Documentary in the works on legendary Jewish drummer Buddy Rich

To the late Buddy Rich, playing drums in jazz bands was everything — so much so that when he was in his last days, he asked his only daughter to keep his legacy alive.

So after the legendary drummer died in 1987, singer Cathy Rich worked tirelessly to preserve her dad’s memory, organizing memorial concerts and touring with his band. Now she is embarking on a new project: a documentary film about the great drummer’s life. The title? “Welcome to Nutville.”

Since the documentary requires a lot of work— researching the drummer’s  multilayered life, editing hours of footage of his pyrotechnics on the drum kit, and interviewing surviving friends and relatives — she partnered with filmmaker Brian Morgan and opened a Kickstarter account to raise money for the project.

Buddy RIch photo/william p. gottlieb collection

Many experts say the drummer — born in Brooklyn, N.Y. to Jewish vaudevillians Robert and Bess Rich — was the greatest ever. However, there has never been a full-length documentary on his life and continued influence. The filmmakers hope to change that.

A Chicago-area native, Morgan has worked for CBS as a cameraman handling music segments and concerts, and been the director of photography for feature documentaries. After an introduction through mutual friends, Cathy asked him to take pictures of the Buddy Rich Big Band. Once she saw his style, she decided he was the man to do the film.

“When I came across a bunch of drummers on YouTube I saw Buddy on video and thought, wow, this man was incredible,” Morgan said.

The online videos show Buddy driving many of the bands he played with over a career that spanned nearly his entire life of 70 years. According to the book “Traps the Drum Wonder: The Life of Buddy Rich,” written by singer Mel Torme, his life was full of adventures in the music business as well as in his personal relationships.

“No one who ever played the drums, with the possible exception of Gene Krupa, achieved the popularity, respect and adulation that Rich enjoyed,” Torme wrote. “Rightfully so. Like a few other ‘originals,’ he stood out in bas relief as a genius-grade musician.”

Torme noted that young Buddy began to play a drum in perfect rhythm when his parents took him on the vaudeville circuit — at the tender age of 18 months.

During his long career, Buddy played with Frank Sinatra, Tommy Dorsey, Ella Fitzgerald and Harry James as well as leading his own bands and playing with Jazz at the Philharmonic. He was known for his technique, power and speed. Although on the road constantly, he took time out to return home to attend Cathy’s recitals.

Filmmakers Brian Morgan and Cathy Rich photo/courtesy of brian morgan

“He did everything for me,” she said.

He also was proud of his Jewish heritage, she added. “He kept the High Holy Days and would fast [on Yom Kippur].” When he went to Germany to play and was checking into a hotel, if the man behind the counter looked to be old enough to have served in World War II,  Buddy would make sure the clerk saw the Star of David he wore around his neck.

Part of his heritage was giving back, she noted. “He did charity work for the underprivileged and he played at prisons. He did not invite the press. He was a true humanitarian.”

Before her father died, “he asked me to keep the band and the music going,” she said. “He knew that jazz was America’s only original art form and he wanted to keep it going. It took a while for me to figure out how to do this. We did scholarship concerts and memorial concerts. Every major drummer in the world came out to play in the band to pay tribute to Buddy.”

The Berklee College of Music in Boston has a running Buddy Rich Scholarship: The Jazz Masters Scholarship Funds were established in conjunction with his appearance at the Berklee Performance Center. Varying amounts are awarded annually to outstanding upper-semester students.  

Preserving her father’s legacy propelled Cathy into organizing the Rich Memorial Concerts, which played across the country and included many top-tier drummers inspired by Buddy.  Cathy, who now fronts her father’s band, is still known for her rendition of the Sonny and Cher song “The Beat Goes On” in a 1967 recording made by her father on his Big Swing album. She was 12 at the time.

When the documentary is completed, it will be taken to the Chicago Midwest Independent Film Festival, said Morgan, who also hopes to take it to the film festival in Palm Springs, where Buddy and his wife lived (she still resides there).

“Some people are born to do what they do, like Picasso and Mozart,” Cathy said. “Buddy influenced generations of drummers, but it didn’t stop there. He has inspired so many people, and that is what will be in this film,” she said. “His influence was overwhelming.”