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!

Whiplash

‘I can’t think of one musician who ever really paid any attention to anybody standing in front of the band with a baton.’ 

Buddy Rich interviewed by Larry King.

I saw a trailer for Whiplash with my dad when I was in New York last October and was enthralled. We tried to see it while we were there but it only had a small release and we couldn’t find it anywhere. So when it came out last weekend, we were at the lunchtime showing in the Lighthouse, coffees in hand, very excited.

It’s so rare and wonderful when a film exceeds your expectations and Whiplash is one of those films. Set in New York, it stars Miles Teller as Andrew Neiman, a nineteen-year-old drummer in his first year at Schaffer Music School, one of America’s most prestigious music conservatories. Andrew idolises Buddy Rich and dreams of eventually being in the pantheon of great jazz drummers.

His aspirations are realised when he is accepted into the Studio Band conducted by Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons). In an early scene, Fletcher encourages Neiman, faking a sense of patience and camaraderie, before hitting him and reducing him to tears in front of the band, leaving the audience feeing like they’re watching Full Metal Drummer. It’s the beginning of a destructive pattern intended to break Neiman’s spirit and motivate him to become the best he can be.

Dad was the perfect cinema partner for this film. He started playing jazz professionally in his teens in 1960s Belfast. Through his gigs and music around the house, I came to love jazz, and that helped me to appreciate certain aspects of the film. When Fletcher fires a player for being out of tune, I knew the player wasn’t, but Fletcher’s point was that if the player didn’t know whether he was out of tune then he had no business being in a jazz orchestra. Fair point, harshly made. And every time Fletcher calls out Neiman, saying he’s dragging or rushing, in each case he’s right. Fletcher may be a bully, a completely unsympathetic character, but he’s an excellent judge of musical ability and technique. And Neiman isn’t flawless either; he sleeps through his call time, loses sheet music during a competition. Not the behaviour of a fully committed student.

All that being said, you don’t need an obsessive interest in the drums or any knowledge of jazz to appreciate this film. The relationship between Fletcher and Neiman is complex and takes many turns from outright abuse to grudging acceptance yet remains mostly believable, and is compelling enough to draw in any cinema fan. If you’ve ever been passionate about something, if you’ve ever been competitive, you’ll relate in some way to Neiman’s ambition and Fletcher’s insistence on excellence.

Each member of the film brings their own element of musical expertise. JK Simmons has a music degree and studied conducting. Miles Teller has been a self-taught rock drummer since he was sixteen. Director Damien Chazelle drew on his own experiences in a jazz orchestra to conceive, write and direct the film. And most of members of the two orchestras in the film are professional musicians. (And a special shout-out to the editor, Tom Cross, who cut the last drum solo so expertly that even if you were hunting for flaws they’re hard to find.)

This perfect storm of creativity and experience is evident throughout. It’s a fully realised story, well-written, authentic, inspirational, challenging. Although Whiplash is nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, I reckon it’s unlikely that a niche film like this will win. (I’d love to be proved wrong.) However not only will this movie make it onto my top ten list for 2015, I think it will stand the test of time and have a place in my favourite films list from now on.

The Beat Goes On – Buddy and Cathy Rich

Everyone knows the Sonny and Cher version of ‘The Beat Goes On’ written by Sonny Bono. I have an updated lounge version of the track by The All Seeing I, featuring a vocalist that I didn’t know and I sometimes play it at gigs. I bought a new Buddy Rich album recently (for more information on my obsession with Buddy Rich click here) and saw there was a version of ‘The Beat Goes On’. I listened to it and found out who the unknown singer is; it’s Cathy Rich, Buddy’s daughter.

What’s remarkable is that Cathy Rich was only twelve years old when this was recorded in 1967. She obviously inherited some of her dad’s considerable musical talent! This video isn’t the best quality but when the camera focusses on a close-up of her you can see how young she was.

Inspiration from Mr Buddy Rich

And it’s back to my drummer obsession. The year may change but some things stay the same!

On Boxing Day, I got sucked into a YouTube wormhole and ended up looking at videos of Buddy Rich for hours. I think it can be a great source of inspiration to watch someone who is at the top of their game, somone who is a master at what they do. It gets me fired up and champing at the bit to challenge myself as a writer.

Buddy Rich had it all; technique, speed, groove, power and originality. It’s rare to find all of those qualities in one musician and he was rightfully billed in his lifetime as “The World’s Greatest Drummer”.  His career started in vaudeville at the tender age of eighteen months old, when most children are learning to walk, and he became a child star, performing as a band leader by age 11. He went on to play drums with Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey before forming his own band with Frank Sinatra’s finanical backing. Buddy also worked as a session player with big names such as Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson and Louis Armstrong.

Listen to Buddy for a while and every other drummer sounds sloppy by comparison. His timing was impeccable, his solos were inventive and he always had great swing and groove. There are few people in the world who find what they are truly born to do and who become the best at it; Buddy was one of those lucky people.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be as good a writer as Buddy was a drummer, but it’s worth aiming for.

 

Firstly:

 

 

Secondly:

 

 

 

And finally: