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Buddy Rich, Frenetic Jazz Drummer, Dies

April 03, 1987|CATHLEEN DECKER | Times Staff Writer

Drummer Buddy Rich, whose quicksilver, frenetic technique earned him the accolade "fastest hands in the world," died Thursday after suffering a seizure at a Bel-Air residence where he was recuperating from brain surgery. He was 69.

A UCLA Medical Center spokesman said paramedics brought Rich to the emergency room in the early afternoon. He died at 2:27 p.m. from "unexpected respiratory and cardiac failure," the spokesman said.

The seizure occurred shortly after Rich returned to the home from a morning radiation treatment, prescribed by doctors after his March 16 operation to remove a cancerous brain tumor. There was no immediate indication whether Rich's death was related to the tumor or to his decades-long history of heart trouble, hospital officials said.

The tumor was discovered in January, after Rich sought medical tests before embarking on a world tour, his New York-based agent, Jackie Green, said. The drummer was treated at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York, then entered UCLA for tests in early March.

The tests, and the subsequent surgery, did little to sap Rich's strong-minded spirits--at least publicly. When he left the hospital last week, he told jazz critic Leonard Feather that he was "happy to be out, and expecting to rest up for a couple of months."

Rich displayed smart-alecky bravery throughout his medical ordeal, Feather said. Just before he entered the operating room, a nurse asked him whether he was allergic to anything.

"Yes," he tossed back, "country-and-western music."

Rich is survived by his wife, Marie, and daughter Cathy. Funeral services are pending.

His death ended a 67-year show business career, as successful as he was confident. It spanned vaudeville, the Big Band era and--when America decided that was passe-- he brought his own brand of driving jazz to audiences throughout the world.

Volatile, Cocky

The music--like the man--was volatile, gregarious and cocky. Asked once whom he considered the best drummer in history, Rich hesitated not a second.

"I am," he told a writer. "Why go through the humble bit? Look at Ted Williams--straight ahead, no tipping of his cap when he belted one out of the ball park. He knew the name of the game: Do your job. That's all I do. I play my drums."

And he was seemingly born playing the drums--or, at the least, playing for an audience. His father was a soft-shoe dancer and his mother a singer, and 18 months after his Brooklyn birth in 1917, young Bernard Rich hit the boards.

Dressed in a sailor suit, sporting long curls, Rich made his debut in the family's Wilson and Rich vaudeville act by singing, dancing and drumming. By age 4, he was on Broadway, appearing in "Pinwheel." Two years later, he had replaced his parents as the act, taking it to Australia for more than a year--Buddy as the star and Wilson and Rich relegated to roles as his managers.

'The Drum Wonder'

Back then, he was billed as "Baby Traps, the Drum Wonder," and his specialty was playing "Stars and Stripes Forever" on his tiny drum. The baby quickly grew up. By the time Rich was 15, in 1932, he averaged $1,000 a week.

"Most of my education was with private tutors on the road," he said. "I guess I had about three years of formal education, between the ages of 13 and 16, when I went to a public school in Brooklyn.

"But even during that time I was doing club dates, emceeing shows, still singing and dancing and beginning to learn about jazz drumming. For a while, I was the second highest paid kid star, right next to Jackie Coogan."

After a few years of variety, nearly all of Rich's attention centered on Big Band drumming. In 1938, he signed with Joe Marsala. Later he moved to Bunny Berigan's band and, a short time later, he signed on with Artie Shaw.

A dominant musical presence, with his slight body hunched over his drums, he flailed mercilessly, catching up both audiences and his fellow musicians with his lightning gyrations.

Makes His First Film

Possessing seemingly endless energy, he broadened his show business experience, playing with Shaw at night while, during the day, filming his first motion picture, a 1939 MGM musical starring Lana Turner called "The Dancing Co-Ed."

The association with Shaw ended abruptly when, during a New York performance, the band leader in a fit of anger over the music business walked off the stage, deserting his musicians.

But Rich bounced back with Tommy Dorsey. From 1939 to 1955, Rich spent most of the time behind the drums in Dorsey's group, save for a two-year stint as a Marine Corps judo instructor in World War II and occasional forays on the road with his own band.

His first independent tour, in 1946, was bankrolled by another Dorsey alumnus, Frank Sinatra, who put up $50,000 to finance Rich's gamble. But by the time Rich ventured out on his own, the Big Bands were in decline. Rich toured with his own group a bit more, mixed in jobs with Harry James' band and, in 1959, suffered his first heart attack.

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