Buddy Rich, Frenetic Jazz Drummer, Dies

Times Staff Writer

Drummer Buddy Rich, whose quicksilver, frenetic technique earned him the accolade “fastest hands in the world,” died Thursday after suffering a seizure at a Bel-Air residence where he was recuperating from brain surgery. He was 69.

A UCLA Medical Center spokesman said paramedics brought Rich to the emergency room in the early afternoon. He died at 2:27 p.m. from “unexpected respiratory and cardiac failure,” the spokesman said.

The seizure occurred shortly after Rich returned to the home from a morning radiation treatment, prescribed by doctors after his March 16 operation to remove a cancerous brain tumor. There was no immediate indication whether Rich’s death was related to the tumor or to his decades-long history of heart trouble, hospital officials said.

The tumor was discovered in January, after Rich sought medical tests before embarking on a world tour, his New York-based agent, Jackie Green, said. The drummer was treated at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York, then entered UCLA for tests in early March.

The tests, and the subsequent surgery, did little to sap Rich’s strong-minded spirits--at least publicly. When he left the hospital last week, he told jazz critic Leonard Feather that he was “happy to be out, and expecting to rest up for a couple of months.”


Rich displayed smart-alecky bravery throughout his medical ordeal, Feather said. Just before he entered the operating room, a nurse asked him whether he was allergic to anything.

“Yes,” he tossed back, “country-and-western music.”

Rich is survived by his wife, Marie, and daughter Cathy. Funeral services are pending.

His death ended a 67-year show business career, as successful as he was confident. It spanned vaudeville, the Big Band era and--when America decided that was passe-- he brought his own brand of driving jazz to audiences throughout the world.

Volatile, Cocky

The music--like the man--was volatile, gregarious and cocky. Asked once whom he considered the best drummer in history, Rich hesitated not a second.

“I am,” he told a writer. “Why go through the humble bit? Look at Ted Williams--straight ahead, no tipping of his cap when he belted one out of the ball park. He knew the name of the game: Do your job. That’s all I do. I play my drums.”

And he was seemingly born playing the drums--or, at the least, playing for an audience. His father was a soft-shoe dancer and his mother a singer, and 18 months after his Brooklyn birth in 1917, young Bernard Rich hit the boards.

Dressed in a sailor suit, sporting long curls, Rich made his debut in the family’s Wilson and Rich vaudeville act by singing, dancing and drumming. By age 4, he was on Broadway, appearing in “Pinwheel.” Two years later, he had replaced his parents as the act, taking it to Australia for more than a year--Buddy as the star and Wilson and Rich relegated to roles as his managers.

‘The Drum Wonder’

Back then, he was billed as “Baby Traps, the Drum Wonder,” and his specialty was playing “Stars and Stripes Forever” on his tiny drum. The baby quickly grew up. By the time Rich was 15, in 1932, he averaged $1,000 a week.

“Most of my education was with private tutors on the road,” he said. “I guess I had about three years of formal education, between the ages of 13 and 16, when I went to a public school in Brooklyn.

“But even during that time I was doing club dates, emceeing shows, still singing and dancing and beginning to learn about jazz drumming. For a while, I was the second highest paid kid star, right next to Jackie Coogan.”

After a few years of variety, nearly all of Rich’s attention centered on Big Band drumming. In 1938, he signed with Joe Marsala. Later he moved to Bunny Berigan’s band and, a short time later, he signed on with Artie Shaw.

A dominant musical presence, with his slight body hunched over his drums, he flailed mercilessly, catching up both audiences and his fellow musicians with his lightning gyrations.

Makes His First Film

Possessing seemingly endless energy, he broadened his show business experience, playing with Shaw at night while, during the day, filming his first motion picture, a 1939 MGM musical starring Lana Turner called “The Dancing Co-Ed.”

The association with Shaw ended abruptly when, during a New York performance, the band leader in a fit of anger over the music business walked off the stage, deserting his musicians.

But Rich bounced back with Tommy Dorsey. From 1939 to 1955, Rich spent most of the time behind the drums in Dorsey’s group, save for a two-year stint as a Marine Corps judo instructor in World War II and occasional forays on the road with his own band.

His first independent tour, in 1946, was bankrolled by another Dorsey alumnus, Frank Sinatra, who put up $50,000 to finance Rich’s gamble. But by the time Rich ventured out on his own, the Big Bands were in decline. Rich toured with his own group a bit more, mixed in jobs with Harry James’ band and, in 1959, suffered his first heart attack.

When he came out of the hospital, he decided to find fame the second time around as a singer. But that venture, as did other intermittent career shifts, ended when he answered the compelling lure of the drums.

Won Critical Acclaim

In the 1960s, that lure led Rich to the Newport Jazz Festival, where, his hands not having slowed with age, he won critical acclaim. He was proclaimed as having “the fastest hands in the world,” but could not come up with an explanation for his swiftness.

“Maybe it’s greased elbows, and maybe it’s because the man upstairs talked to my hands and said, “Be fast,” he told an interviewer.

Comfortably supplying the beat for the Harry James band in those years--he was the highest paid sideman in the country at $1,500 a week--he nevertheless took to the road again with his own swing style band in the face of the public’s disinterest. He updated swing, turning his band of musicians into an unparalleled whole and emerging, the critics said, better than ever.

“It bugs me when I hear people playing the Glenn Miller sound,” he complained in the late 1960s, with characteristic bluntness. “They should play what’s happening today. Who needs to go backward? After all, today will be ‘the old days’ someday.”

Tax Evasion Trouble

While the 1960s were filled with critical success, they also contained personal troubles. In March, 1968, Rich pleaded no contest to federal income tax evasion and was ordered to pay the government more than $50,000.

Five months later, Rich declared bankruptcy, listing assets of $11,100 and debts of more than $328,000, including back taxes. And in 1970, federal authorities auctioned off his Las Vegas home, using a tax lien of $141,000.

If his finances were troubled, his talent wasn’t. Rich continued on the road, playing to new generations of listeners. He worked the college towns and the older halls, cut jazz-oriented albums and popped up occasionally on television, still confident and exhaustingly spry-handed.

He slowed down, if only temporarily, in January of 1983, when he underwent emergency open heart surgery at the University of Michigan Hospital, where he had been taken after suffering severe chest pains. Doctors found then that two of the three blood vessels leading into his heart were virtually blocked.

But by September, he was back in stride, appearing at the Monterey Jazz Festival. From then until early 1986, he continued to tour, sometimes opening for longtime friend Sinatra.

Keeps Youthful Bombast

He operated, the critics said, with the same youthful bombast. Even into his 60s, he was the seemingly indestructible old-style drummer, openly disdaining the newfangled electronic gadgets that his musical descendants cherished.

“It doesn’t say much for someone’s talent, does it?” he said, scoffing at the rhythm machines and electronic drums proliferating recently. “Sure you can make effects that sound like the fourth world war. But I’m not interested in effects. I’m interested in music. All the guys I’ve known have only needed a pair of drumsticks and a couple sets of drums. . . .

“I like playing good--no matter who it is, where it is, or why it is.”