Bernard Purdie: The Session Legend
- By Diane Gershuny
- Originally Published In DRUM! Magazine's May/June 1992 Issue
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?
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?
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,
DRUM!: Did you decide to become a studio drummer since
the money was better?
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
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.