BY MIKE TOMANO
Buddy Rich. When it comes to drums, his name is spoken with the same reverence as Babe Ruth to baseball and Muhammad Ali to boxing. Buddy’s feats behind the kit have yet to be equaled, and his dedication to Big Band and Jazz music lives on through the efforts of his daughter, Cathy. When Buddy passed away on April 2, 1987, he left behind a legacy of music that started in vaudeville before his second birthday and continued through the end of his life. His illustrious career included stints with Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey and numerous collaborations with jazz legends, many memorable appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and the various incarnations of his own big band, which continued to evolve through the 60s, 70s and 80s; a time when most jazz orchestras had long packed it in.
Buddy’s impact on the world of music has been commemorated in a number of memorial concerts and, in the 90s, daughter Cathy joined up with Rush drummer, Neil Peart, to produce two volumes of recordings called Burning For Buddy, A Tribute to the Music of Buddy Rich, an all-star event featuring high-profile drummers playing Buddy’s charts with members of his band.
Today, The Buddy Rich Big Band finds itself reaching new fans with local musician Gregg Potter in the drummer’s chair; or, in the case of Buddy Rich, the king’s throne. Potter’s flamboyant style and wild chops found him drumming for Steve Dahl & Teenage Radiation and the band, Siren, as well as gigs with Joe Walsh, Billy Idol’s guitarist Steve Stevens and Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen.
We caught up with Gregg to discuss his exciting and challenging new role, which is a dream come true for him. Like his idol whose band he now fronts, Gregg is a high-energy, opinionated and dedicated musician and a force to be reckoned with behind the kit.
MT: You’ve been a staple in the Chicago scene and the Rock & Roll world for years. Tell us about some of your greatest moments.
GP: Part of this choice to do what I do, or do what I have been doing, makes the chase for these “greatest moments” the unobtainable goal. How many times have I said, “once I do this, or get that, I will stop, I will be satisfied. Well, it has not happened yet. I have done most everything I have wanted to do, on some level or another. From playing a set of drums in my basement with a Buddy Rich poster behind me, to playing a Buddy Rich drum set on the London Palladium stage with the Buddy Rich Band. Like I said, isn’t that enough? No. The next year I went to Japan with the Buddy Rich Band and played a sold out week in Tokyo. That was all in just the last two years. Do we want to start from the beginning? My Steve Dahl and Teenage Radiation days were filled with great moments. The Breakfast Club Radio Shows, the sold out concerts. I have had too many wonderful things happen throughout my years of playing. Being on MTV back when MTV was cool, was a great moment. The two SIREN videos did well during the Music Television heyday. My feature film experiences were also a high point. Winning an Emmy Award in 2010 was impressive! It sounds cliché, but there really are too many things that have happened. Not to mention it starts to get pretty “deep” around here when I start talking about it! (laughs) And the things I have done with the Buddy Rich Band are all pretty much “dream come true” moments. Especially for a drummer!
MT: You were the drummer for Steve Dahl & Teenage Radiation. Steve and Garry changed the radio landscape in America. What was it like being part of that phenomenon?
GP: As with anything you really do; you don’t realize what you are doing is going to be what it is when you are doing it. We were really young…hence the name, Teenage Radiation. Steve was only 25 and the band were all really teenagers. I was right out of high school. So everything we did was something I had never seen or done before. Sold out concerts, recording in great studios and hearing it on the air the next day, television shows, movie soundtracks… I did everything in five years that a lot of people work whole careers for. I learned the business from the inside out.
MT: In addition to being a great player, you’ve also been a consummate showman. You were one of the pioneers in the stick-twirling and flashy style of playing drums that became so prevalent in the 80s. How did that come about?
GP: I really just played how I wanted. I am not really a follower. None of my influences at that time did what I was doing. MTV and The Internet were not available in my formative years. I played how I played way before things like Tommy Lee showed up. I was not influenced by what I saw in the 80’s, I felt I was doing it all ready. In the back of my mind, I wanted to be Buddy Rich, wink-wink. He never twirled sticks or hit cymbals behind his head (laughs.) I always liked the showmanship combined with technical ability. That’s where I feel I was different than a lot of the “Flash, showy” drummers. I kept my playing equaled with show and ability…or at least I tried to! That was my motivation in that scene (laughs.)
MT: You’ve seen the ups and downs in the music business. Talk about the changes in the industry that you’ve noticed over the last ten years.
GP: The money is gone. Lars Ulrich was right, the internet killed making a living at recording and playing your own original music; or at least in the model that I grew up with. I am sure people starting out now, 2014, will find ways to make this work, but, how I came up, the biggest change I see in the business is how to get paid for what you do. How do you make money on a recording that someone can get for free on The Internet? I guess you could make a crazy video, put it on you tube and hope it goes viral. Playing the drums remains pretty much the same. Good players work, bad ones don’t. There are ways to earn a living. Cover bands are always thriving. Teaching is another way to make money. Hope and change are not always good! Hard work and drive are!
MT: How did you end up becoming the drummer for the Buddy Rich Big Band?
GP: Cathy said I could (laughs.) Cathy has done Buddy Rich Memorial concerts for over 20 years. She has had every drummer from all styles and music genres playing her Dad’s music. Not her Dad’s style. She was never looking for the “next Buddy Rich.” There isn’t one. Sorry Steve Smith. She has found that in making Buddy’s music accessible to younger audiences, it always seems the rock drummers draw the most attention. Neil Peart, Chad Smith, Terry Bozzio. She recorded a whole album for Atlantic Records in 1994 called Burning For Buddy. It was produced by her and Neil Peart. It features many drummers. The tracks played by the rock drummers had a certain edge. So in 2011 we recorded with me playing. The recording went so well we had an agent booking the Buddy Rich Band before we finalized a line up. We recorded in July and played the London Palladium the next April.
MT: You’ve recently recorded with the Buddy Rich Big Band. Did you cover all Buddy charts or is there new material that will be included?
GP: We recorded a couple of things. We played a show in Hollywood and recorded a project for the Hal Leonard Company. The Hal Leonard Company produces “Play Along” packages. They do this with everyone from The Beatles to Aerosmith, Hendrix, The Who, Green Day, to now, Buddy Rich. The package includes eight classic Buddy tracks. All material previously recorded by Buddy. It’s a combination book with Buddy’s drum charts transposed, written out, and a CD containing the music tracks. One track will have me playing, the next track will have the same tune minus the drums. You can play along. If you want to follow along with the drum chart, you can. If not, you can just play along like you are in the Buddy Rich Band. You could do it in the privacy of your own home as opposed to doing it in front of many people in different countries who then are able to write brilliant comments on the internet about your performances! (laughs)
MT: When is the album going to be released?
GP: All of these recordings should be available by June 2014. There is also a new recording being released May 15, 2014. Called The Solos consisting of 9 unreleased solos of Buddy’s from 1976-1977. Those will be real Buddy recordings, not me!
MT: It’s important that Big Band music reaches the next generation. You and Cathy Rich have made that your mission, haven’t you?
GP: I don’t know that we are trying to save the whole Big Band genre with my drumming. (laughs) The mission was to keep Buddy and his music alive, and then hoping that with that interest will grow for Big Band music. We are pretty sure Big Band purist will not be interested in my approach to Big Band. But we do know Buddy fans have appreciated our efforts.
MT: What can you tell us about Buddy Rich that maybe people don’t know?
GP: It’s true he never practiced. Then again, he played 340 dates a year. So he worked instead of practicing. He was afraid of cats. He got manicures on his hands, but never pedicures because he was too ticklish. Also, scared to death of dentists and needles, needed to be knocked out to get a simple filling in his tooth. And, he never fired the guy he yelled at on the infamous “Bus Tapes.” The Australian trombone player stayed with Buddy ‘s band for the next year.
MT: What advice do you have for aspiring musicians?
GP: Follow your dreams, whatever they are. Practice your instrument and have fun. If you choose music as a career, save your money. The security level in the business is very low. Don’t do it only for the fame, fortune, cool car, and envy of all your neighbors. Stay true to the love of playing.