Bernard Purdie: The Session Legend

Bernard Purdie

DRUM!: How did you first start working with Aretha Franklin?
Purdie: 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?
Purdie: 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 takes.

DRUM!: What was it like working with James Brown?
Purdie: 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.
Purdie: 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 work?
Purdie: 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 upset.”

DRUM!: I heard about the incident where a man was upset when he heard it wasn’t Ringo drumming on some of the Beatles tunes?
Purdie: 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 tracks?
Purdie: 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.

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