b. Bernard Rich, 30 September 1917, Brooklyn, New York City, New York, USA, d. 2 April 1987, Los Angeles, California, USA. In showbusiness from the age of two, Rich achieved considerable fame as a drummer and tap dancer, performing on Broadway when he was four years old as a member of his parents’ act. Two years later he was touring as a solo artist, playing the US vaudeville circuit and also visiting Australia. At the age of 11 he formed his own band and within a few more years was attracting attention sitting in with bands in New York clubs. In 1937 he was hired by Joe Marsala and soon thereafter began to rise in critical estimation and public popularity. In quick succession he played in several important bands of the swing era, including those of Bunny Berigan, Harry James, Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey. After military service he again played with Dorsey, then formed his own big band which survived for a few years in the late 40s. He next worked with Les Brown and also became a regular with Jazz At The Philharmonic. In the early 50s he led his own briefly re-formed big band and also became a member of the Big Four, led by Charlie Ventura. He also recorded extensively for Norman Granz, not only with the impresario’s JATP but also with Art Tatum, Lionel Hampton, Ray Brown, Oscar Peterson, Flip Phillips, Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge, Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Gene Krupa and many others.
Return stints with James and Dorsey followed, but by the late 50s, despite a heart attack, Rich was appearing as a singer and leading his own small bands. He continued to make records with, amongst others, Max Roach. In the early 60s, Rich was once more with James, but by 1966 had decided to try again with his own big band. He continued to lead a big band for the next dozen years, spent a while leading a small group, then re-formed a big band in the 80s, continuing to lead this band for the rest of his life. His later bands frequently featured young, recently graduated musicians, towards whom he displayed an attitude that resembled that of a feudal lord. Nevertheless, whether through awareness of these musicians’ interests or the demands of audiences, the repertoire of many of Rich’s 60s and 70s bands contained elements of rock without ever becoming a true fusion band. Rich’s playing was characterized by his phenomenal speed and astonishing technical dexterity. His precision and clarity were legendary even if, at times, the band’s charts were specifically designed to display his remarkable skills. During his band leading years, Rich continued to make records in many settings; in these he would usually revert to the drummer’s traditional role of supporting player. In such contexts Rich was a subtle accompanist, adept with brushes but always swinging and propulsive.
Early in his career Rich was notorious for his short temper, and during his stint with Dorsey frequently clashed with the band’s singer, Frank Sinatra, a similarly short-fused artist. A caustically witty man, later in his life Rich became popular on television chat shows, where his put-downs of ill-equipped pop singers often bordered upon the slanderous. In person he was particularly unpleasant to Dusty Springfield, although she returned the abuse. Rich came back frequently from illness and accident (once playing one-handed when his other arm was in a sling, without any noticeable diminution of his ability) but was finally diagnosed as having a brain tumour. Even during his final illness, his wit did not desert him. When a nurse preparing him for surgery asked if there was anything to which he was allergic, he told her, ‘Only country music.’