The late Johnny Carson has been in the news lately, because of something that happened during the last writers’ strike in 1988 and how it connects with the current one. It seems that some of the late night hosts are bringing back their shows without writers, and they’re reminding everyone that Johnny did something similar in his day.
Of course, the situation was a little different then. Unlike most of the current hosts, Johnny wasn’t a member of the guild so didn’t have to cross his own union’s picket lines. And although he was generally supportive of the strikers, his show’s other strengths – especially the music – might have made him less dependent on writing than current hosts.
Johnny loved good music and made sure the Tonight Show reflected that. The large band itself was considered a top gig that attracted some of the best sidemen around, and leader Doc Severinsen was a fine trumpet player. On top of that, there was a continuous parade of musical guest stars, many of them legends in the jazz world.
One of the best was drummer Buddy Rich, who is considered by many to have been one of the best drummers of all time, with speed, power and technique that dazzled. Although he died the year before the 1988 strike, his many appearances through the years helped set a high standard for the music on the show.
Part of a musical family, Buddy started performing in Vaudeville while very young, not only playing drums but also showing talent as a dancer and singer. But drumming was his passion, and as he grew into adulthood he began showing up in some of the biggest bands around, including those of Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey. His skill and intensity was obvious, and his popularity soon rivaled that of superstar drummer Gene Krupa. (The two also began a lifelong friendship that later included a number of dual albums.)
Even when the big band era began to fade, Buddy continued to work consistently. He performed in clubs and recorded with many jazz icons, including Charlie Parker, Art Tatum and Lester Young, and pushed himself to the limit and beyond. Even a heart attack in 1959 didn’t slow him down, although he briefly toyed with the idea of more singing and less drumming. However, he always came back to the drums.
In the late 1960’s Buddy formed a jazz band that was to remain a successful musical operation for the last two decades of his life. However, he wasn’t always the easiest boss to work for. Like many driven artists, he was irascible and difficult at times, and his rants at band members were legendary, but he seldom held a grudge and his goal was always musical perfection.
His appearances on the Tonight Show were always a hoot. He and Johnny were long-time friends and had fun spearing each other with wisecracks. But sooner or later he’d play his drums. Sometimes he’d have a drum battle with the band’s stickman, Ed Shaughnessy (who was also very good), but usually he’d just do his own thing.
Even in his 60’s and in declining health Buddy was still amazingly energetic, and a number of those appearances are available on video. I’ve included one below and I’d encourage everyone to spend some time viewing others — brief glimpses of a unique musical genius, and a TV show that always did music right.