Rich was born in Brooklyn to Jewish-American parents Bess (née Skolnik) and Robert Rich, both vaudevillians. His talent for rhythm was first noted by his father, who saw that Buddy could keep a steady beat with spoons at the age of one. He began playing drums in vaudeville when he was 18 months old, initially billed as "Baby Traps the Drum Wonder". At the peak of Rich's childhood career, he was reportedly the second-highest paid child entertainer in the world (after Jackie Coogan).
At age 11, he was performing as a bandleader. He received no formal drum instruction and went so far as to claim that instruction would only degrade his musical talent. He also never admitted to practicing, claiming to play the drums only during performances and was not known to read music.
Rich first played jazz with a major group in 1937 with Joe Marsala and guitarist Jack Lemaire. He then played with Bunny Berigan (1938) and Artie Shaw (1939), and even instructed a 14-year-old Mel Brooks in drumming for a short period when playing for Shaw. At 21, Rich participated in his first major recording with the Vic Schoen Orchestra (the band that backed the Andrews Sisters). In 1938, he was hired to play in Tommy Dorsey's orchestra, where he met and performed with Frank Sinatra. In 1942, Rich left the Dorsey band to join the United States Marine Corps, in which he served as a judo instructor, never saw combat, and was discharged due to medical reasons. He rejoined the Dorsey group after leaving the Marines two years later. In 1946, Rich formed his own band with financial support from Sinatra, and continued to lead different groups on and off until the early 1950s.
In addition to Tommy Dorsey (1939–42, 1945, 1954–55), Rich also played with Benny Carter (1942), Harry James (1953–56–62, 1964, 1965), Les Brown, Charlie Ventura, and Jazz at the Philharmonic, as well as leading his own band and performing with all-star groups including Charlie Parker and his Orchestra featuring Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk (on the Bird and Diz masterpiece album, 1950). In the early '50s, Rich played with Dorsey and began to perform with trumpeter Harry James, an association which lasted until 1966. In 1966, Rich left James to develop a new big band. For most of the period from 1966 until his death, he led successful big bands in an era when the popularity of big bands had waned from their 1930s and 1940s peak. In this later period, Rich continued to play clubs, but stated in multiple interviews that the great majority of his big bands' performances were at high schools, colleges, and universities, with club performances done to a much lesser degree. Rich also served as the session drummer for many recordings, where his playing was often much more understated than in his own big-band performances. Especially notable were Rich's sessions for recordings of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, on which he worked with pianist Oscar Peterson and his famous trio featuring bassist Ray Brown and guitarist Herb Ellis. In 1968 Rich collaborated with the Indian tabla player Ustad Alla Rakha in the studio album Rich à la Rakha by Buddy Rich and Alla Rakha.
Perhaps his most popular later performance was a big-band arrangement of a medley derived from Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story, first released on the 1966 album Swingin' New Big Band. The "West Side Story Suite" is a complex big-band arrangement which highlights Rich's ability to blend the rhythm of his drumming into his band's playing of the musical chart. Penned by Bill Reddie, Rich received the West Side Story arrangement of Leonard Bernstein's melodies from the famed musical in the mid-1960s and found it challenging. It consists of many difficult sections which feature 4/4 and 6/8 time signatures; it took almost a month of constant rehearsals to perfect. It later became a staple in all his performances, clocking in at various lengths from seven to fifteen minutes. In 2002, a DVD was released called The Lost West Side Story Tapes that captured a 1985 performance of this along with other numbers.
After the "West Side Story Suite", Rich's most famous performance was the "Channel One Suite" by Bill Reddie. Like the "West Side Story Suite", the "Channel One Suite" generally was a quite long performance ranging from about 12 minutes to about 26 minutes and usually contained two or three drum solos. A recording of one of his live performances was released in January 2001, which contained a 26-minute "Channel One Suite".
A live recording of the "Channel One Suite" is featured on the 1968 Buddy Rich Big Band album, Mercy, Mercy, recorded at Caesars Palace in 1968. The album received acclaim as the "finest all-round recording by Buddy Rich's big band".
In the 1950s, Rich was a frequent guest on The Steve Allen Show and other television variety shows. Beginning in 1962, Rich was a frequent guest on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and The Merv Griffin Show, among others, and appeared with his big band on British television, on Michael Parkinson's talk show Parkinson and on the Terry Wogan Show (the last time on October 29, 1986, several months before Rich's death). Rich starred in a 1967 summer replacement television series called Away We Go along with singer Buddy Greco and comedian George Carlin.
In 1973, PBS broadcast and syndicated Rich's February 6, 1973, performance at the Top of the Plaza in Rochester, New York. It was the first time thousands of drummers were exposed to Buddy in a full-length concert setting, and many drummers continue to name this program as a prime influence on their own playing. One of his most widely seen television performances was in a 1981 episode of The Muppet Show, in which he engaged Muppet drummer "Animal" (played by Ronnie Verrell) in a drum battle. Rich's famous televised drum battles also included Gene Krupa, Ed Shaughnessy and Louie Bellson.
On an episode of Michael Parkinson's British talk show, Parkinson kidded Rich about his Donny Osmond kick, by claiming that Rich was the president of The Osmonds' fan club.
Buddy Rich continued touring and performing until the end of his life. On April 2, 1987, he died of heart failure following surgery for a malignant brain tumor. He was interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles. He was 69.
Rich cited Gene Krupa, Jo Jones, Chick Webb, Ray McKinley, Ray Bauduc and Sid Catlett as major influences on his style.
He typically held his sticks using the traditional grip. He also used the matched grip technique at times when playing on the floor toms (as captured in early video footage) and sometimes around the drum set while performing cross-stickings (crossing arm over arm), which was one of his party tricks, often leading to loud cheers from the audience. Another technique he used to impress during his performances was the stick-trick : a fast roll performed by slapping two drumsticks together in a circular motion using "taps" or single-stroke stickings.
He often used contrasting techniques to keep long drum solos from getting mundane. Aside from his energetic, explosive displays, he would go into quieter passages. One passage he would use in most solos started with a simple single-stroke roll on the snare picking up speed and power, then slowly moving his sticks closer to the rim as he got quieter, and eventually playing on just the rim itself while still maintaining speed. Then he would reverse the effect and slowly move towards the center of the snare while increasing power.
Though well known as an explosive, powerful drummer, he did occasionally use brushes. On one album, 1955's The Lionel Hampton Art Tatum Buddy Rich Trio, Rich played with brushes almost exclusively throughout. In 1942, Rich and drum teacher Henry Adler co-authored the instructional book Buddy Rich's Modern Interpretation of snare drum Rudiments, regarded as one of the more popular snare-drum rudiment books. One of Adler's former students introduced Adler to Rich. Adler said, "The kid told me Buddy played better than [Gene] Krupa. Buddy was only in his teens at the time and his friend was my first pupil. Buddy played and I watched his hands. Well, he knocked me right out. He did everything I wanted to do, and he did it with such ease. When I met his folks, I asked them who his teacher was. 'He never studied', they told me. That made me feel very good. I realized that it was something physical, not only mental, that you had to have."
In a 1985 interview, Adler clarified the extent of his teacher-student relationship with Rich and their collaboration on the instructional book. "I had nothing to do with [the rumor that I taught Buddy how to play]. That was a result of Tommy Dorsey's introduction to the Buddy Rich book", Adler said. "I used to go around denying it, knowing that Buddy was a natural player. Sure, he studied with me, but he didn't come to me to learn how to hold the drumsticks. I set out to teach Buddy to read. He'd take six lessons, go on the road for six weeks and come back. He didn't have time to practice. ... Tommy Dorsey wanted Buddy to write a book and he told him to get in touch with me. I did the book and Tommy wrote the foreword. Technically, I was Buddy's teacher, but I came along after he had already acquired his technique."
When asked about Rich's ability to read music, Bobby Shew, lead trumpeter in Rich's mid-60s big band replied: "No. He'd always have a drummer there during rehearsals to read and play the parts initially on new arrangements... He'd only have to listen to a chart once and he'd have it memorized. We'd run through it and he'd know exactly how it went, how many measures it ran and what he'd have to do to drive it... The guy had the most natural instincts."
Rich was known as a performer and endorser of Ludwig, Slingerland and Rogers Drums. He switched exclusively to Ludwig for much of the 1970s to the early 1980s. While recovering from a heart attack in 1983, Rich was presented with a 1940s-vintage Slingerland Radio King set – refurbished by Joe MacSweeney of Eames Drums – which he used until his death in 1987. Rich's typical setup included a 14"X24" bass drum, a 9"X13" mounted tom, two 16"X16" floor toms (with the second tom serving as a towel holder), and a 5.5"X14" snare drum. His cymbals were typically Avedis Zildjian: 14" New Beat hi-hats, 20" medium ride, 6" or 8" splash, two 18" crashes (thin and medium-thin), and later a 22" swish. He also used Remo drumheads and Slingerland drumsticks.
Rich was known to have a short temper. Dusty Springfield reportedly slapped Rich after several days of "putting up with Rich's insults and show-biz sabotage". He was also known for his rivalry with Frank Sinatra—which sometimes ended in brawls—when both were members of Tommy Dorsey's band. However, the two remained lifelong friends and Sinatra delivered a eulogy at Rich's funeral. Billy Cobham stated he once met Rich in a club and asked him to sign his snare but Rich dropped it down the stairs.
According to bassist Bill Crow, Rich reacted strongly to Max Roach's increasing popularity when he was the drummer for Charlie Parker, especially when a jazz critic stated Roach had topped Rich as the world's greatest drummer. Drummer John JR Robinson told Crow he was with Roach when Rich came driving with a beautiful woman next to him and Rich yelled: "Hey, Max! Top this!". Nonetheless the two worked together for the album Rich Versus Roach (1959) and Roach appeared on the Rich tribute album Burning For Buddy (1994).
Rich preferred to concentrate his efforts on big band and jazz music, rarely venturing outside of those genres. He held a low opinion of country and rock and declined to involve himself with those genres. During the medical therapy prior to his death, a nurse asked him whether he was allergic to anything, to which Rich replied "Yes, country and western music". Mel Tormé wrote in his book on Rich, Traps: The Drum Wonder, although Rich was not much of a rock and roll fan, 'Yet, whenever some rock drummers came to greet him after a show, he was always very charming and polite. And he never, at least in my presence, disparaged them in any way.'
In the Beastie Boys song "Sabotage", the lyrics "I'm Buddy Rich when I fly off the handle" refer to Rich's temper. Rich held a black belt in karate.
Rich's temper, mercurial attitude, and imposing personality were documented in secret recordings that pianist Lee Musiker made during some of his outbursts on tour buses and backstage in the early 1980s. These recordings, long circulated in bootleg form, have done much to fuel the reputation of Rich's personality. The tapes were popular with comedian Jerry Seinfeld, who used three quotes from them more or less verbatim on Seinfeld:"If I have to tell you again, we're gonna take it outside and I'm gonna show you what it's like!" ("The Opposite")"This guy – this is not my kind of guy." ("The Understudy")"Then let's see how he does, up there, without all the assistance!" ("The Butter Shave")
On one recording, Rich threatens to fire Dave Panichi, a trombonist, for having a beard. While he threatened many times to fire members of his band, he seldom did so, and for the most part he lauded his musicians during television and print interviews. The day before Rich died, he was visited by Mel Tormé, who claims that one of Rich's last requests was to hear the tapes that featured his angry outbursts. At the time, Tormé was working on an authorized biography of Rich, which was released after Rich's death, titled Traps – The Drum Wonder: The Life of Buddy Rich. Tormé included edited excerpts of the tapes in the book, but never played them for Rich.
Rich's technique, including speed, smooth execution and precision, is one of the most coveted in drumming and has become a common standard. Gene Krupa defined him as "the greatest drummer ever to have drawn breath".
Rich's influence extended from jazz to rock music and jazz fusion. He influenced drummers such as Led Zeppelin's John Bonham, Deep Purple's Ian Paice, Black Sabbath's Bill Ward, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer's Carl Palmer. Genesis drummer Phil Collins stopped using two bass drums and started playing the hi-hat after reading Rich's opinion on the importance of the hi-hat. Queen drummer Roger Taylor has acknowledged Rich as the best drummer he ever saw for sheer technique. Topper Headon of the punk rock band The Clash often stated Buddy Rich and Billy Cobham as his favourite drummers.
Since Rich's death, a number of memorial concerts have been held. In 1994, the Rich tribute album Burning for Buddy: A Tribute to the Music of Buddy Rich was released. Produced by Rush drummer/lyricist Neil Peart, the album features performances of Rich staples by a number of jazz and rock drummers such as Joe Morello, Steve Gadd, Max Roach, Billy Cobham, Dave Weckl, Simon Phillips, Steve Smith, and Peart himself, accompanied by the Buddy Rich Big Band. A second volume was issued in 1997. Phil Collins also featured in a DVD tribute organized by Rich's daughter, A Salute to Buddy Rich, which included Steve Smith and Dennis Chambers.
Rich's grandson, Nick Rich, also plays drums and was briefly in the post-hardcore band Falling in Reverse.
In the 2014 film Whiplash, a first-year jazz student at the prestigious (fictional) Shaffer Conservatory aspires to become one of the greats like Buddy Rich; though both the film's treatment of music in general and jazz in particular, and the choice of Rich as a jazz personality to aspire to, have been criticized by jazz aficionados.
In 2016, readers of Rolling Stone magazine ranked Buddy Rich No. 15 in their list of the 100 Greatest Drummers of all time. In a readers' poll in 2011, he ranked No. 6.1953: The Flip Phillips Buddy Rich Trio (Clef)1954: The Swinging Buddy Rich (Norgran)1955: Sing and Swing with Buddy Rich (Norgran)1955: Buddy and Sweets (Norgran)1955: The Lester Young Buddy Rich Trio (Norgran)1955: The Wailing Buddy Rich (Norgran)1955: Krupa and Rich (Clef)1955: The Lionel Hampton Art Tatum Buddy Rich Trio (Clef)1956: Buddy Rich Sings Johnny Mercer (Verve)1956: This One's for Basie (Verve) re-issued 1967 as Big Band Shout1957: Buddy Rich Just Sings (Verve)1958: Buddy Rich in Miami (Verve)1959: Richcraft (Mercury) – also The Rich Rebellion (Wing)1959: Rich Versus Roach (Mercury)1959: The Voice is Rich (Mercury)1960: The Driver (EmArcy)1961: Playtime (Argo)1961: Blues Caravan (Verve)1962: Burnin' Beat (Verve)1965: Are You Ready for This? (Roost)1966: Swingin' New Big Band (Pacific Jazz/Blue Note)1966: The Sounds of '66 (Reprise)1967: Big Swing Face (Pacific Jazz)1967: The New One! (Pacific Jazz) – a.k.a. Take it Away1968: Rich à la Rakha (World Pacific)1968: Mercy, Mercy (Pacific Jazz)1969: Buddy & Soul (Pacific Jazz)1970: Keep the Customer Satisfied (Liberty)1971: A Different Drummer (RCA)1971: Rich in London (RCA) – expanded UK release – Buddy Rich: Very Alive at Ronnie Scott's (RCA (UK))1971: Conversations (EMI-Parlophone)1972: Stick It (RCA)1973: The Roar of '74 (Groove Merchant)1974: Very Live at Buddy's Place (Groove Merchant)1974: Transition (Groove Merchant)1974: The Last Blues Album, Vol. 1 (Groove Merchant)1975: Big Band Machine (Groove Merchant)1976: Speak No Evil (RCA)1977: Buddy Rich Plays and Plays and Plays (RCA)1977: Lionel Hampton Presents Buddy Rich (Who's Who in Jazz) – a.k.a. Buddy's Cherokee... also released as The Sound of Jazz, Vol 101977: Class of '78 (The Great American Gramophone Company) – also released as The Greatest Drummer That Ever Lived with The Best Band I Ever Had1978: Together Again: For the First Time (Gryphon/Century) – a.k.a. When I Found You1980: Live at Ronnie Scott's (DRG) – Live. a.k.a. The Man from Planet Jazz1981: The Buddy Rich Band (MCA)1982: Live at the 1982 Montreal Jazz Festival (Hudson Music)1983: Rich and Famous (Amway) – a.k.a. The Magic of Buddy Rich, a.k.a. Buddy Rich – The Man1985: Mr. Drums: ...Live on King Street (Cafe) – Live in-studio concert recording. Also released on two video discs1993: Europe '77 (Magic)1996: Buddy Rich & His Big Band At Stadthalle Leonberg, Germany 10 July 1986 (Jazz Band)2001: Wham! The Buddy Rich Big Band Live (Label M)2004: No Funny Hats (Lightyear)2007: Time Out (Lightyear)2009: Buddy Rich Up Close (Drum Channel)2015: Birdland1960: The Drum Battle (Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich at JATP) (Verve)1964: The Best of Buddy Rich (Pacific Jazz)1969: Super Rich (Verve)1971: Time Being (Bluebird/RCA)1987: Compact Jazz: Buddy Rich (Verve)1990: Compact Jazz: Gene Krupa & Buddy Rich (Verve)1992: No Jive (Novus)1998: Buddy Rich: The Legendary '47–'48 Orchestra Vol. 1 (Hep)1998: Buddy Rich: The Legendary '46–'48 Orchestra Vol. 2 (Hep)2005: Classic EmArcy, Verve, Small Group Buddy Rich Sessions (Mosaic No. 232)
With Count BasieBasie Jazz (Clef, 1952 )The Swinging Count! (Clef 1952 )Blues by Basie, Count Basie (1956)
With Benny CarterAlone Together (Norgran, 1952 )Benny Carter Plays Pretty (Norgran, 1954)New Jazz Sounds (Norgran, 1954)
With Charlie ParkerApril in Paris: Charlie Parker with Strings, Charlie Parker (1950)Big Band (Clef, 1954)
With Harry JamesRadio Discs of Harry James (featuring Buddy Rich on Drums, 1953) (Joyce LP 2002, 1975)One Night Stand With Harry James at the Astor (Featuring Buddy Rich on Drums, 1953) (Joyce LP 1044, 1977)One Night Stand (Meadowbrook Gardens, California 2/10/1946 and Hotel Astor Roof, New York 5/25/1953) (Sandy Hook SH 2004, 1978)One Night Stand With Buddy Rich & Harry James (Band Box, New York, March 1953) (Joyce LP 1078, 1980)Saturday Night Swing (Hollywood 12/1953 - 01/1954) (Giants of Jazz Productions GOJ LP-1016, 1979)One Night Stand With Harry James at The Blue Note (Aragon Ballroom, Chicago, 1953 and The Blue Note, Chicago, 1958) (Joyce LP 1124, 1983)Live! (Hollywood Palladium 1953 and Freedomland, New York, 1962. Harry James, Willie Smith, Buddy Rich) (Sunbeam SB 230, 1979)1954 Broadcasts (Sunbeam SB 217, 1976)Trumpet After Midnight (Columbia CL 553 and B-410, 1954)Dancing In Person With Harry James At The Hollywood Palladium (Columbia CL 562 and B-428, 1954)Pop Hits By Harry James Vol. 1 (Columbia B-1864, 1954)Juke Box Jamboree (Columbia CL 615, 1954 )Harry James and His New Jazz Band, Vol. 1 / Vol. 2 (1956 live radio transcripts and at the Hollywood Palladium) (Mr. Music MMCD 7010/7012, 2002)Wild About Harry! (Capitol T 874 / ST 874, 1957)Double Dixie (MGM E-4137 / SE-4137, 1963).1964 Live! In The Holiday Ballroom Chicago (Jazz Hour Compact Classics JH-1001, 1989)One Night Stand With Harry James on Tour in '64 (Joyce LP 1074, 1979)New Versions of Down Beat Favorites (MGM SE-4265, 1965).In a Relaxed Mood (MGM SE-4274, 1965)Harry James Plays Green Onions & Other Great Hits (Dot DLP 3634 / DLP 25634, 1965)Duke Ellington, Harry James, Herb Pomeroy, Jon Hendricks (Live with Harry James at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1965) (Europa Jazz EJ 1022, 1981)The Ballads and the Beat! (Dot DLP 3669 / DLP 25669, 1966)Notes
With others1951 Lester Young Trio, Lester Young1952 The Drum Battle, Gene Krupa1954 Lionel Hampton Plays Love Songs, Lionel Hampton1953 Sweets at the Haig, Harry "Sweets" Edison1954 Little Jazz, Roy Eldridge (Clef, 1954)1955 Pres and Sweets, Lester Young and Harry Edison (Norgran, 1955)1955 Plays Count Basie, Oscar Peterson1956 The Genius of Bud Powell, Bud Powell1956 Ella and Louis, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong (Verve, 1956)1958 Having Wonderful Time, Tommy Dorsey1962 Burnin' Beat, Gene Krupa1966 The Sounds of '66, Sammy Davis Jr.1969 The Song Is You, Stan Getz1974 Bunny Berigan: Leader & Sideman, Bunny Berigan1974 The Pianist, Duke Ellington1982 Sinatra: World On a String, Frank Sinatra (Universal, 1982 )