SKF NOTE: I cannot remember a time in my life when this Great Music Mystery wasn’t unsolved: How did Buddy Rich become the world’s greatest drummer without taking drum lessons?
I grew up, like a million other aspiring drummers, being told I had to learn the 13 Essential Drum Rudiments and I had to learn how to read music. These were necessary for becoming a successful drummer.
And all the while I was struggling with paradiddle variations and ratamacues, and the often mind numbing task of converting notes on drum charts into music — there was always the World’s Greatest Drummer. He never took a drum lesson. He couldn’t read music.
If Buddy Rich could be as good as he was without lessons and reading – why couldn’t I? Why couldn’t other aspiring drummers?
What was Buddy Rich’s secret?
A few weeks ago I came across a letter written by drum teacher Stanley Spector, published in the March 7, 1968 Down Beat that — lo and behold! — solves the Great Music Mystery. At least to a large degree. I’ve posted a photo of Mr. Spector’s letter below. But here’s the part of Spector’s letter that caught my eye:
Buddy Rich is reported to have stated that he never took a drum lesson in his life, that he took to drumming like a fish takes to water, so to speak. Really? If one understands Buddy the R and his special background, he probably had more man-hours of the only relevant drum instruction available in his time than any other drummer who ever appeared before the public.
In face, you could say that his childhood was one perpetual drum lesson.
As I understand it, Rich’s parents were in vaudeville and toured the country with son Buddy in tow. Master Rich had the opportunity, the time and the interest to sit in the front row of theaters and take daily drum lessons by watching and talking with every first rate pit band drummer in America.
Apparently when your total environment has been a drumming school the tendency is not to take notice that you ever attended classes. Does the fish notice that its environment is water?
About one year later I came across podcast, a 1981 BBC Radio Show, Desert Island Discs, hosted by Roy Plomley with Buddy Rich as Mr. Plomley’s guest.
Mr. Plomley asks Buddy about the Great Music Mystery. Buddy’s answer, which I have transcribed here verbatim, confirms what Stanley Spector suspected 13 years earlier in his Down Beat letter.
Roy Plomley: Had anybody ever taught your drumming? Or are you entirely self-taught?
Buddy Rich: I think that at the age of 2 it would be very difficult to teach. And because I pay attention to things I listened to so many pit drummers, at my early age, who played great vaudeville shows, that I learned a great deal from them. But I’ve never beent to a school. I’ve never had a particular drum teacher.
And so, as I got older, my talent evolved and I suppose I got better. I don’t know how much better, but I think I got a little better.
RP: Who among jazz drummers influenced you most?
BR: I think everyone I’ve ever listened to. From Chick Webb, Krupa — and I could go on and name a hundred drummers — Dave Tough, Zutty Singleton, a couple of drummers over here [England] who were…. I was very impressed by Ronnie Verrill. One of my very good friends today is Kenny Clare.
There are many guys that I’ve admired and listened to a great deal, but finally, when I decided that that’s what I wanted to do, I think I evolved into my own personality.
It makes sense, doesn’t it? And yet, these answers to one Great Music Mystery create another: All the times I’ve read or listened to Buddy Rich interviews, I never recall Buddy being asked, or voluntarily speaking, about his childhood experience learning from the world’s greatest pit drummers. That seems such a loss, such a missed opportunity.
If Buddy Rich’s experience studying pit drummers does exist in print or audio — I would love to read it or listen to it.
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