Bernard Purdie: The Session Legend

Bernard Purdie

DRUM!: How did those Beatles sessions come about?
Purdie: I’m going to bypass on most of that. I will tell you this much, there’s 21 tracks [that I played on]. And I have to kind of slide away from that until I’m ready to really do it. The other thing I can say is Ringo is not on anything.

DRUM!: Nothing?
Purdie: Nothing. I’m not the only one, but I think I’ll probably be the first one, basically, coming out with the autobiography.

DRUM!: I read you recorded two albums with Bob Marley in 1969?
Purdie: Off-hand, I can’t give you the titles, but the producer was Johnny Nash. It may be three, because we did so much work, but I know it was two. We did them in Jamaica.

DRUM!: Those sessions were quite a point of departure for you.
Purdie: No, I’ve recorded a lot of reggae. I’ve recorded a lot of jazz; I’ve recorded a lot of calypso; I’ve done Latin. I’ve been one of the most versatile drummers of the world as well as the most recorded. Whether it was rock and roll, rhythm & Blues, jazz, pop. I teach all the different rhythms and all the different facts of the music. So it was practice what I preach.

DRUM!: What would you say is the high point in your career?
Purdie: I still think the high point was being out with Aretha Franklin. Another super high was being out there with Jeff Beck. We [Aretha’s band] were on the road from ’70 through ’75. Then I went back in ’78 and ’79. But in between that, ’75 & ’76, I had Jeff Beck. That’s when I was a superstar. That was heaven. We had a good time, and I didn’t have to do anything but play. I made good money, lots of money! Travelling all over the world first class, hotels, limos. I didn’t get a super big head–I already had a big head!

DRUM!: What is the key to your longevity?
Purdie: I think the key is, I try to be pretty. I play pretty and I always try to stay with the groove. Now I joke a lot about this, that, and the other, but that’s how I feel beautiful. Feeling beautiful inside is what affects the music. I get into the music no matter who or what it is. I enjoy playing, so I learn what each artist I play with likes, and go from there. I play the part, then I turn around and play for me. And consequently, it works for the people because I’m into what I’m doing.

DRUM!: When someone hires Purdie for a session, you bring to it…
Purdie: …Joy. I bring to it experience. I bring to it happiness. I bring wanting to do the job. No matter what happens, nothing exists for me except that job at that time. I’m not going to be on the job talking about this, that, and the other. One hundred percent. The one time I wasn’t 100%, I was very upset with myself. It turned out to be one of the biggest hit records of the world. It was a little old record, “Hang On Sloopy.” I made the error of thinking I was messing up the song because the man asked me to go back and play like a beginner, and I was terribly upset. But that’s caused me a lot of pain because I really tried to mess it up and the thing came out perfect. Twenty-five years later, it’s still going.

DRUM!: Over the years, how have things changed in the studio?
Purdie: Most of it has changed for the worst. Most people don’t know how to be creative. Most people do not know about sensitivity. They’ve been using machines for so long, the machines dictate what they do. Then you have the set of folks who never use live or acoustic drums, and half of them haven’t used acoustic percussion. They’re so used to the computers. It’s bad news because it took a long time for a lot of the young producers to think in terms of possibly using acoustics, especially acoustic drums. And not that they’ve found that they can do both, it’s working out to my favor. I’m now replacing the machines. So there is now some life, there is a feel you can only capture when you’re human. The machine will do everything perfect, but it’s not going to give you that human feel. I don’t do the rap, I try to avoid it because I’m not into it. And they’ve been sampling my stuff for so long, I’d feel kind of funny going in and playing to myself.

DRUM!: Do you have as much freedom in the studio now?
Purdie: No, but I have learned discipline over the years. I get paid for following orders. They need me to do a certain thing, and once I’ve done that, I try not to go overboard. At one time, I used to try and force everything I did. But I don’t do that anymore. I give them what they ask for, then I go just a touch beyond it so I can have my signature on it. See, the hard part is I don’t have complete control over the drums because of so many tracks over the drums they use in the studio. I play a set of drums as one instrument. I decide what is going to be the dominate factor of this beat, and I’m going to incorporate everything else in the set so that it fits right in. That’s the hard part because they’re not going to mix what I mix. What I try to do naturally, they try to do with the machines. So, I do have some problems with the engineers. What I try to do is let an engineer know what I’m shooting for. I’m always trying to have the locomotion.

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