Bernard Purdie: The Session Legend

Bernard Purdie

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?
Purdie: 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?
Purdie: 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, twelve dollars!

DRUM!: Did you decide to become a studio drummer since the money was better?
Purdie: 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 work with?
Purdie: 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.

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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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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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DRUM!: Can you elaborate on the term “locomotion?”
Purdie: Locomotion is always moving forward. Never standing still. See, I’m not a drum machine–I breathe. Some notes are harder than others. I try my best for them not to put my snare and my bass drum through the [noise] gates, because every time you hit it, it’s only going to be one way. I like for it to breathe. I like colors. I paint a picture all the time. This is why it’s so hard to control. The engineers today put you on a gate because they’re used to having the same sound throughout. So I say, “Why do you call me? You could’ve used your machine.”

DRUM!: Has your playing changed over the years?
Purdie: Sure. I’ve had to play what the people wanted. I’ve tried to keep up with the beats and the rhythms. The one thing I haven’t changed is that I’m a timekeeper. No matter what I play, I groove. I like to keep the time and tempo constant, so I’m known as the groove maker. I’m known as the timekeeper. I am the Swiss watch.

DRUM!: Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
Purdie: I would’ve asked some of the people I helped make millionaires, for some points on production, for writing, anything I could. Mainly those two things, because I got paid good money. I got paid double scale, at least, for 25 years. But I never got credit on a lot of the material. All I tried to do was to make things work. I didn’t realize how much I was creating and putting into it, either as a writer or a co-producer. People didn’t remember things. If they don’t see your name on it, then you’re not responsible for it. That’s what I’ve been doing for over 40 years. SO now, I do prefer asking for points. I also do ask for either co-writer or publishing on some of the material I do.

DRUM!: What would you advise someone who is serious and starting out?
Purdie: Be as humble as possible. You can’t afford to be a smart ass because it will defeat you every time. It’s okay to tell people, “Yes. I’m goofy and I’d like to show you.” But to go bragging doesn’t really work because you end up alienating yourself. The industry is so different today. See, most people today don’t realize what paying dues it, and the young people today really don’t know. Anybody can be taken off the streets and become a superstar. It only takes money.