Whether one deems the title ‘the world’s greatest’ as futile or not, Buddy Rich is often universally cited as the world’s greatest drummer, and whichever way you look at it, playing drums with the Buddy Rich Band, for anyone other than Buddy himself–and who knows, maybe he felt the pressure too–is a high-pressure gig. However, Chicago native Gregg Potter has occupied that hot seat for some time. He makes no secret of his relationship with Buddy’s daughter Cathy Rich and makes no personal or drumming comparisons to the great Buddy Rich but simply enjoys the opportunity to play those legendary charts with a great band and honor the memory of a legendary drumming icon. In celebration of Buddy’s 100th birthday year, the band toured extensively and played a sold out, week-long residency at London’s Ronnie Scott’s Club, with Gregg at the helm.
Drumhead sat down in Ronnie Scott’s backstage dressing room, prior to one of the shows, with Gregg and Cathy [CR], who occasionally interjected, and cut straight to the chase, posing the question, “How does a guy from Chicago end up in possibly the hottest drum seat in the world?”
GP: I definitely didn’t set out to land this gig as I’m not a jazz prodigy with a jazz lineage; but I certainly set out to be a drummer. I had quite a career going prior to this, but I’m just a kid who grew up in Chicago with a dad who is in the automobile business. I did all the things that a drummer might do; drum lessons and playing in the high school jazz band, marching band and concert band, and I definitely took it seriously. I had an uncle and a cousin who both played drums, and when I was about four or five, I was picked up and put on a drum throne while some music was playing, and apparently I took to it.
I’ve had an interest in the drums for as long as I can remember but I didn’t start formal lessons until I was aged 12; prior to that, I was playing along to records. My older brother and my mom were both music fans, so I followed what was being played in the house and I listened to bands like Rare Earth and Three Dog Night, and Maynard Ferguson’s MF Horn, Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears soon followed. There was no such thing as the Internet…choices were few, especially as the younger brother!
My first kit was small with a 16” kick drum, 8” tom and a 10” floor tom. I moved up to a larger kit when I was about ten, but I didn’t get my first proper Ludwig drum set until I was about 12 or 13, which was around the time that I started lessons. By that time, I had also discovered Ian Paice from Deep Purple; then I received The Roar Of ‘74, my first Buddy Rich record. At that time, Buddy was often on television on the Johnny Carson Show and my parents would allow me to stay up late to watch. I first saw Buddy on television and then one day I came home from school and my dad told me that we were going to see Buddy Rich that night. That was a game-changing moment for me. There was a club in Chicago called Mr. Kelly’s, which was like the Ronnie Scott’s of Chicago. I remember it well as we didn’t leave home until after 10 o’ clock and normally I was in bed by that time!
Anyway, we went to this nightclub and my dad got me in but they said, “He’s got to stand at the back.” Even at the back, we were still only 30 feet away from Buddy, as his kit was at the front of the stage. At that young age, your head doesn’t grasp or understand things fully, but when Buddy played, my face was blown back. It was like that movie Scanners where your head explodes! At the end of the set, the band took a break and Buddy started walking towards the back…but he wasn’t coming to meet us; that’s where the rest room was. He walked to the back and went into the rest room and my father grabbed me and we followed him into the men’s room. Buddy was in there, doing what you do in the men’s room, and my dad tapped him on the shoulder before he’d finished and Buddy goes, “Can you give me a minute?” My dad’s not an idiot but I guess he got a little excited. Buddy finished and turned around, obviously and understandably a little agitated, and said, “Can I help you?” My dad started to say, “This is my son…” but before he could continue, Buddy put his hand on my head and said, “I know. He’s a drummer and he’s been playing since he was a little kid.” Then, he looked down at me as if to say, “Is there anything else?” I had a picture of Buddy in my pocket, so I took it out and asked him to sign it, which he did. That was my first meeting with him.
Coincidentally, that night was trombonist Alan Kaplin’s first gig with Buddy’s band. He was 19 years old and had flown from L.A. to Chicago to meet up with the band. Now, when we play in L.A., Alan Kaplin still plays lead trombone in the band!
I met Buddy again around 1982, before Cathy and I were together. In 1979, I won the Chicago ‘Heat of the Slingerland Louie Bellson National Drum Contest’, which was at the world-famous Frank’s drum shop. My career was going well and I was sponsored by the Slingerland Drum Company, which was also based in Chicago. Buddy was playing in Chicago and the guys at Slingerland knew I was a Buddy fan, even though I was playing in a rock group, so I asked them if they could please introduce me to him. I went along to the show and we were all stood around with Buddy nearby and I was excitedly saying, “Can I meet him? Can I meet him?” So, the people from Slingerland took me up to Buddy and proceeded to introduce me in a manner that I later discovered was the kiss of death to the great Buddy Rich, other than having your dad take you into the men’s room to meet him! They said to Buddy, “This is Gregg Potter; he’s the next…” Cathy later told me that Buddy hated it when people would come up to him and say: This is the next drumming sensation, or something similar. Not that I was, but they gave me that kind of introduction. I have a picture taken that evening and you will see in the picture that Buddy wasn’t even looking at me. He signed something for me, as I was only about 18 years old, and I shook his hand but you can see that he’s looking behind me.
At the time, he needed some white coated drum heads and he was desperately looking around to see if anyone had any. All he said to me was, “Nice hair, kid!” As Cathy later pointed out, I probably irritated him.
BK: He certainly had a reputation of being brusque, on occasion.
What did your early drum studies include? Did you learn to read?
GP: I played in the school band system in high school, so I was reading music and studying and played with the concert band and jazz band and even played shows in the pit. I can read well enough to get through a chart and follow the hits; but if you listen to Buddy’s recordings, Buddy hits where he wants and the trumpets follow him.
The guys in the band told me that and they also said that he would often play/mess with them, to make sure that they were counting; he would play fills on purpose to take them somewhere, to make sure that they were counting. He wanted them to follow him and follow the chart. It’s cool when you hear those guys telling you anecdotal tales of how Buddy might play a fill and hang over a measure and play into 3 instead of coming down on 2 or 4.
Another interesting thing is that you may hear a live recording where the tempo is really fast and people start discussing it on Buddy forums about why he played it so fast, but then you ask Cathy about it and she might say, “That was when my mom called and he wanted to leave,” or when Buddy and Cathy wanted to make sure they got the strawberry pie that they wanted. Sometimes, Buddy was just thinking, “I want to get out of here” and the band guys told me that on occasion they would load his drums onto the bus without cases because he just wanted to go.
BK: Prior to this, your career took more of a rock direction. Which rock groups did you play with?
GP: The first was a group called Siren, who were signed to Mercury/Polygram Records, the same record label as Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, The Scorpions, KISS and John Cougar Mellencamp. We made one album and had a semi-successful run with a couple of singles, movie soundtrack placements and appearances on MTV. Through that, I got to play with various people including Joe Walsh, Rick Nielsen from Cheap Trick and Steve Stevens [Billy Idol]. When I won my Emmy award, it was with Rick Nielsen and it was televised.
I also have many tales of groups that were being put together, but ultimately didn’t materialize or didn’t last, including working with the guys from Night Ranger.
LANDING THE GIG
BK: How did the gig with the Buddy Rich Band come about for you?
GP: Cathy and I were involved in a personal relationship.
CR: Were? Is there something I don’t know? [Laughs]
GP: Yes, it’s true…I do really know her! I read the Internet too and some others use somewhat rougher language than I’m using. Anyway, before Buddy passed, he spoke to his family and one of the things he said to Cathy was, “When I’m gone, I would like you to keep my band going, do something for the young people and give something back.” After Buddy passed, which was 30 years ago, Cathy began the Buddy Rich Memorial Concerts, and in doing so, pretty much invented the drum festival; now, they are more commonplace, but Cathy started that whole idea of ‘let’s bring a bunch of drummers out.’
Having all of these great drummers play with her father’s band gave it a more interesting twist but that wasn’t really exactly what Buddy meant. Buddy wanted the band to continue touring like he had done, so Cathy had to consider her next step; she could have hired a name drummer to play with the band but that costs a lot of money, plus it has the potential to just become a drum clinic. Buddy always played the songs, but some guys seem more interested in showing that they are the best drummers in the world playing Buddy Rich’s music, whereas Buddy was the best drummer in the world playing some amazing music. Having a name drummer would have been cool but Cathy still thought that wasn’t really what Buddy would have wanted. Also, some guys play nicely but their attitude is not where Buddy was at.
Remember, Buddy was her dad, so Cathy knows more than anybody what he would have liked and knows that he wouldn’t have liked that. He wasn’t a weird jazz hipster that only hung out in clubs–Buddy was on “The Muppet Show;” Buddy could have been a movie star if he wanted. He had a personality. Cathy was thinking, “What do I do? I’m doing these memorial concerts every couple of years but that’s still not getting the band out there.”
Also, whenever Cathy put on the memorial concerts, as much as people enjoyed seeing drummers such as Peter Erskine, Dave Weckl, Vinnie Colaiuta and Dennis Chambers–and they are certainly drummers who know how to sight read a chart–the drummer that most people wanted to see was Neil Peart. Whenever Cathy put on a show, it was always Neil Peart, or the rock guys in general, who pulled people in.
BK: But surely that’s more about Neil Peart’s popularity.
CR. Sure. I’m not necessarily saying that he could sit down and play the best, but the rock guys brought more people in.
GP: Steve Gadd wrote the book on how to lay down a shuffle, but when people saw Chad Smith bang through “Birdland,” the place went nuts. So, with that in mind, Cathy wondered whether she should take the band out with Peter Erskine or could she possibly get the rock excitement that had been generated at the shows?
One night we were watching a film and we thought, “Why don’t we go into the studio?” We discussed it and decided to go to the studio with me playing drums, even though there is a rock style about my playing. If you think about what Buddy did; even in the ‘70s, Buddy recorded Beatles tunes while the Beatles were still on the charts. If Buddy were alive today, he wouldn’t be reliving the Dorsey days, he would have remained current.
CR: He was always about looking ahead.
GP: In fact, before he passed away, Buddy was planning to record an album with Phil Collins.
CR: Nobody knows that. That’s an exclusive.
BK: How far had they got with that idea? Had it only been discussed?
CR: Yes. We had all met prior to the 1986 Grammy awards; they planned to have a segment on jazz and they had my dad, Phil and Tony Williams. When Phil walked into the rehearsals at SIR, he looked at Buddy and Tony Williams and said, “I have no business being here! I’m not at this level as a drummer,” and he didn’t do it. However, at that Grammy rehearsal, Phil and Buddy were talking and Buddy said to Phil, “Why don’t you produce an album for me?” and Phil replied, “Absolutely! Let’s do it.” They were talking throughout the year but at the end of 1986, Buddy got sick. It was going to happen and Phil was going to write material. That’s how cool Buddy was. Phil Collins was at the peak of his career and Buddy wanted to hang with him and said, “Write me a hit!”
BK: That would have been a very interesting collaboration. So, returning to your story, you went into the studio with you playing drums…
GP: Yes, we did and we recorded two tunes to see how the band would sound with me. Cathy had previously recorded the Burning For Buddy albums, and, again you have amazing tracks played by the likes of Omar Hakim, Peter Erskine and Ed Shaughnessy, but you’re not going to redo or better Buddy, and some of the most interesting tracks were things like “Beulah Witch” played by Matt Sorum.
Our concept was to record with me; a guy that’s got chops but a heavier approach; it’s a different approach to someone who might say, “I studied with Ed Soph and I can swing a ride cymbal,” and I don’t mean that negatively.
We recorded “Love For Sale” and “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” which was Buddy ‘rocking it up’. We recorded those two tunes at 2 o’ clock in the afternoon and posted something on Facebook saying, “Believe it or not, Gregg and I are in the studio recording with the Buddy Rich band!” Within four hours, an agent contacted Cathy asking if we were planning on touring. At that point, Cathy and I hadn’t even planned on lunch! However, Cathy is a professional and I needed a job, so we said, “Yes we are. We’re touring right now. What do you have in mind?” That’s how it started.
My first gig with the band was at the London Palladium in 2012. We went from that recording studio in July to me practicing the tunes on a practice pad kit in our office and Ludwig building a Buddy Rich kit and shipping it the London Palladium the following April, where I found myself onstage sound checking with Ian Paice on my left and Ginger Baker on my right!
BK: Ginger was smiling, of course?
CR: Yes, always.
GP: He was asking to be paid and when he could leave, and he said, “Don’t let the horns play when I play because they play out of time.” Here was a man that could barely walk in time but he virtually fired the horn section. Then, as I’m playing “Nutville” at sound check, Gavin Harrison and Dave Weckl walk in behind me. That’s a horror film for a drummer! We brought over five musicians with us and put the rest of the band together with British players. Consequently, we only had one rehearsal with the band.
BK: Having only had one rehearsal, was it scary?
GP: It was beyond scary. I had a therapist on call and they would sit and talk me through each number! [Laughs] As much as I joke around, however, I take this seriously and I know that other well-known drummers who played at some of the Buddy Rich Memorial concerts were also extremely nervous, so I’m not alone. The London Palladium is much bigger than a night club and when Buddy played there many years ago at a Royal Variety Performance, they made a commemorative brass plaque mounted on wood. Cathy had it, so they mounted it on the dressing room door. I was in Buddy’s dressing room, and playing on a stage that had been graced by everyone including The Beatles and I had to open the show; no pressure!
I opened with “Dancing Men” and “Mercy Mercy Mercy” and then went off while some of the other guys played. Then, I had the nerve to come back and play “Keep The Customer Satisfied,” which I believe you can see on YouTube–and I’ve read some of the comments–followed by a drum solo. Who has the nerve to do a drum solo at a Buddy Rich Memorial Concert on a song that you don’t even know the ending to?
GP: I did it! At the end we did a 3-way drum battle with John Blackwell on my left and Dave Weckl on my right; then, Ian Paice came out and played a bit on my kit while I was playing! Being a left-handed drummer, Ian couldn’t play on any of the kits set up and we couldn’t roll Ian’s kit out. I didn’t want to keep battling Weckl, so I said, “Gavin Harrison! Get out here!” but my drum set is set up for a 9-year-old girl! I’m not so tall and Gavin’s about six-foot-four inches, so he sits down behind my kit and his legs are actually higher than the hi-hat stand. For me, it wasn’t a baptism of fire, it was a baptism of molten lava! Fire would be kind of cool but this was like lava, where it’s all stuck on your skin.
KEEP THE COMMENTARY DIGNIFIED
BK: You mentioned the YouTube clip and the comments that people write. Many people know that you and Cathy are a couple. Have you had any kind of backlash with people saying: “You only got the gig because of your relationship”?
CR: Of course.
GP: Yes. Unfortunately, the world is tough; it’s been going on now for five years, and like I said, Cathy’s concept wasn’t to find the next Buddy Rich or someone who could play like her dad.
BK: Nobody can play like Buddy.
GP: Nobody can and nobody ever said that that’s what this is.
I got the gig and it’s not even like I got the gig…
CR: We invented the gig.
GP: Cathy initially did it with all the big drummers, but Cathy was tired of waiting for Sting’s schedule to open up so that someone could come and play with the band and then want more money than the band and turn it into a drum clinic, at which point, it’s no longer about her father; it’s more about, “Hey do you know I do this, and by the way, I’m so good, I’ve got Buddy Rich’s band!” Cathy said, “My Dad wouldn’t dig that.”
Unfortunately, some people who are probably still sitting in their parents’ basements and who don’t have platinum albums on the wall make these comments; but one thing that I’ve noticed is that people with platinum albums on their walls, drummers that I feel are successful in the music business, really don’t have a problem with me playing with the band. Ed Shaughnessy called us at home to talk to me.
So, if someone in Cleveland, Ohio is upset that Gregg Potter is playing with the Buddy Rich band and writes terrible comments… I know what that’s about.
But Ed Shaughnessy could take time out of whatever he was doing in his life to call and say, “I just want to tell you. Don’t listen to those comments.” I try not to get caught up in and start listening to those comments from people who you know are only speaking through their own bitterness. It’s like watching one of those “Britain’s Got Talent” shows and you see the people that are judging you and know that if they went on that show right now, then they wouldn’t win. I feel for everybody. Tomorrow, who knows what I could be doing? But I’m grateful for this whole scene.
People are free to write what they want. What should we do? Make sure that we always have a “famous” drummer? Will that be okay? Or will the Simon Phillips fans be upset that we are using someone else and not Simon? There has to be a cut-off. I love Ringo, but Dino Danelli of The Young Rascals was pretty good back then and I would love to have seen Dino in the Beatles, but it wasn’t to be; and I’m not Buddy.
CR: Basically, you can’t please everyone. That’s what it is.
BK: If Buddy were still around, he’d almost certainly say, “It’s my band! I’ll have who I want in it.”
CR: I can say that! [Laughs]
GP: The bottom line is that Cathy runs this band and Buddy was her dad.
BK: It was a baptism of fire at first, but looking back, has the experience been an opportunity for growth for you? What has your own personal growth musically been as a result of this experience?
GP: I don’t want to use the word ‘studied’, but I’ve talked with and am blessed to be in contact with the best drummers in the business. I’ve talked with all of them. There were two guys that really played in the band prior to me and I’m not thinking, “Well, I’m here now so you must look at me.” Also, any of the guys that played with Buddy will certainly let you know if something’s wrong. I’m always growing and my ears are wide open to things, and of course, I listen back to things. Early on, I was way heavy handed for example, and I understand that.
BK: Where do you think that your biggest growth area has been as a result of playing with the band?
GP: The finesse level. Buddy’s abilities to control what he wanted to do on the drums and his finesse in executing such things was just incredible. That’s what I’m striving for most. So, with me and this Buddy thing, it’s the finesse level of that man playing those drums and then his concept of time. Buddy’s definitely a 2 & 4 guy…Buddy doesn’t take it into the fusion realm, whereas when you listen to Vinnie play with the band or people that are fusion guys, they are amazing, but that really wasn’t Buddy. With me, I’m listening to all of it because I’m telling you, it’s like playing with four bands up there. When you play with a rock group, you have a bass player that knows four notes, a guitar player that plays a lot and a lead singer and you usually play to a tape and a click track, whereas up there you’ve got a sax section, ‘bones, trumpets and a rhythm section, so you’re wrangling a lot of people.
BK: Here at Ronnie Scott’s, you are splitting the gig with Dave Weckl. That would be a daunting prospect for many people. Has that side of things become easier through the experience of doing it? Are you more relaxed with it now than you were before?
GP: If you mean: “Do I like it any more than I used to?”, the answer is “No!” Before, I was too dumb. I was like, “Okay, let’s go do it!” Now it’s like, “Let’s go do it , but is someone filming this?” And again, I certainly try to play it off as real life. I’m not laughing. I’m keeping it tight.
CR: It’s our thing and Dave was kind enough to come and be a guest. That’s it. It makes the celebration greater.
GP: Right. He’s getting a little bit more time than I would have given him but next time it will be different. [Laughs]
BK: You and Dave play one set each. How did you decide who will play which tunes?
GP: Essentially, we just picked our favorites. There’s never any battle over who plays what. Dave likes certain tunes, such as “Love For Sale.” I usually play “Love For Sale,” but Dave digs it, so that’s fine by me. He digs “Time Check” and I dig “Nutville.” Each of us got out Roar Of ‘74 because he loves the that album too. He wanted “Rotten Kid” and I wanted “Hookin’ It” and we both play some vocal tunes such as “The Beat Goes On” and “That’s Enough” with Cathy singing.
BK: What’s the worst thing about sitting in Buddy’s seat?
GP: The shadow is so huge… I don’t mind it but I want to make sure that I’m respecting it enough. Just because I joke around, not even for a second do I think, “You know, I’ve got this.”
BK: What’s the best thing about sitting in Buddy’s seat?
GP: [Long pause] It’s a dream come true. I’m blessed and able to do something that I love for a living and playing with this band is a dream.
drum seat in the world?”