Updated: Feb 3, 2022
By John C. Alsedek:
I guess it was around 1981 that I first became aware of the existence of Buddy Rich, thanks to his guest appearance on The Muppet Show. Of course, I didn’t really know who he was beyond what I was seeing: a wiry, deeply tanned older guy who went up against Animal (the drummer for the Muppets’ house band, Dr. Teeth & the Electric Mayhem) in a drum battle. I probably marveled at the speed and precision with which he played, but once the episode was over, I didn’t give him much thought. Little did I realize that I’d been blessed to see one of the greatest—maybe the greatest—drummer of all time in action.
Born Bernard Rich on September 30, 1917, in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, NY, Rich was the child of vaudevillians Robert Rich and Bess Skolnik. A prodigy, he was in the family act by the time he could walk and quickly learned to both sing and tap dance. But his true love was the skins. Self-taught, he never learned to read music but could memorize rhythms after hearing them just once and emphasized playing with a band over practicing.
By age four, he was performing on Broadway as "Baby Traps the Drum Wonder," and by his teens Rich was leading his own band. Starting in 1937, he’d made his way into the jazz ranks and started performing with such greats as Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey, and Artie Shaw; his rise was halted by World War II (Rich served in the marines, where he was a judo instructor) but resumed in 1945 when he formed his own big band, The Buddy Rich Orchestra.
Rich’s fame grew nationally during the late forties and throughout the fifties, driven partially by such collaborative albums as Krupa and Rich and The Lionel Hampton Art Tatum Buddy Rich Trio, but also by the new medium of television. Rich was a frequent guest on The Steve Allen Show, The Colgate Comedy Hour (starring Jerry Lewis & Dean Martin), The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and The Sammy Davis Jr. Show. His agile, athletic drumming style was machine-like in its precision and translated well to TV for both virtuoso performances and comedic bits like his famous "drum battle" with Jerry Lewis.
But the genial persona he projected while in front of the camera with Lewis or Kermit the Frog wasn’t the true Buddy Rich. When describing Rich, mercurial is probably a fair description. He was infamous for his short fuse and foul mouth, and tapes of his tirades against members of his band paint a not-so-pleasant picture of Rich behind the scenes. But they only told a small part of the story. Could Rich be a world-class jerk? Undeniably. For example, singer Dusty Springfield famously hauled off and slapped him because she couldn’t stand any more of his “insults and show-biz sabotage.”
But there was clearly another side to him. Rich and Frank Sinatra were rivals during their time working together with Tommy Dorsey, to the point where they sometimes came to blows. Yet they were able to put that aside and develop what would be a lifelong friendship; Sinatra helped finance Rich’s first big band, often visited Rich in the hospital in his final days, and delivered the eulogy at Rich’s funeral in 1987. Rich frequently threatened to fire his musicians, and for the most ridiculous reasons, like when trombone player Dave Panichi had the audacity to grow a beard. But he very rarely followed through on his threats, and was equally quick to offer praise of his band whenever he was doing an interview. Rich was openly disdainful of rock music, but according to old friend Mel Torme, “when some of these rock drummers came to greet Buddy after a show, he was always charming and polite. And he never, at least in my presence, disparaged them in any way.”
Perhaps the way to see the truth of Rich’s personality is in the way that he interacted with his truest peers: other jazz drummers. He was sometimes known to be arrogant about his ability—not surprisingly, given his lofty status in the drumming community. And he could most definitely be competitive, such as when a critic declared that Max Roach had supplanted Rich as jazz’s #1 drummer; he reportedly drove past Roach, a beautiful woman in the passenger seat, and shouted “Hey, Max—top this!”
But that competitive streak was tempered with respect; Rich and Roach ended up doing an album together (1959’s Rich Versus Roach) and remained friends till Rich’s passing. A very noticeable example was when Rich would do his TV drum battles, displays of instrumental prowess where he was pitted against the likes of Tonight Show drummer Ed Shaughnessy and the great Gene Krupa, one of Rich’s idols. In those contests, Rich would do enough of his awe-inspiring drum acrobatics (particularly his lightning crossovers and crossunders) that you’d probably come away thinking he’d "won," but if you look closely, you can see that he was deliberately not doing too much so that he wouldn’t show up musicians that he genuinely liked and respected. I just rewatched his 1978 battle with Ed Shaughnessy, and while Shaughnessy gives a great accounting of himself, he’s very clearly gassed at the end; and that’s when Rich lets him off the hook and leads him into the finale. He would do something similar with Krupa, dialing it down a bit and making more of a duet than a contest. And the respect was mutual, with Krupa (a big-band and jazz legend himself) having called Rich “the greatest drummer ever to have drawn breath,” an opinion shared even today by such noted drummers as Phil Collins and Blink-182’s Travis Barker.
The Buddy Rich–Animal contest on The Muppet Show may be the most famous drum battle in the program’s history, but it wasn’t the only one. Next time, I’ll be writing about the other drummer: singer, musician, actor, and activist Harry Belafonte. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.