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Buddy Rich, Frenetic Jazz Drummer, Dies

April 03, 1987|CATHLEEN DECKER | Times Staff Writer

When he came out of the hospital, he decided to find fame the second time around as a singer. But that venture, as did other intermittent career shifts, ended when he answered the compelling lure of the drums.

Won Critical Acclaim

In the 1960s, that lure led Rich to the Newport Jazz Festival, where, his hands not having slowed with age, he won critical acclaim. He was proclaimed as having "the fastest hands in the world," but could not come up with an explanation for his swiftness.

"Maybe it's greased elbows, and maybe it's because the man upstairs talked to my hands and said, "Be fast," he told an interviewer.

Comfortably supplying the beat for the Harry James band in those years--he was the highest paid sideman in the country at $1,500 a week--he nevertheless took to the road again with his own swing style band in the face of the public's disinterest. He updated swing, turning his band of musicians into an unparalleled whole and emerging, the critics said, better than ever.

"It bugs me when I hear people playing the Glenn Miller sound," he complained in the late 1960s, with characteristic bluntness. "They should play what's happening today. Who needs to go backward? After all, today will be 'the old days' someday."

Tax Evasion Trouble

While the 1960s were filled with critical success, they also contained personal troubles. In March, 1968, Rich pleaded no contest to federal income tax evasion and was ordered to pay the government more than $50,000.

Five months later, Rich declared bankruptcy, listing assets of $11,100 and debts of more than $328,000, including back taxes. And in 1970, federal authorities auctioned off his Las Vegas home, using a tax lien of $141,000.

If his finances were troubled, his talent wasn't. Rich continued on the road, playing to new generations of listeners. He worked the college towns and the older halls, cut jazz-oriented albums and popped up occasionally on television, still confident and exhaustingly spry-handed.

He slowed down, if only temporarily, in January of 1983, when he underwent emergency open heart surgery at the University of Michigan Hospital, where he had been taken after suffering severe chest pains. Doctors found then that two of the three blood vessels leading into his heart were virtually blocked.

But by September, he was back in stride, appearing at the Monterey Jazz Festival. From then until early 1986, he continued to tour, sometimes opening for longtime friend Sinatra.

Keeps Youthful Bombast

He operated, the critics said, with the same youthful bombast. Even into his 60s, he was the seemingly indestructible old-style drummer, openly disdaining the newfangled electronic gadgets that his musical descendants cherished.

"It doesn't say much for someone's talent, does it?" he said, scoffing at the rhythm machines and electronic drums proliferating recently. "Sure you can make effects that sound like the fourth world war. But I'm not interested in effects. I'm interested in music. All the guys I've known have only needed a pair of drumsticks and a couple sets of drums. . . .

"I like playing good--no matter who it is, where it is, or why it is."

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