Bernard Purdie: The Session Legend
DRUM!: How did you first start working with Aretha
We got hooked up because of Atlantic
Records, I was doing a lot of work with King Curtis, and was one of the
key people that did a lot for Atlantic. The beauty of Aretha’s
sessions was she knew what she wanted. She played it, and she played it
well, on piano. Her whole arrangements would be in her fingers. One of
the things I was good at was picking out things that were there, and I
used to give information to all the guys. See, at that time, I had a
really big mouth, and I used to holler out parts to different people. I
realized much later that I shouldn’t have done it, and I’m
surprised somebody didn’t beat me into bad health. I wasn’t
trying to run any sessions, it’s just that I had so much to offer.
When the break time came, I was inside listening to the tracks,
listening to the music, and making suggestion. Most of the
people–the producers and the artists–they loved it. But the
musicians hated it. I wasn’t trying to make anybody look bad, it
was a mistake that needed to be fixed. But I was young, dumb, and full
of it. I wanted make it right, and I never liked wasting time. It was
hard on me because I was always trying to create.
DRUM!: What were your most difficult sessions?
Some of the most difficult were Simon &
Garfunkel. They were perfectionists, they wanted certain sounds, so we
had to do it over and over and over. And that used to be so frustrating
to me because I already had it in the first, second, or third take. Same
thing with Steely Dan. Forty and fifty takes later, they were still
trying to do it. But they went back to the first, second, and third
DRUM!: What was it like working with James Brown?
Mr. Sammy Lowe did the arrangements, so we
always had that to go by. And James would come in and he’d start
signing and humming something, half the time he didn’t have the
song, but he knew the rhythms he wanted. So he was great for giving out
the rhythms, especially to the guitar player. The guitar player had to
do it the same way consistently throughout. And he’d give another
part to somebody else, and another part to someone else. You did not
alter your parts. It was nice because bass and drums always locked in.
So I had freedom because the bass had to play the same thing. Al Lucas
was doing upright bass, not Fender. We were smoking. I could go out and
go away from what everybody else was doing; I could experiment and do
solos every once in a while.
DRUM!: Sounds like he was an intense conductor.
If you think he was bad, you had to have seen
Otis Redding. Otis Redding was stricter than James. You didn’t
make any mistakes with him! Whole ’nother ball game out there. For
instance, the rehearsals. With James we had music we could go by, and it
would make it so much easier. But with Otis, there was no music given to
you, you had to learn your parts immediately. Not tomorrow, but
yesterday. You had to listen to the record and have it in very short
order, or not have a job. He was really, really rough. And on the stage,
was super disciplinary when it came to dynamics. You better not miss
the cues. Ever. And the drummers caught hell because Otis’ feet
moved so fast and you had to be with him. You could only watch him, not
the audience. And most people would never know those arrangements he was
doing were rehearsed.
DRUM!: Did you receive credit for all of your session
No. They weren’t giving credit
during the ’60s and the early part of the ’70s to musicians.
What happened was–in the beginning–the people in the
business said, “What happens when people find out it’s not the group that’s actually playing the record? People might get
DRUM!: I heard about the incident where a man was upset
when he heard it wasn’t Ringo drumming on some of the Beatles
Upset was not the word! My life was
threatened by quite a few people. This man threatened me over the
air–the radio station guy had me on a conference call, and the man
identified himself, and then turned around and threatened me. And the
disc jockey says, “Hold up, my man! We’re not about this.
What we’re trying to get down to is the truth.” It stopped me
from naming the songs all together. I got paid for doing a job, and
that’s what I’ve been doing. That happened to be one of the
groups I’ve done it for. The Animals, The Monkees, Tom Jones, you
name it. Practically every English act that came over here. That’s
what I did. I had to replace the drums. Sometimes bass and guitar were
replaced on records. But this was a way of life, this was a job. And
that’s how I looked at it. And then when the ’70s started to
come around, people started getting credits on albums. So I started
saying I want credits, too.
DRUM!: When will you reveal the titles of those Beatles
I’m in the process now of writing
the book. I’ve had to say no to four different companies because
they wanted basically nothing but the dirt. And that is not my cup of
tea. I’m not interested in trying to belittle anybody or put
myself out of this business. My autobiography is going to be right on
the money, it’s going to be up, and above board. It’s going
to be good reading, it’s going to be interesting, and it’s
also going to be about the truth. When I give my lectures and clinics
around the country, I gear the clinic to the situation. If it’s a
school, then it’s educational. If it’s history they want,
then we get into history because that’s what I am. I realize it
now, that yes, I made history. And I am the one who did it. I was there
on the sessions. I was there with and without them.