The time has come to praise Buddy Saltzman. Of all the great studio drummers who made their bones during the golden age of rock 'n' roll, this superb musician has too long received the short end of the stick.
Saltzman was one of the architects of the New York City big beat that propelled thousands of sessions in the '50s, '60s, and '70s. His jazz sensibilities, ironclad time, and impeccable feel can be heard in grooves that range from lilting and swinging to downright fierce. He's worked with Burt Bacharach, Neil Diamond, Tim Hardin, Dionne Warwick, Laura Wyro, Phil Spector, Leiber & Stoller, Goffin & King, and the Shangri-Las. And that's not even the short list!
Arguably, the bedrock of Buddy's legacy is his work with the Four Seasons. These drum tracks have a strong sense of purpose, usually sporting arresting intros and head-turning fills, and illustrate how a sticksman can use his imagination and have fun while driving the bus on a session.
You know the sound. Now meet the man. Hilliard "Buddy" Saltzman was born in Bridgeton, New Jersey, on October 17, 1924, and grew up in Woodbury, New Jersey, where he began his percussive pursuits playing triangle in the kindergarten band. When Buddy was around age nine, his family moved to the Bronx, and later Brooklyn, where he started playing drums in "kid bands." His father, a violinist, had connections at CBS, and by age ten Buddy was drumming on the Horn And Hardart Children's Hour radio show. He won third prize in a Gene Krupa contest at the 1938 World's Fair and went on to study with Henry Adler, Billy Gladstone, and Terry Snyder. "I just lived for drums and went to hear the great drummers of the day at Small's Paradise in Harlem," Saltzman says. I'd watch Chick Webb and guys like Davey Tough and try to copy what they did."
During World War II, a family friend who knew Glenn Miller arranged for the famous bandleader (then an Air Force major) to write a letter of endorsement for Saltzman, giving Buddy entry to the Army/Air Force band, where his reading skills enabled him to play USO shows. Upon his discharge, the drummer sat in with rehearsal bands, played club dates and theater gigs, and began doing recording sessions.
Like every young musician in the big-band era, Saltzman wanted to play jazz. But he heeded the words of Adler, who told him that if he stayed in New York and learned the business, he'd always work. "He was so right," Buddy says. "Because a lot of my friends got on the Down Beat list [the famous jazz magazine's annual poll], and they disappeared after ten years!"
In the '50s, Panama Francis was the guy in Gotham to call for rock 'n' roll grooves, and in time Saltzman joined the esteemed ranks. Then Gary Chester (whose style was similar to Buddy's) came on the scene. "Gary and I would give each other club dates, sessions," Saltzman says. "In fact, we played together on a lot of records. It was a lovely friendship."
By the early '60s, Buddy was doing demo's — including sides with Jerry Landis (aka Paul Simon), Bobby Darin, and Bob Dylan — record dates, jingles, and soundtracks, working three or four sessions a day, five to six days a week, with artists like Connie Francis, the Coasters, and the Shirelles.
And the Four Seasons. "Dawn (Go Away)," a number-three smash in early 1964, showcases the Saltzman sound. An around-the-kit roll arouses a brisk groove, with Buddy riding the snare and snapping the 2 and 4 with power and precision. Ghost notes and smack-dab accents lead to a climax of pulverizing triplets as the song fades. And no cymbals!
Saltzman's signature tracks teem with the pulse and grit of Manhattan and the drive of a man who could "lose it" at any minute. When asked what inspired his creative process, the drummer replies, "I think it was partly madness."
Fighting paralyzing traffic in daily commutes from Queens, wheeling his kit for city blocks, frantically hailing taxis that occasionally sped away with a trap case — and no Buddy — were par for Saltzman's course. Throw in truant cartage guys, stolen bass drums, sessions with mobsters' tone-deaf girlfriends, and producers who "wanted to take my guts," and you'll find a man on the edge. "Especially when someone was bugging you: 'Buddy, do it again — I want something different.' I'd play the radiator, an old electric fan, or the Manhattan phone book. One time, Tony Orlando says, 'Hey, Buddy, come on, come up with a different sound.' I was very tired and disgusted that day. So I dropped my pants and turned around to the mic and went, 'Is that okay, Tony? Record this!' Instead of throwing a plate at somebody, I took it out on the drums. You had to get it out of your system."
Saltzman employed three phone services, with his wife managing the bookings. "It was a madhouse," he recalls. "I used to walk down Seventh Avenue and go for maybe a cheese sandwich for lunch. A producer would say to me, 'Hey, Buddy, you're on a number-two record this week!' And I might not have known it, because we would cut tracks when the vocalist wasn't at the session."
Here are a few of the number-ones: "The Loco-Motion" by Little Eva, "I'm A Believer" by the Monkees, "Rag Doll" by the Four Seasons, "The Sounds Of Silence" by Simon & Garfunkel, "Sugar, Sugar" by the Archies, and "Lightnin' Strikes" by Lou Christie. Saltzman's voluminous discography also boasts records by the Cowsills, Neil Sedaka, Solomon Burke, Tommy James, Lesley Gore, Barbra Streisand, and Peter, Paul & Mary.
Looking back, the drummer finds, "It's all like a fog." Two records stand out for him, though: the swinging, big-band "He Loves Me" by Lena Horne, and "My Way" by Frank Sinatra. "He told the contractor to get him the drummer who played on the Four Seasons' version of 'I've Got You Under My Skin,'" Saltzman says.
"In terms of the arrangements," Buddy adds, "very little was written out for me. My chart usually read, 'You know what to do!' My forte was that I had a click track in my head, and that's the only reason I made a good living — not because I was a great drummer. There were many wonderful drummers around, but so few who knew what to do. They couldn't play what producers wanted or do the same thing two, three, four times, take after take. Or if they knew what to do they didn't want to do it. You gotta have the attitude.
"All I can say is, thank God I got lucky. I was around at the right time. And they needed somebody like me. I always tried to stay positive. But there were always guys who would try to tear you down. It was getting tougher. The demands were greater, and the styles changed."
In the early '70s Saltzman helped the producers of Grease tailor the teen sound they sought for the musical's Broadway debut. He relocated his family to Florida in 1978, where he returned to playing club dates.
These days Buddy enjoys retirement along with his wife of sixty-two years and spends time with his children and grandchildren, content with his accomplishments. "All I ever wanted to do is play drums and provide for my family," he says. Indeed, Saltzman fulfilled his goals in spades. And in the process he helped create some of the coolest and longest-lasting music of the twentieth century.