Remembering Buddy Rich
At the age of 7 or 8, circa 1962/63, growing up in a Boston suburb, in a home with a dad who was a drummer, it was difficult for me not to be influenced by music. The combination of having a drumset always at the ready in our basement, great music constantly coming from the living room stereo, and the Beatles dominating the airwaves, just about sealed my fate that I’d be a musician.
In addition to the bombardment of music in the home, my dad also exposed me to the local live scene. Many New Englander’s and even people nationally, were aware of a hole-in-the-wall club that existed on Route 1 in Peabody, MA. The club featured “A” list talent from the world of jazz. It was called “Lennie’s on the Turnpike.” In addition to its stellar musical roster featuring artists like Miles Davis, Woody Herman, and Count Basie, Lennie’s is also known for the place where Jay Leno, an Andover, MA, native got his start.
As well as a regular club schedule, Lennie Sogoloff opened his doors on Sundays so families in the area could could attend matinees with their children. I’ve discovered in talking to musicians my age, that many from this area share memories similar to mine. Lennie Sogoloff exposed many a young budding musician to some world-class jazz. Around ‘63, my dad started taking me to Lennie’s. One of the acts I remember most vividly was around 1967. I was 12. I still have Count Basie’s autograph from that show hanging on a wall matted with that of his then drummer, Harold Jones. “To Mike,” it says, “Para-Luck.”
Of all the artists that were in rotation at Lennie’s, in my young eyes I always felt that there was none bigger than Buddy Rich. Lennie’s was a small place. The music would physically affect you….from the ages of 8 to 17 I experienced Buddy Rich’s big band blasting me right in the face from only a few feet away. There were no huge PA systems; it was simply pure, raw power, musicians muscling the sound out to the audience. In addition to the band experience and Buddy’s technical magic, it was not uncommon to find sitting in close proximity, people whose names I had only heard bandied about while eavesdropping on conversations between elder music-minded folks.
At Lennie’s, one could easily talk with not only the working musicians, but also the well-known patrons who would often be found rubbing elbows with each other on any given date. One specific Sunday I was sitting at a long table right in front of Buddy Rich’s band with my father. We were so close, I could actually feel a blast of wind and a solid vibration coming from the stage. It pounded into the center of my chest. It must have been around 1965. I was ten years old. In awe, I sat at a long table with Bud Slingerland, Armand Zildjian and Sparky Lyle, a Boston Red Sox pitcher. When Buddy took a break he would often take the mic and banter with the crowd. This day it seemed like Buddy felt like talking more than he felt like playing. Patron’s didn’t seem to mind because his dialogue was often hilarious and just as entertaining as his playing (maybe a result of his vaudeville training).
That day Buddy was on a roll (no pun intended). He looked around and one by one introduced the dignitaries with whom I shared a table. The crowd politely applauded each name as Buddy made small talk with Mr. Zildjian and subsequently Mr. Lyle. When he announced Bud Slingerland, again, everyone politely applauded. Then to everyone’s amusement, including Mr. Slingerland, Buddy quipped, “Second-class junk.” His delivery was impeccable and he had people roaring.
While the crowd was still getting over that slam, Buddy was already ripping into a patron who had gotten up while Buddy was talking. “Where are you going?” Buddy demanded to know. “To the bathroom” came the squeaky reply. Buddy then let loose with a tirade about the poor guy getting up while HE was talking etc…..it was pretty funny to everyone except the hapless victim. Buddy was merciless. The man didn’t know whether he should go back to his seat or continue to his original destination. I think I remember him eventually asking permission to go to the lav.
After that scenario, Buddy made a few crude remarks about playing again at Lennie’s, “It’s always a joy to play at…what’s the name of this joint?” “I love sharing my dressing room with a rat.” Lennie Sogoloff would always be in the back of the room, arms folded, chuckling along with every insult hurled at him. Things began to settle down and Buddy looked around the room looking for another mark. He noted the number of kids in the audience. Then Buddy asked, “OK, kids, what would you like to hear?” I couldn’t believe that I’d actually have an opportunity to make a request to my idol. “West Side Story!” I cried out. Buddy Rich stopped and looked me right in the eyes. Suddenly I felt fluids draining from my body. It felt like the world had stopped. Now I knew how the man on the way to the men’s room felt. The room actually went silent for a moment while the audience waited for Buddy’s reaction. “Go out and steal some hubcaps kid,” came his response, “but make sure you leave the Jaguar alone. That’s my daughter’s.” Again the audience was in stitches and I wanted to climb under the table.
He finally got behind the drums, played one of his famous, dazzling hi hat intros and counted off, “West Side Story.” At the end of the show he walked by me and said, “Hey kid, here,” and he handed me a pair of wood-tipped drum sticks that looked like they’d been though a chipper. In green ink they were stamped “Buddy Rich.” I was fortunate to meet Buddy again several more times through the years after shows and even got to jam with members of his band. Buddy and Maynard Ferguson were performing at the Colonial on route 128 in Lynfield, MA. His band members trickled into the hotel lounge after their gig to have a drink. Talk about the right place at the right time….I was lucky enough to be working with a jazz trio in the lounge that night. Most of the guys were carrying their horns. We invited them up and some of them took turns playing standards with us. It was a thrill for me. The highlight was a version of “Body and Soul” lead by a flugelhorn player whose sound almost brought tears to my eyes.
As time went on I’d get a chance to work with guys who at one time or another had actually worked with Buddy. I’d always get them to talk about life on the road with the Man. I heard some great stories. Whenever I was fortunate enough to catch Buddy live, he always took time to sign autographs (usually in his robe after shows). The pair of sticks that he’d given me as a kid ended up like many an old autographed baseball. They’d gotten used up until they became unrecognizable. Perhaps I thought that some of Buddy’s magic would pass through the sticks and into my hands…never happened.
When Buddy passed I felt compelled, as many of us did, to express my feelings in a long heartfelt letter to Modern Drummer Magazine. It was a sad time. I’m thankful that I was not only exposed to Buddy’s music, got to see him live, but also had a chance to interact with him here and there when he’d pass through town.
Life is short and I make an attempt not to take things for granted. I’ll never take for granted any of the blessed times I got to see and hear Buddy Rich. I sometimes wonder if he knew how many people he touched that way.