Born September 30, 1917, in Brooklyn, New York, legendary drummer Buddy Rich began his entertainment career as a child star in vaudeville. Rich went on to play with bandleaders Tommy Dorsey and Artie Shaw, and eventually led his own band. Rich continued drumming until shortly before his death in Los Angeles, on April 2, 1987, at age 69.
Buddy Rich was born Bernard Rich in Brooklyn, New York, on September 30, 1917 (some sources say June 30 of the same year). Rich showed enough early talent as a drummer and performer that he followed his parents onto the vaudeville stage when he was only 18 months old. He soon became known as "Baby Traps, the Drum Wonder." Rich performed throughout his childhood, appearing on Broadway when he was 4 and touring Australia at age 6. At one point, he was the second highest-paid child star in the world (after Jackie Coogan), earning about $1,000 a week.
Although Rich could also sing and dance, drumming was his most impressive talent, especially considering that he was self-taught. This ability helped him make the transition from being a child star to playing in big bands.
In 1937, Rich signed with Joe Marsala. Soon after that, Rich joined legendary bandleader Artie Shaw, and then Tommy Dorsey. Rich enlisted in the Marines during World War II, but was soon playing drums again after the war ended. By 1954, Rich was earning $1,500 a week with the Harry James Orchestra, making him the highest-paid sideman in the world.
Frank Sinatra provided financial backing for Rich's own band in 1946; unfortunately, the band didn't make enough money to last. However, the band Rich formed in 1966 met with greater success. That group stayed together until 1974, and reunited for tours that continued, on and off, until Rich's death.
Even as he grew older, the speed and skill of Rich's drumming was astounding. His later performances often included a medley of songs from West Side Story. This 10-minute solo showcased the intense, virtuoso drumming that was emblematic of Rich's talent.
Personal considerations usually took second place to Rich's music. Although he suffered a heart attack in 1959, Rich was soon performing again. Rich also kept drumming after he was charged with income tax evasion, and subsequently declared bankruptcy, in 1968.
Rich could have a short temper. Though they were friends, he clashed with Sinatra while they were working together in Dorsey's band. Most famously, Rich unleashed fiery tirades on members of his own band. Some of these obscenity-filled rants were recorded on tape and became public. Many fellow musicians and friends felt the explosive outbursts—though going about it in the wrong way—were meant to motivate younger band members to reach the same levels of performance that came so easily to Rich.
Death and Legacy
Rich had another heart attack in 1983, which required bypass surgery. As always, he resumed drumming soon afterward. However, in 1987, a tumor was discovered in Rich's brain. The tumor was removed in March. While still receiving chemotherapy, Rich died on April 2, in Los Angeles, California, at the age of 69.
Many people may know Rich for his volatile outbursts, but he had an impressive career that spanned vaudeville, big bands, swing and jazz. With musical recordings, and videos of his drumming performances onstage, in movies and on TV, Rich's reputation as one of the best drummers the world has ever seen will live on.
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