While we can’t single out anyone as the definitive best drummer in history, Buddy Rich would certainly make the shortlist. He was also voted the “most influential drummer ever”.
He was one of the most successful drummers of the 20th century. Is it right to consider him “the greatest drummer ever to have drawn breath” (in the words of Gene Krupa)?
He played with jazz legends like Count Basie, Ella Fitgerald, and Nat King Cole. He was Frank Sinatra’s best buddy (and best rival). He left his mark in the drumming world with his personal virtuoso style.
Buddy Rich left a great mark on drumming, but he wasn’t without his haters.
A Unique Style
Buddy Rich was mostly known for his remarkable drumming style, developed through decades of hard work.
He would master both sheer and delicate approaches to the kit, although he was best known for his powerful and intricate drumming.
One of his trademarks was the ability to play at a very high speed and the vast use of hi-hats rather than bass drums. He had many more tricks up his sleeve, designed to impress the audience and to offer a great variety of sounds and layers during solos.
One of these tricks was the one-handed roll, quite difficult to master even at slower tempos. Another trademark of his playing style was the use of a matched grip on floor toms during cross-sticking solos. He also had an irreproachable style with brushes.
His flawless technique and audacious approach were a great fit for the sound of jazz big bands, popular in the 1930s and the 1940s.
His virtuoso, technically impeccable style, later influenced rock drummers such as John Bonham, Phil Collins, and Roger Taylor.
Funnily enough, however, Buddy Rich despised rock music.
He devoted his whole life to jazz, keeping it popular even after its “golden age” and considering other genres and styles as highly inferior.
But this harsh judgment, he would often express out loud, was just one of the few aspects of his edgy personality and short temper.
An Infant Prodigy
Buddy Rich was first thrown on stage at the age of two. His parents were vaudeville performers and, as they saw his natural musical talent, they decided to add him to their act.
By the age of sixteen, he was the second-highest-paid young performer in the United States, only behind the legendary comedian Jackie Coogan.
His career boomed quickly. Throughout the 1940s, when he was just in his twenties, he became one of the most successful jazz bandleaders and drummers of all time.
Undoubtedly, he was one of a kind, as his tombstone in Los Angeles states. His musical greatness was second only to his devotion to work. Despite the health problems developed throughout his sixties, for example, he never stopped playing until his death, in 1987.
Detractors, however, tend to highlight his difficult personality and tyrannical attitude rather than his huge talent.
A controversial legend
Buddy Rich was undoubtedly a legend, but some of his behaviors made him a somewhat controversial figure, either despised or adored.
His short temper, his frequent outbursts of anger, and his tyrannical approach to the management of his bands made him not just one of the most appreciated musicians of all time, but also one of the most hated celebrities.
It is not uncommon to find hateful comments online, highlighting how his bad manners should have prevented him from being considered “the best”.
After all, by having a listen to the recordings of his angry outbursts, we can all sympathize with his poor bandmates, who were brutally reprimanded regularly.
Secret recordings of his outbreaks were taken on tour buses and dressing rooms. Determined to document his bandleader’s controversial behavior, jazz pianist Lee Musiker adopted this peculiar (and slightly questionable) habit while touring with Rich in the 80s.
On top of employing tyranny with his band members, Buddy Rich often started brawls with his friend and rival Frank Sinatra. The two legendary jazz musicians would have kept a relationship of love and hate throughout their whole lives. The competition between the two was quite brutal, but their friendship would resist time.
Buddy Rich was quite horrible to fans too as he would refuse to meet and greet them, often with abrupt manners.
He was extremely competitive and considered other jazz drummers and musicians (not only his friend Sinatra) a threat to his success.
One of the most famous episodes that portray Buddy Rich’s edgy personality involves Billy Cobham. Being of a younger generation, Cobham worshiped Buddy Rich as a true master.
When he had a chance to meet his drumming hero, the young musician asked him to sign his snare drum. How do you think Buddy Rich reacted? Well, he didn’t sign the instrument but threw it right down the stairs!
He would also mistreat other jazz drummers getting closer to him in popularity and technique, often with angry, offensive jokes.
Over thirty years after his death, can we now weigh whether it is acceptable to worship such a rude, tyrannical celebrity?
The truth is, there is no right or wrong answer to that.
Of course, with our modern sensitivity, we tend to consider the man and the artist as the same entity. If an artist is rude, we often dislike his or her entire body of work.
However, Buddy Rich was an incredible musician and that’s undeniable. Maybe we shouldn’t consider him as “the best of the best”, taking into consideration how bad leadership in a band can also affect the performance. On the other hand, we must acknowledge his incredible talent and his important legacy for generations of drummers.
Buddy Rich was one of the greatest jazz bandleaders and drummers in history. His short temper, constant outbursts of anger, and tyrannical nature made him rather disliked among fans, band members, and even his peers.
Despite that, Rich was an incredible musician who has left behind a great legacy for generations to come.
His style is still studied by drummers worldwide.
While no one can say with absolute certainty that one single drummer is the best, Buddy Rich is one of those names who would be nominated for the title.