Traps The Drum Wonder: The Life of Buddy Rich – Mel Tormé

Blame Whiplash. Blame my unfulfilled ambition to play drums. Blame whatever you want, but I don’t care, yet again I’m going to rhapsodise about Buddy Rich. If I could be anybody else, ANYBODY who ever lived, it would be Buddy Rich. But even if I had all the drum lessons in the world I could never be in the same ballpark as Buddy; people like him are born not taught. He was the exception, the rare genius, the once in a century talent, the James Joyce of drumming. Buddy Rich just had it. From birth.

Buddy was born to parents who were vaudeville performers and his father noticed that aged just one the infant could keep time. Sensing a business opportunity, he put Buddy onstage at eighteen months old, billed as ‘Traps The Drum Wonder’. In common with many child stars, Buddy always felt that he had been robbed of his childhood and felt a lifelong insecurity about his complete lack of formal education.

Buddy transitioned from child star to jazz drummer, taking the drum chair in the Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey bands, and quickly made a name for himself as a musician who could really swing. In Dorsey’s band he met Frank Sinatra, who went on to financially back Rich’s first band in 1946. Despite the fact that he famously never practised, Buddy became one of the best (if not the best) drummers of his generation; he had unparalleled technique and speed, an innate sense of perfect time, he knew when to take centre stage and when to pull back to allow a soloist room to play, and his energy and originality could turn a lacklustre band into a band that really cooked. (And given that he’d been playing professionally since the age of eighteen months and gigged several times a week he really didn’t need to practise, he just did it!)

But Buddy had a dark side. He was cantankerous, harsh, a bully even, and it all came to light when the audio tapes of him berating his band were publicised. Buddy had described himself as a ‘short-tempered man’ (a phrase which tends to understate things just a wee bit) and he did not suffer mediocrity or laziness at all, which when you consider his talent is understandable. His name was on the band, he was up there ‘working my balls off’, he was world-class, and if a member of the band didn’t come up to scratch, he was (in my mind) right to call them on it. Yes, he could be mean but he was the best drummer in the world! Play accordingly, assholes!

I rarely read biographies these days but I’m so fascinated by Buddy Rich that when I saw this book on Amazon, it went straight into my basket. The author Mel Tormé was a renowned jazz singer and a lifelong friend of Rich, and so he has a thorough knowledge of his subject, both as a musician and a man. The book is warm in tone but doesn’t shy away from painting an honest portrait of its subject. Tormé has some great anecdotes to share, both from Buddy himself and the many musicians he worked with, and he also analyses Rich’s playing in an erudite way. For any drummers out there who are fascinated by the technicalities of Rich’s playing, there are some great sections in the back of the book dealing with Rich’s preferred equipment and playing techniques.

If you know nothing about Rich then (aside from stocking up on his albums) check out this great Michael Parkinson interview. Buddy is aged sixty-nine and it was his last interview before his death in April 1987. Parkinson is the consummate interviewer, asking insightful questions which he allows the interviewee to answer fully, no ego, no interrupting. He’s a true facilitator and draws out his subject expertly.

Buddy gives his opinion on many things from rock music, (he doesn’t really rate it, which to me is unsurprising given that he’s technically and creatively far beyond the ability of most rock drummers), the US government’s attitude to jazz and the ‘high arts’, the dedication that jazz takes from both the player and the listener, and his often contentious relationship with Frank Sinatra. He recounts it all with unflinching honesty (listen to his anecdote about Dusty Springfield!), and his great sense of humour. Enjoy!

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