Catching Up With Bernard Purdie

By Phil Hood Published November 20, 2009

Age 70

Credits: James Brown, Aretha Franklin, King Curtis, Hank Crawford, Isasac Hayes, Miles Davis, Steely Dan, Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway, Galt MacDermot, B.B. King, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Guru, Beck, and Jeff Beck, Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, Alan Jackson, plus hundreds more.
Cymbals: Sabian
Microphones: Audix
On Gear: "Now, when I travel, I let the different places provide the equipment, that makes it so simple."

At seventy years of age, Bernard Purdie is in his drumming prime. He's been busy for more than a year with the revival of Hair, playing eight shows a week on Broadway. And, when he finds time to sneak away, he teaches at the New School in New York, plays clinics, tours, or hops into the studio, where he currently has three projects in the works.

Purdie burst on to the scene in the Sixties, playing on legendary recordings by James Brown, Aretha Franklin and literally hundreds and hundreds more. He was instrumental in the development of funk, soul jazz, smooth jazz and all forms of modern R&B. His sound is sampled on hip-hop records. His Purdie shuffle, a half-time groove made famous on the Steely Dan tune "Babylon Sisters." (You can't do it better than Purdie, but you can learn it for yourself here), is but one of the signature Purdie-isms that have helped hundreds of artists sell records.

A few years back I was at an industry party. A world-famous rock drummer was performing with his side gig, a jazz trio. After the first set other drummers came up to sit in. Late in the night while sharing a drink with legendary drumming teacher Freddy Gruber, I noticed that I was really listening to the band—they were swinging so hard I was compelled to turn around and look. Not surprisingly, Purdie was on the bandstand. Within a few bars his groove had elevated a piano trio from technically proficient to utterly fascinating, perking up every set of ears in a room full of drummers. I said, "Man, they sound incredible." And, Freddy, a harsh critic who was Buddy Rich's best friend in life, replied in his best Bronx accent, "You know," he said, leaning in conspiratorially, "Bernard is the real deal." Ain't that the truth.

We talked to the real deal by email this week.

How have you managed your busy schedule fitting in workshops and tours while you were also doing HAIR?

Busy it is... "Hair" is still an eight show a week commitment, New School is every Thursday. Thank goodness I have some great subs to fill in on "Hair", so I can get out of town for some R & R.

People are amazed that you can keep up the Broadway pace. Are there special things you do or have you just been blessed with a strong constitution?
I have blessed with a lot of energy, and then I get accupunture as often as I can. It really frees up the tension and invigorates me.

When Hair was brought back did you recreate the original or have you deviated from it?
Well, I did the first recording 2 years before "Hair" hit Broadway. I also did the soundtrack for the movie, the current Hair is basically the movie version.

Let's go back in time to when Hair was launched in 1967. Psychedelic music was happening. Motown was happening. New kinds of funk were starting. Soul jazz and fusion type sounds were on the horizon. Do you remember what you thought was going on back then?
I was happy to be in the midst of it and had plenty of opportunity to participate in all the "new" sounds and really enjoyed recording with many up and coming artist, who were looking to do something different.

Let's look at your legacy. You played an important role in soul jazz and fusion, that people don't often talk about. Everyone knows about James Brown and Aretha and King Curtis, but you played on some crucially important records. Like Soul Drums, with producer Richard Tee, or playing with Boogaloo Joe Jones, Gene Ammons, Hank Crawford, Rusty Bryant, David Newman? You were writing the funk playbook on those records.
Soul Drums was my first solo album, that album just got re-released a good 40 years later, what comes around goes around, same as Hair. Boogaloo Joe Jones became a preacher after making his record and no longer wanted to do secular music; he even refused the inome from the album. As for Hank, Rusty, Gene and David, they were my favorite sax players after King Curtis.

How quickly did you record those records?
Everyone of those records were done in one to two days. Now recording with Bob Marley.... that was a different matter, we worked hard, but we took our time, took our breaks.

Then you also played with Larry Coryell at a time when he and John McLaughlin were really shaping where fusion would go Did you change gear, or change your style for that music?
No, did not change my style or change my gear. I simply adapted to what was happening and what the different artists needed and wanted.

You have a new project you are working on.
Besides the R & B Ensemble at the New School, and Hair, I am currently finishing up three CDs, which will be released in the first part of 2010. One of those features my students from the New School..... they sound great.