Traps - The Drum Wonder: The Life of Buddy Rich

 

Back in the late 70s, I was given tickets by a friend who worked at a radio station to see drummer Buddy Rich at the Starwood, a club in Hollywood. I was a big jazz fan but I tended to gravitate to the modern stuff a la Coltrane, Miles, and Coleman. In my mind, Buddy Rich was a relic of the Swing Era. I found out I was wrong. His big band was great but Buddy Rich was incredible. It was like watching a magician and thinking, "How in the hell can he do that?". There may have been more innovative drummers but on a level of pure technical virtuosity, Buddy Rich was to the drums what Art Tatum was to the piano and Buddy Defranco was to the clarinet. If you know anything about jazz, you know that is high praise indeed.

Traps - The Drum Wonder:The Life of Buddy Rich is written by his long-time friend Mel Torme, a jazz giant in his own right. He also proves to be an excellent writer. Torme exhibits a great fondness for his friend. But unlike other biographies written by friends and family, Torme is not afraid to examine The drummer's darker side which could be quite dark indeed. Rich was known for being abrasive, an immature practical joker and a scrapper. His scrabbles with Frank Sinatra are legendary and he once got into a fist fight with Dusty Springfield! But he was also a contradiction from the jazz man stereotype. He rarely drank, didn't use drugs except for marijuana and he was generous to a fault. What I didn't know about him was that he became a star on the vaudeville circuit at the age of two. That was where the vaudeville stage name of Trap the Drum Wonder came into being. He was the highest paid child star in the early 20s, only topped by Charlie Chaplin's prodigy Jackie Googan in the mid 20s. (Yes, that would be the same Jackie Googan that played Uncle Fester in The Adams Family). In his late teens, he took up the occupation as a jazz drummer much to the disfavor of his father who wanted him to continue in vaudeville. Soon he was highly in demand with the up and coming swing bands and later started his own band.

Buddy Rich's Big Band was unusual in the fac that its greatest success was in the 60s and 70s well beyond the pinnacle of the big band era. Mel Torme, who was not a bad drummer himself as well as being a great jazz singer, charts Rich's career from the early bands of Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey to his success with his own band. The author also has a deft knowledge of music and drumming and explain why Rich is important to the jazz scene. Torme also has a good grip of Rich's infamous wit. In the middle of his first heart attack while being wheeled into the operating room, a nurse asked him if he was allergic to anything. "Yes", he replied, "Country and western music."

This is one of the better music biographies I have read with a good balance of personal recollections and musical insight. Highly recommended to drum aficionados, jazz fans and music lovers.

As a parting gift, I leave you with a clip of a duel between Buddy Rich and my second favorite drummer.