In 1968, the Buddy Rich Big Band released Mercy, Mercy, an album recorded live at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. It had some success and made the Billboard album chart, due in large part to the title tune, “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.” And there is more than one Boston story tied up in it.

The Buddy Rich Big Band, and Mercy, Mercy album cover

Mercy, Mercy by Buddy Rich, 1968 (Pacific Jazz ST-20133). Love the psychedelia.

Let’s start with the composer. Joe Zawinul wrote “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” in 1966. He’s the first local connection. A native of Austria, Zawinul arrived in Boston in 1959 on a Berklee scholarship, but his stay was very brief. He had been in town for all of two weeks when Maynard Ferguson heard, and hired, him. About two years later Joe joined Cannonball Adderley’s group, and it remained his musical home for the rest of the decade. Although Cannonball recorded dozens of Zawinul’s tunes over the years, they never had another one like “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.” It caught fire and climbed the charts, peaking in February 1967 at #2 on Billboard’s Soul chart and at #11 on that magazine’s Hot 100, the singles chart. Then “Mercy” won the Grammy award in 1967 for Best Instrumental Jazz Performance.

New versions of “Mercy” popped up everywhere in 1967; among the jazzers who recorded it were Count Basie, Willie Bobo, Art Farmer, Willie Mitchell, Howard Roberts, and Jimmy Smith. Gail Fisher wrote lyrics, and Marlena Shaw’s vocal version made it to #58 on the Hot Hundred. A Chicago rock band, the Buckinghams, singing different lyrics, made it all the way to #5.

Buddy Rich listened to all of this, and decided he wanted in. Rich, in 1967, was defying the conventional wisdom that declared the big bands were dead. His new band, playing jazz arrangements of current pop and rock tunes, was drawing crowds of young listeners. In early 1968, Rich called Berklee’s Phil Wilson and asked him to write an arrangement of “Mercy” for the band.

Getting to “Mercy,” But First, Basically Blues

Rich’s request didn’t come out of the blue. He had already recorded one Wilson composition, “Basically Blues.” That, Wilson told me, did come out of the blue.

In 1966, I got a phone call one morning as I was coming out of my arranging class. It was Richard Bock (producer at Pacific Jazz Records). I wondered, why is he calling me? Asks, “Are you Phil Wilson?” Yes I am. “Did you write a chart called “Basically Blues”? I said I had. He said, “Where do I send the check? Buddy Rich just recorded it.” I thought, are you kidding me? And sure enough, I got the check, and the record came out, and it sounded terrific. That was the first album Buddy made with the new band.

That album was titled, appropriately enough, Swingin’ New Band (Pacific Jazz 10113). Wilson went on to tell me about “Mercy.”

Buddy Rich wanted to do “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” that was his idea. He was coming to town, to Lennie’s, and I knew I better take advantage of that. I wrote three charts in one week, “Mercy,” “Chelsea Bridge,” and “Mr Lucky,” by Henry Mancini. But “Mercy” was the only one that mattered. I was there at Lennie’s when they first read it. The Sunday matinee set, standing room only. Buddy asks me, “You got “Mercy”? Yes. “Pass it out.” So they played it, and it got a standing ovation. Damn!

That chart got me a Grammy nomination and a whole lot of notoriety. It was also my first rock chart. I had never written a rock chart, and I had no confidence in myself whatsoever when it came to writing one. But I guess I did okay.

Phil Wilson playing trombone, 1978

Phil Wilson, late 1970s

That afternoon at Lennie’s came in May 1968. Eight weeks later, the band played “Mercy” at Caesar’s Palace. Pacific Jazz recorded the session, and released it on the album Mercy, Mercy (Pacific Jazz 20133) later that year. The Rich band also played “Mr Lucky” and “Chelsea Bridge” in Las Vegas, but they were not included on the 1968 album. However, they were added for the 1997 CD reissue. And “Chelsea Bridge” has a little story of its own. Alto saxophonist Jimmy Mosher was not on the Rich band at Caesar’s Palace, but he joined not long after. Wilson’s “Chelsea Bridge” became one of Mosher’s signature pieces, and it’s on the 1971 album, A Different Drummer (RCA LSP 4593).

Wilson maintains that “Mercy” was the last big band record to make Billboard’s Hot 100, but I haven’t been able to verify that. The album, however, did spend a short time on the album chart late that year.

Buddy’s Kind of Town

Buddy Rich has been gone for 37 years now, and it is worth remembering that he had a long history in Boston and environs, dating back to his first visits with Artie Shaw in 1938. He worked as a sideman and as a guest artist; he lead Josephine Baker’s show band at the Latin Quarter in 1951, and he lead his own small groups at the Hi-Hat and Storyville in the 1950s. But none of that matched the excitement of his big band of 1966-74.

Fred Taylor remembered it this way: “The Buddy Rich Orchestra might have been the most popular big band in the country in the early 1970s, and they played three time at Paul’s Mall then, and drew a crowd every time. Buddy not only appealed to the jazz listeners, but he was a hit with the rock audience, too. Buddy was such a showman, and he had big-band arrangements of rock tunes in his book, and the band just cooked.”

Mosher was not the only musician with Boston ties to work in the Rich band then. Many musicians boarded Buddy’s band bus in Boston, and many were from Berklee, recommended by Wilson. The list includes reed men Ernie Watts, Pat LaBarbera, Richie Cole, Joe Calo and Steve Marcus; trombonists Rick Stepton, Sam Burtis, Tony Lada, and Tony DiMaggio; trumpeters George Zonce, Joe Giorgiani, Wayne Naus, Jeff Stout, Lin Biviano, and Greg Hopkins; and bassist Paul Kondziela. I’m sure there were others.

We can’t leave the subject of Buddy Rich without a low bow to Lennie Sogoloff, proprietor of Lennie’s-on-the-Turnpike. Rich and Sogoloff were close friends, and Buddy played the club an astonishing 14 times between 1966 and its closing in 1972. He worked with Sogoloff more than with any other clubowner anywhere, and Lennie continued to book him into various North Shore venues until his death.

“One Thing It’s Not Is Yesterday”

In November 1967, when Rich was at Lennie’s for the third time, Art Medoff, writing in Boston After Dark, captured the essence of the Rich band during that “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” period:

Buddy Rich and his big band are swinging at Lennie’s-on-the-Turnpike nightly through Sunday…Get there early before they blow the walls down, because this is the hardest driving band in the world today. Despite the fact that Buddy uses a host of different arrangers, the band has an identifiable sound, propelled by the best big band drummer on earth.

This man’s incredible speed, control, drive and taste have never been more in evidence than with his own band…While he has been invaluable in every band with which he’s played, none have offered the excitement or the uncompromising musicality of this one.

Relics of the big band era shouldn’t expect nostalgia; there isn’t any. This band is not Glenn Millerish, Tommy Dorseyish, or Benny Goodmanish. Its music is as intricate as today’s concert jazz and sometimes as fundamental as blues-soul-rock. One thing it’s not is yesterday.

And so, thanks to Joe Zawinul and Lennie Sogoloff and Buddy Rich and Phil Wilson for some wonderful moments with “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.”