Drummer, Define Yourself
(Left) The entrance to Trident Studios on St. Anne's Court in the Soho district of London. Here David Bowie recorded The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust, The Beatles tracked songs for The White Album and Abbey Road, Devo recorded Duty Now For The Future, and I fell flat on my face.
I was searching for the obligatory cheese tray at one of those drum industry receptions that extends the glad-handing well into the evening following a hard day at the NAMM music trade show. As tradition dictates, a house band churned away on a temporary stage while a succession of drummers trotted up to show their stuff. I heard a voice behind me say, "Hey Purdie’s going to play," and turned to see drumming legend Bernard "Pretty" Purdie sit down behind the kit. We were in for a treat. After adjusting a couple cymbal stands, he counted off the tune, and proceeded to swing through a classic jazz number like a man possessed.
"Wow, I didn’t know he could play like that," said the same voice from behind me. "How could you not know?" I thought. Purdie has played every style – including straight-ahead jazz like this – for the past four decades. However, in my heart I knew I was being a music snob. This guy was only doing what most other people would do: remembering Purdie’s work with Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and Steely Dan. These are highlights in Purdie’s career that music journalists continue to cover to this day, while all but ignoring his brimming catalog of work with artists like Mongo Santamaria, Larry Coryell, Herbie Hancock, and Dizzy Gillespie. In short, that’s how Purdie has been defined – as a funky drummer, and not as a jazz cat.
Now quickly – let’s travel back in time to 1978. While visiting my father in London, England I dropped by Trident Studios to see Howard Thompson, an acquaintance I knew in high school who had worked his way up from being a studio go-fer to an engineer. Howard was the most successful music business contact that I knew at that time, and I admit having a hidden agenda: I was looking for a gig.
Howard ushered me up to a control room and offered me a cup of tea. We began to catch up on the past couple years since we had last seen each other, and he played a snippet of the Psychedelic Furs’ debut album, his first effort as a record producer. Finally, excruciatingly, I summoned the nerve to ask, "So Howard, do you know any bands that are auditioning drummers right now?"
"Hmm. What style do you play?" he asked.
"Oh, I can play anything," I replied, expansively.
"Well, honestly, I can’t think of anybody who is looking for a drummer who can play anything," he echoed, as my heart sunk. "I know John Lydon is putting together a band right now, but he’s looking for more of a rock drummer."
"But … but … I can play rock," I sputtered. "Actually, I’m much more of a rock drummer than a jazz drummer. I … I …" And in an instant, my credibility suddenly in tatters, I witnessed the quizzical look on his face, and changed the subject. On the Tube ride back to my dad’s flat, I tried to articulate the lesson I learned that day.
And here it is. Being a professional drummer isn’t just about having great chops. It’s also about selling yourself. And before you can begin to do that you need to define who you are as a drummer – even if you really can "play anything." Take it from Purdie. It hasn’t hurt his career one bit.