The revered Los Angeles drummer went to unusual lengths to express to Rich what his drumming meant to him. Here Keltner recounts that tale and puts the great one's uniqueness in historical perspective.
I am convinced that Buddy was not normal. He was a savant. There's no other logical, rational way to understand it. I've heard tapes of Buddy at five years old, and he's already playing with that incredibly sophisticated sense of syncopation that a lot of grown men today would love to have. Freddie Gruber, who was Buddy's best friend, played me those tapes. On the first one, Buddy's playing on the floor, on a cabinet, on a chair.... By the time he finally gets to his snare drum solo, your jaw has already dropped. I was crying.
Later, after Freddie's death, his lawyer found another tape, and on that one Buddy's playing everything including a small teacup, which he treats like a cowbell. Very sophisticated rhythmically for anyone, let alone a five-year-old. Then he starts scatting, and you wonder, How can a little kid be doing this? He goes on to play "Stars and Stripes Forever" on a snare drum, accompanied by a pit band. It's remarkable.
Buddy will always be relevant for all generations, because everything about him was completely above everyone else. He was the highest-paid sideman of the 1940s, and he was definitely the champion when it came to technique-Buddy was a technical freak of nature. Papa Jo Jones, Gene Krupa, Dave Tough, and Big Sid Catlett are other beautiful drummers of the swing era, but none of those guys had the hands that Buddy had. Philly Joe Jones famously said, "I don't want to play what Buddy plays, but I want that machine." He told that to Freddie Gruber, who told it to me. That says it all right there.
Once, back in the '70s, I went to see Buddy with a friend, percussionist Emil Richards, at a supper club in Glendale. Buddy played with his band, and it was astonishingly good, as it always was. After the show Emil said, "Let's go back and see Buddy." We go backstage, and there he is, sitting on a barstool, smoking a cigarette with his pants off, and he's got a towel over his legs. I guess that's how Buddy was most comfortable after a show. He was soaked. The man truly gave a hundred percent every night. He never coasted, ever. I never saw Buddy nor deliver one hundred percent-and I saw him play all the time. I went to Disneyland often, just to see him. It was truly something to behold. And remember, Buddy didn't have a double pedal; he did it all with one bass drum pedal and his hands. Incredible.
Anyway, there's Buddy in the middle of all these L.A. session guys, sitting above them on this high barstool. They're all looking up at him, like they're worshipping him. Everybody was kind of quiet. I looked at Buddy for a second and had this urge to go over and speak to him. I said, "Buddy, I've seen you many times, and that was the most amazing show I've ever seen. I've never seen you play like that before. It was unbelievable." He's smiling. And then I say, "Can I give you a kiss?" Emil said everybody in the room looked at each other, like, "Oh my God, Buddy is going to deck this guy!" But Buddy said, "Sure." So I kissed him on the cheek and said, "Man, there is nobody like you in the whole world."
Now, Buddy was very aware of the younger drummers at the time. He always said that Steve Gadd was his favorite. Buddy knew who everybody was. And I think that when he saw that I was sincerely blown away, he took that to heart. So when I kissed him, he didn't flinch. And everybody in the room was relieved that Buddy didn't kill me.