Rich was born in Brooklyn, New York, to vaudevillians Robert and Bess Rich. 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, billed as "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 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. He expressed great admiration for, and was influenced by, the playing of Chick Webb, Gene Krupa, Dave Tough, and Jo Jones, among others.
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 also 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. 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 fifties.
In addition to Tommy Dorsey (1939–1942, 1945, 1954–1955), Rich also played with Benny Carter (1942), Harry James (1953-1956–1962, 1964, 1965), Les Brown, Charlie Ventura, and Jazz at the Philharmonic, as well as leading his own band and performing with all-star groups. In the early fifties Rich played with Dorsey and also began to perform with trumpeter Harry James, an association which lasted until 1966. In 1966, Rich left James in order 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 40s peak. In this later period, Rich continued to play clubs but he had stated in multiple interviews that the great majority of his big band's 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 the late-career comeback 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.
Drumming technique and well known performances
Rich's technique has been one of the most standardized and coveted in drumming. His dexterity, musicality of playing style, speed and smooth execution are considered "holy grails" of drum technique and have been considered next to impossible to duplicate. While Rich typically held his sticks using traditional grip, he was also a skilled "match grip" player, and was one of few drummers to master the one-handed roll on both hands. Some of his more spectacular moves are crossover riffs, where he would criss-cross his arms from one drum to another, sometimes over the arm, and even under the arm at great speed.
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 starts 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 gets quieter and then 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.
Rich also demonstrated incredible skill at brush technique. On one album, 1955's The Lionel Hampton Art Tatum Buddy Rich Trio, Rich plays brushes almost exclusively throughout.
Another Rich technique that few drummers have been able to perfect is the stick-trick – a fast roll performed by slapping two drumsticks together in a circular motion.
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. "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 to 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