couple of vocals, Rich shot back, "Buy my album."
In 1960 Jack Tracy left Mercury for Argo, a jazz subsidiary of the Chicago pop/blues label, Chess, and brought Rich with him. By now the septet was down to a quintet. Rich had hired Sam Most to replace Powell on tenor, but it quickly became clear that Most was a brilliant flutist. Johnny Morris came in on piano. "That was a pretty hot band," Morris says today. "There was a lot of demand." "Buddy was probably making pretty good money then," says Mainieri. "He was only paying four guys, and I was only making $100 a week. It probably helped him get out of debt." In October there would be one Argo album, PLAYTIME, and another session in January that sat unreleased until now. Later that year Rich returned to Verve, now owned by MGM with Creed Taylor in charge of production, for his last small group date for the label. Two days after the Verve session in August, the group headed off on a long cultural exchange tour of the Middle East sponsored by the State Department. Rich was an unofficial good will ambassador. Joey Adams was hired to put a troop together that included the four Step Brothers, a balloon-blowing act, Chaz Chase who would eat flowers and cigars (a "geek" in circus lingo), and a "magic" lady who produced doves from every part of her body. Adams would do his comedy routines in the
middle of the desert before 200,000 Afghans who didn't understand a word he was saying. "The only hip people on the tour were the Step Brothers," says Mainieri. "Buddy would always do a tap routine with them." The company traveled to many places one would go to today only in uniform — Afghanistan, Nepal, India, Iran, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand.
The local American Embassies would brief the performers when they arrived and advise them on where and whom they should avoid. "There was real danger," says Morris. "In Jakarta there was some guy named Due King who kidnapped Americans and sold them to the communists or extorted ransom. We were at a cocktail party one night and met this charming Asian man. And he was the guy — Due King! It was wild. We did a jam session with the King of Thailand at the palace. They would set up concerts and we would perform for the kings and dignitaries and top military people. Then we would do shows in large theaters for very small admissions, all of which would be donated back to the countries for useful social programs, supposedly. I remember India — what a cesspool that was then."
"At one of these shows," Morris told Buddy Rich discographer Lou Perry, "gun-toting Afghans from the desert appeared in a thunderous roar of horses and a cloud of dust to listen to the sextet's performance...Then [they] showed their appreciation by firing their rifles in the air all at once. Many of the show jumps included small plane flights to out-of-the-way places, and then bus transport to hotels and concerts. The flight and accommodations were not first class."
The musicians became sick from dysentery. "We had the Kabul trots," says Mainieri. "We were shitting for months." Rich hated India, where the band was to close the tour by doing a month of appearances in Bombay, Calcutta, New Delhi and Madras. "He was fighting with Joey Adams all the time," says Morris, "and he finally just bugged out and left the tour early. He couldn't stand the country." Mainieri played drums for the balance of the dates. Rich cleared out so fast he left his cymbals, drums and cameras behind with Mainieri. "I was so pissed off," he says, "I sold off his cameras and gave away most of his cymbals. He wanted to kill me."
When the band came to New York just before Christmas it was supposed to go back to work. But the men soon were hit with an unpleasant surprise. During the tour, portions of their salaries were sent back to the United States and put in escrow. But when Buddy came back early, according to Morris, he fired his accountant and took the money. Rich owed his musicians significant back wages. He wanted the band to continue, but the men put their foot down and said he would have to pay up something. "I didn't know he owed me money until I got home," says Mainieri. "I was up to about $350 a week by then, and half of it was gone. And we were all sick, too. I wouldn't even take his phone calls."
"Everyone got very ticked off at him," says Morris, who claims he was owed about $6,000. "We weren't demanding every penny, but he had to show some kind of intent. Buddy was a big spender. He had three cars repossessed while I was working for him. At one point I had to take my own car on the road to supply transportation for some of the guys in the band. Buddy told me to keep track of everything, but he never reimbursed me. The fact was he just didn't have it. He always spent more than he made; that was his problem." It was not as if Rich was always broke, says Mainieri. "He just didn't have control. His wife Marie spent money like it was going out of style. He had a house in Vegas, a house in L.A., an apartment in New York and a house in Miami. I'll never forget playing the Daily News concert at the old Madison Square Garden. He owed us five weeks pay, but drove into the arena in a Mercedes 300SL. And I don't think he ever paid for that. He wore handmade suites, stayed in great hotels and was always throwing money around. We hung with Sinatra, Torme, Lenny Bruce, Jerry Lewis. We had a ball. But try to get a raise out of him? Talk to his manager."
The government was on him for taxes as well. Money had been withheld from his musicians' salaries but was not sent to the government. This came to light when Morris and Mainieri were audited after claiming withholding taxes that turned out never to have been paid. After the Asian tour the band never got back together. Buddy went back with Harry James, but his money problems didn't end. When the withholding irregularities turned up, the IRS came after him and finally arrested him in Vegas, according to Mainieri. And based on the evidence collected by the IRS, the union eventually stepped in and put a lien on his salary on behalf of the musicians. Over the next few years they would receive small checks for odd amounts of $19 or $26. Eventually they collected about half their money.
"It was funny," says Morris. "Years later I ran into him and he treated me like a long-lost brother. It was the closest he could come to saying ‘I’m sorry.' We were good to him. We were young and eager to learn and very loyal. I think he felt badly about the financial problems." After the group broke up, Rich moved in and out of the Harry James orchestra over the next five years, confining almost all his recording activity to the band's albums for MGM and later Dot.
In the end, Rich was a uniquely lucky man in the world of jazz and show business. His third act would be his best, and the one that finally brought him the headliner stardom (and perhaps the financial security) he had always sought. Best of all, he did it the way the public had always insisted — as an artist, not an entertainer. He left James for the last time in April 1966, leaving his place, first, to Louis Bellson, then to Sonny Payne of Basie fame; and finally to Les DeMerle, whose cocky flash and confidence, not to mention virtuosity, seemed to directly channel his famous predecessor. For the next 20 years Rich would become a regular presence on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and more importantly, lead the last modern big band to attract a large general audience while still inspiring admiration from jazz musicians and critics for its consistent innovation and power. He died at 69 on April 1, 1987, of cardiac complications and a brain tumor. He remained at the top of his form to within four months of his death.”