Hey, Buddy! Merry Christmas!
Hey, Buddy! Merry Christmas!
By Mike Tomano
© 2023 Fossil Entertainment Group / Michael Tomano
I greet you on this Christmas Eve 2023 with best wishes for you and yours in the new year. I took this past Friday off from work to sleep-in after taking in The Buddy Rich Big Band Machine with Gregg Potter and Cathy Rich at the wonderful Arcada Theater in St. Charles.
Buddy Rich is generally regarded as the greatest drummer of all time by most people familiar with his uncanny technique, stellar musicianship, and larger-than-life personality. While “best ever” and “greatest of all-time” are subjective terms, one can safely say Buddy is at the top and did more to bring drumming to the forefront of music than any other drummer. His technique was otherworldly. His command of his instrument and ability to drive a big band, unsurpassed. Buddy was a force of nature, a consummate artist that was at one with his drumkit.
I discovered Buddy around the same time I fell in love with music and playing the drums. At the age of nine, I would try to imitate him on my small knock-off kit in the basement, with the result a blend of Bobby Brady’s exuberance and The Muppet Animal’s technique.
My parents knew that drumming was a burgeoning obsession and exposing me to Buddy Rich was akin to introducing an aspiring basketballer to Michael Jordan or a would-be boxer to Muhammad Ali. When a kid chases a dream, it’s important to fuel that pursuit with examples of excellence, the potential that can be aimed for, and the lofty results of dedication and discipline. I believe such to be essential to mentorship.
Recently one of my younger drum students, who also takes piano lessons, said he prefers drums and wondered what I thought about him learning both instruments. I explained that drums are rhythmic and, for all intents and purposes, atonal and that his knowledge of piano will help him be a better drummer and aid him if and when he pursues composition.
“But nobody plays both piano and drums!” he said.
Ah…what a great moment to show this young boy some Jack DeJohnette videos! I pulled up a video of the jazz-great playing a Satie-inspired piano piece he had composed.
My young student asked, “He also plays the drums?” I followed up with a DeJohnette drum solo, which we both watched in awe.
“Wow! He’s better than me!” my student exclaimed. “Well, he’s been playing a lot longer…a lot longer!” I replied. We shared a smile, and I knew a connection was made. I then went on to compliment the progress this new musician had made and how proud I was to be his teacher. Moments like that, man, are part of what makes teaching such a rewarding endeavor. Encouragement and exposure to greatness go far in developing any youngster.
As we grow, reality sets in. We might not change the world, but we can surely help the neighborhood. We might not be Buddy Rich, Michael Jordan, or Muhammad Ali, but we can shoot for excellence and dedicate ourselves to being the best we can be. The adage Anything worth doing, is worth doing well, is sage advice.
As a young drummer, I had many heroes. Peter Criss of Kiss was an early one and when I found I could copy his solo from Kiss Alive after a few weeks of slowing the record down and piecing it together, it provided great confidence in me. (Neil Peart’s solo from Rush’s All the World’s a Stage didn’t come so easily, nor did Bonzo’s “Moby Dick,” and as for Ian Paice’s monster solo on “The Mule” from Deep Purple’s Made in Japan…well, I’ll let you know.) I loved Keith Moon, Ginger Baker, Mitch Mitchell, Danny Seraphine and all the other greats from the Classic Rock giants of the 60s and 70s. Later I would discover Steve Gadd, Andy Newmark, Jim Keltner, Jeff Porcaro, and other studio drum wizards.
Starting out, inspiration came from these greats, and through the decades I’ve been influenced by dozens of others. My best buddy Marty’s older brother Rodney was my initial inspiration to play drums. His band would practice in my next-door neighbor Joe’s garage. (Yes, that Zappa song evokes those 1976 summer days every time!)
Rodney and his friends played Smoke on the Water repeatedly, all day long. They’d sketch out a few other rock hits like Purple Haze and Day Tripper before returning to Purple’s signature piece. Rodney banged away on his blue sparkle Ludwigs while cute girls from the neighborhood sat in the alley groovin’ along. Yep, I had to do this.
I was twelve years old when I first became aware of Gregg Potter. He was the drummer for radio star Steve Dahl’s band, Teenage Radiation. My sister took me to see them play at Pheasant Run before I was old enough to drive. Steve Dahl and his partner Garry Meier were my favorite radio personalities, and their free-wheeling style and outrageous comedy had a profound impact on my own radio career.
Though I attended the show for Dahl and Meier’s comedy bits and song parodies, my attention was drawn to Potter behind his bright yellow Slingerland kit. Gregg played like a beast, and added stick-twirling, cymbal-catching pyrotechnics to his performance. He was a spectacular drummer and showman. And wouldn’t you know it, by 2012, Gregg Potter took a seat on the king’s throne, when he teamed up with Cathy Rich to keep the legacy of Buddy alive and well.
The Arcada show, billed as Buddy Rich Big Band Machine’s “A Groovy Christmas” featured a stellar fifteen-piece band covering some of Buddy’s band’s most beloved charts, propelled by Potter with an exuberance, precision, and passion that would undoubtedly be granted Buddy’s hard-won approval.
Cathy and guest vocalist Mike Damhesel dueted on a few spiced-up Christmas tunes, filling the theater with seasonal spirit. Cathy’s soulful take on Sonny and Cher’s “The Beat Goes On,” was preceded by a black and white video of her as a teen singing the tune in front of her beaming dad. Cathy and the band’s fiery take on Buddy Miles’ “Them Changes” was a surprise stunner.
The band’s performance was interspersed with some great video, from Buddy as a child playing advanced snare and bass drum rhythms, to his legendary appearances on Carson and The Muppet Show, and various pop-culture references to his legendary status. Cathy shared stories about Buddy with great love and reverence. She and Gregg chatted in a laid-back, humorous fashion, and connected with the audience.
And, unsurprisingly, I watched Gregg, studied Gregg, and thrilled to Gregg, a cat who loves to play the drums and who does so with a conviction and prowess that few attain. Though I’ve known Gregg for almost thirty years, and we’ve shared many a deep conversation, seeing him play at The Arcada transported me back in time, recapturing the excitement of watching him slam those tubs and pies with Teenage Radiation at St. Rita High School gymnasium, Chicagofest, and countless other milestone events of my youth. Gregg has been a guest on my radio show and podcasts over the years. We love to recall the days when I’d call him to do an early morning drum solo over the phone during International Drum Month, much to the chagrin of my program director and his next-door neighbors. He and Cathy are wonderful on-air guests, funny and insightful. (Cathy tells of the time when she took her boyfriend Carl Palmer to see an outstanding keyboardist named Keith Emerson perform with her favorite band The Nice. We all know the result of that encounter!)
I was accompanied by my childhood drum teacher, Bob Berg, who taught me much more than drums. He taught me how to play music, listen to music, and respect music. We have been friends since he taught me at the age of fifteen. When we get together, we listen to music, talk about music, and go see live music.
After the show, we headed across the street for a quick bite. Bob played for decades in Chicago’s renowned Stanley Paul Orchestra, as well as drumming for legends like Lionel Hampton. His stories include nights with the likes of Tony Williams and Philly Joe Jones, teaching drums to Miles Davis’s nephew Vince Wilburn, Jr., and seeing bands like Led Zeppelin and The Who in small clubs. We discussed how fun the show was and got into Gregg’s incredible technique as a drummer. Bob, still the teacher, offered encouragement like I do to my students. “You should do more big band gigs.” Bob said.
Cathy’s decision to keep her father’s music alive in band form grew from the outstanding Buddy Rich Memorial Concert and subsequent tribute shows beginning in 1989, when masters like Louie Bellson, Steve Gadd, Vinnie Colauita, Neil Peart, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, Gregg Bissonette, and a host of other world-class drummers honored The Man.
With Gregg Potter she found someone to share her vision and bring the necessary bombast and panache to keep the flame alive. Noticing the many families with children in the audience, I’m confident those kids were inspired.
Yep, I believe Buddy would be proud, though he’d definitely have something to say about Gregg’s hair.