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Bernard Purdie: The Session Legend

Bernard Purdie

Only a handful of people could get away with saying, “I am history,” with a straight face. Bernard Purdie is one of the few who can, and, in fact, has. Granted, his reputation for outspoken self-promotion goes far back through the annals of recording studio lore, but his claim is grounded in hard facts, not offhand boasts.

For example, how many other drummers, besides Ringo, can claim to have recorded with the Beatles without suffering immediate legal recourse? And even if his only credit were the deep funk drumming he unleashed on classic James Brown and Aretha Franklin–that would be enough to place him in the history books. But those examples just scratch the surface of one of the most illustrations, and diverse studio drumming careers that has encompassed between 20,000 and 30,000 sessions, recorded 4,000 albums, and spanned the last 30 years.

Funny thing, though. Despite the thousands of hit records on which he’s performed, Purdie has never seemed to get his die recognition. To a large extent, he has made a career of fading into the background; ghost drumming, without credit, on albums that turned into multi-million dollar paydays for countless bands and artists. Many of them have come and gone, long past their platinum-glinted hey days. But Purdie is still here. Still drumming. Making hit records. Just about the most savvy studio cat around.

Even though the artists to whom he’s contributed his talents without credit could equal the population of a small town, almost as many have been proud to list Pretty Purdie on their album jackets–Ray Charles, King Curtis, Hall & Oates, Peter Frampton, Steely Dan, and Cat Stevens, to Quincy Jones, Dizzy Gillespie, Gato Barbieri, Mongo Santamaria, Bob Marley and Jimmy McGriff.

We spoke with Purdie just after he wrapped up his latest project–a soundtrack for Fox Pictures called White Men Can’t Jump–with an all-star band including Billy Preston, Alex Acuna, Albert King, Chuck Rainey, Aretha Franklin, Leo Nocentelli, and Eric Gale, under the musical direction of Benny Wallace.

DRUM!: What was your first big break?
Purdie: Mickey & Sylvia. I made the redo of “Love Is Strange” in 1959. This is when I first really came to New York. I got the job the first week I came.

DRUM!: How old were you?
Purdie: Nineteen or twenty. When we came to New York, we went straight to the Bronx and stopped the Comet Club, a really nice club. The Blue Morocco was about ten blocks away, which was owned by Sylvia Robinson of Mickey & Sylvia. We invited them over to hear us, and they asked me to come to the studio that Sunday. I had the time of my life. I thought I’d struck it rich and hit the big time because they paid me $80 for the four hours work. This was a big thing to me, super big, because making ten dollars a night was top money, and $75 dollars a week was a lot. I went back to The Comet that night, and played for days! We made ten, twelve dollars!

DRUM!: Did you decide to become a studio drummer since the money was better?
Purdie: Oh no! The playing in the clubs is where you kept up with what was going on. See, I always wanted to play, so I never had a problem going from the club to the studio, or from the studio back to the club. I never thought about money, and I think this is why I was successful. I started doing more demos because in two days time, my money was gone. So I got a job, I worked in a laundry for six months, anything, as long as I could stay in New York. I got another chance working with a young man named Les Cooper, and ended up doing a song called the “Wiggle Wobble.” That became a hit. Then I was back in the studio doing some more demos, and a demo by Doris Troy, “Just One Look.” Finally, it started to happen with other demos like “High Heeled Sneakers,” and “Mercy, Mercy” by Don Covay. All these different records were demos I’d been doing. When they’d go to be made into masters, they couldn’t duplicate it, so they started using my demos as masters. Then finally, people started asking for the guy who was doing the demos. A friend made a suggestion. He said, “Make up a sign for people to know who you are.” I kept thinking about it, and one day, right across from where I lived, there was a sign man. I walked in and asked the man, “How much to make a sign?” He said, “What do you want?” I told him about the music business and what I said. So he says, “Come back in a couple of hours.” I came back and he’d made two signs: “Pretty Purdie The Hitmaker. Call Me.” The other sign said, “If You Need Me, Call Me. Little Old Hitmaker. Pretty Purdie.” I made up a third sign: “If you need me, call me. The Hitmaker. Pretty Purdie.” I ended up with three signs, so what I’d do is alternate the signs. Once I put up my signs, then I was ready to play. The people were looking and laughing. I said, “I’m serious! I’m ready now!” And we made hit record, after hit record, after hit record. One day I left the signs in my car, and the producer made me go back and get them. And we made another hit record that day. Mid-’70s is when I stopped using the signs. I didn’t feel like I had to put them up anymore.

DRUM!: You did quite a few Motown sessions. Who did you work with?
Purdie: There were so many different ones, I did about 500 tracks. One of them was–a wonderful one–“Can I Get A Witness” by Marvin Gaye. We were doing tracks in New York, and those were being taken to Motown, to Detroit. Basically, what they were doing was overdubbing on the tracks we already did in New York. That’s how they got away with paying only demo money. The “Detroit Sound” was half New York.

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