Bernard “Pretty” Purdie
What’s left to say about the R&B legend that hasn’t already been said? Some would declare that the outspoken drummer has pretty much covered it all himself, from his vast and unassailable list of performances on pop, soul, jazz, R&B, and rock singles and albums to his infamous claims of uncredited hit recordings. Now Pretty’s official life story has finally arrived, in the form of the book Let the Drums Speak! The title reflects a sentiment we can certainly get with—but of course we all want to hear from the man himself. Tape’s rolling…
Bernard “Pretty” Purdie has never been one to shy away from controversy, and he’s always spoken his mind. Even at a very young age, his know-it-all attitude would get him into trouble at school on a daily basis.
Born on June 11, 1942, in Elkton, Maryland, as the eleventh of fifteen children, Purdie got his first real drumset at fourteen and helped support his large family by taking any playing job that came along, regardless of what genre the music was. This helped him develop his own style and made him comfortable playing jazz, rock, pop, and the style he’s most known for, R&B.
When he began working as a session musician, Purdie was just as cocky as ever, but now he could back it up the minute he sat down to play. Bernard’s no tyrant—he’s got a big heart, and he’s very charming and fun to be around, despite the occasional verbal outburst—but some who worked with him in his early days still saw fit to label him an egomaniac who would walk into a session as if it revolved around him. The drummer did nothing to contradict those impressions—in fact, on the advice of a bass-playing friend, Jimmy Tyrell, Purdie, now adding “Pretty” to his given name, even went so far as to bring outrageous billboard-style signs into the studio that would boast “The Little Old Hit Maker” or “You’ve Hired the Hit Maker, Bernard ‘Pretty’ Purdie.” Sure, those slogans turned off some—but they also no doubt worked in Purdie’s favor when contractors and other musicians would say, “Let’s hire that drummer with the signs.”
And who could argue? By the mid to late ’60s Bernard had earned the right to feel his oats, recording hit after hit after hit—Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love Is Strange,” Doris Troy’s “Just One Look,” Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” Don Covay’s “Mercy, Mercy,” James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World,” the Chi-Lites’ “Have You Seen Her,” and Aretha Franklin’s “Rock Steady,” “Spanish Harlem,” and “Day Dreaming,” among so many more classics.
The hits kept on coming in the ’70s and ’80s, on R&B and rock recordings—that’s Purdie on Daryl Hall and John Oates’ “She’s Gone” and on the Steely Dan classics “Home at Last” and “Babylon Sisters,” for instance. Today, fifty years after he hit the scene, Purdie can point to performances and recordings with giants of multiple genres: King Curtis (who kick-started his career), Larry Coryell, Miles Davis, Tom Jones, Isaac Hayes, Donny Hathaway, B.B. King, Ray Charles, Joe Cocker, Herbie Mann, Todd Rundgren, Cat Stevens, and the Brecker Brothers, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Today Purdie remains active recording, playing live, and doing clinics. Most observers credit more than 3,000 recordings to him; equally telling is the enormous number of his grooves that have been sampled for hip-hop, rap, and acid-jazz records.
This writer, like so many drummers, has been a fan of Bernard’s body of work for decades. I even took a few lessons with him in the ’80s, when I was in my early twenties. I was well aware of his accomplishments, and as a huge Jeff Porcaro and John Bonham fan, I wanted to learn from the man whose approach to the half-time shuffle inspired both the Toto hit “Rosanna” and the Led Zeppelin classic “Fool in the Rain.” I’d already done a good amount of recording and touring by this time, but Purdie was quick to put me in my place, immediately focusing on improving my weaknesses, and always yelling at me to “Sit up straight!” He is still masterful at playing the half-time shuffle, and you’d have to look long and hard to find a drummer who doesn’t think he deserves to have his name attached to it.
In the March 2014 Modern Drummer cover story, readers chose Purdie among the 50 Greatest Drummers of All Time. A year earlier he’d received the magazine’s top honor by being voted into our Hall of Fame in the annual Readers Poll. We start our conversation by asking him how he’d reacted to that news.
Bernard: I felt wonderful and overjoyed that it finally happened. I’m looking forward to more awards! [laughs] Thank you to everyone who voted for me.
MD: You’re still an active teacher. What are your methods?
Bernard: My thoughts go back to my teacher Leonard Heywood, and the advice he always gave me: Stay focused, and always know where the 1 is. I always believed that you could teach anybody—you can even teach an old dog new tricks—as long as they have an open mind. You’re never too old to learn.
But I would like students to understand that the learning process takes time. Don’t ever be in a hurry to get something done, because you will end up going out the door backwards. Take your time. Practice as slowly as possible, because the slower you practice, the faster you learn. And you must learn how to count.
MD: In Let the Drums Speak! you say that feel can be taught. Can you explain how?
Bernard: The easiest way to teach feel is to know your craft and stop worrying about technique. And for heaven’s sake, don’t always practice to a click. That’s your job—you are the click. When you have to play to a click, treat that click like it’s another instrument, just like you would guitar, bass, or piano.
In order to establish feel, you must know your craft—always knowing where 1 is, knowing how to stay out of the way, learning how to interpret the music. You have to understand volume, touch, and taste, which is going to give you your feel. And keep away from monitors. Putting yourself in the monitor is the worst thing you can do, because you will be listening to yourself instead of the band, which means you’re going to overplay. The idea of performance is allowing everybody to do his or her own thing. The drummer’s job is to carry the band and to respect their instruments and their craft.
One more thing I’d like to recommend is to be positive—and let others know how good it feels by smiling as you play. That’s the first order of business: Smile and be humble, because a smile can get you in the door. If you smile when you play, you’re going to make the music feel good, and every bandleader will respect and trust you. And always be prepared for the job, and come dressed appropriately.
MD: What drummers inspired you when you were growing up?
Bernard: The drummers who inspired me back then were my teacher Mr. Heywood, Purnell Rice [Billie Holiday, Lena Horne]—who could easily roll on a pillow—Louie Bellson, Buddy Rich, Cozy Cole, Herbie Lovelle…so many.
MD: Who inspires you these days?
Bernard: Again, there are many, but to name two, Chad Smith and Will Calhoun. Their playing is superb, and their approach and technique are wonderful. The versatility of all of these guys who inspired me then and now is mind-blowing, as far as I’m concerned.
MD: One of your more notable gigs in the ’60s was the musical Hair.
Bernard: Before it became a play, Hair was a concert event. Composer Galt MacDermot and I made demos, and then we played in a club to see how it would work out. After working on it for about a year, we did it in the park for a bit [under producer Joseph Papp, who ran the Shakespeare in the Park series in Manhattan’s Central Park]. Then we took it to the Public Theater, and from there we went to Broadway. After playing on Broadway, I turned the show over to Idris Muhammad. The show lasted about four and a half years, and then we started doing concerts again around the world. Then forty years later it was revived on Broadway, and I did that for two and a half years. I created all of the [drum] parts in Hair, and they were all African rhythms and feel.
MD: In the early ’70s you recorded many of soul legend Aretha Franklin’s greatest albums, including Young, Gifted and Black, which features the track “Rock Steady.” How did you come up with your famous breakdown in that?
Bernard: When the song was being recorded, Aretha’s music fell off the piano. Producer Arif Mardin came in to pick it up and put it back on the piano, but I never stopped playing. So basically it was a drum solo with her still singing the words “rock steady.”
MD: You were Aretha’s musical director for a time. What did that involve?
Bernard: Working for Aretha and being her MD, I also had to handle the lighting and sound and be the conductor, drummer, and bandleader. If you wanted to be MD for Aretha Franklin, it was a multifaceted job.
MD: How does one prepare to be a musical director?
Bernard: Well, number one, you must have your act together. You must know your craft frontwards and backwards. You will always be between the band and the artist, and communication is the key. And you must learn diplomacy and be comfortable wearing many hats.
MD: You’ve played with so many famous bass players over the years. What’s your advice on getting tight with a bass player?
Bernard: Stay married to him or her. Love them to death. Follow them, and I guarantee you will be the happiest person in the world. Keep the respect going at all times, and it will be given back to you tenfold. Some people call it being joined at the hip. I call it happiness.
MD: Do you play differently in the studio versus on stage?
Bernard: In the studio you have to know about tuning and pressure points. Your approach has to be entirely different. Your dBs are going to be less than when you play live. You have to be a lot more sensitive in the studio. And the sound has to be remarkably different, which has a lot to do with the overtones and ring of the drums. Never overplay, and that brings up the spirit of “less is more.” Stop worrying about being super-technical, and let the energy flow.
When you’re playing live you have to think about the sound going all the way to the back of the room. Sometimes you have microphones and sometimes you don’t; it all has to do with the size of the room. And you always have to play with confidence, in the studio and live.
MD: You’ve seen a lot of changes in the music industry during your career—do you have any advice for today’s drummers?
Bernard: Drummers today are not taking care of their business. They’re becoming too mechanical, and by doing that they lose their ability to think on their own two feet. To all drummers, especially young ones: You have some big shoes to fill. The way music is today, you have to know the business side, which means that you have to learn how to market and promote yourself. Always keep a positive image in what you do, and don’t be afraid to sell yourself and your product. As long as you have the talent, a career in music is definitely worth pursuing. And never do drugs. I never did a drug in my life, ever.
MD: Do you still practice?
Bernard: Yes, definitely. I’m very much into practicing. And because I have to work with so many young people, the challenge is always there. Practice makes perfect—and it’s a reassurance of my ability. Because of all the genres of music today, no one should ever stop practicing. It’s through practice that you can hone your skills. And through practice, what’s difficult becomes easy.
MD: What do you concentrate on when you shed?
Bernard: I concentrate on time. Counting is equally important. And I practice at different tempos. So I’ll do that for at least twenty minutes. Then I just play and let all hell break loose.
MD: How was it touring with Jeff Beck in 1975 behind one of his classic albums, Blow by Blow, and how did that come about?
Bernard: That tour came about through Jeff’s manager, Ernest Chapman. They wanted to do an instrumental group this time around. [The Jeff Beck Group had previously featured singers Rod Stewart and Bobby Tench.] Touring with Jeff was the super highlight of my musical career. It was the first time that I really felt like a star, with star treatment. We toured the world for two years.
MD: Is there anyone you haven’t worked with that you would like to?
Bernard: Yes, I would love to record with Madonna.
MD: Let’s play word association. I’ll name some drummers, and you tell me the first thing that pops into your head. Let’s start with Steve Gadd.
Bernard: Dynamite feel, good groove. And he knows his gear.
MD: Vinnie Colaiuta.
Bernard: Great backbeat and an excellent timekeeper. And he can also solo musically.
MD: Billy Cobham.
Bernard: One of the best feel guys in the world, whether it’s jazz, blues—just about any genre of music. And his reading is superb.
MD: Jeff Porcaro.
Bernard: Jeff is another player who had great feel and a strong backbeat. And he learned the Purdie shuffle very well. He took all of the parts of that beat for the Toto song “Rosanna.”
MD: John Bonham.
Bernard: Very deep backbeat, and he also learned the Purdie shuffle well. John had a great feel on everything he played.
MD: Hal Blaine.
Bernard: Mister Cool Daddy. The best in pop music sound.
MD: Carmine Appice.
Bernard: Mister Rock ’n’ Roll himself. Carmine is a great guy. I love him.
MD: Dom Famularo.
Bernard: The quintessential all-around working drummer and speaking, teaching, and playing musician.
MD: Liberty DeVitto.
Bernard: Liberty is the nicest heavy-duty backbeat man that you want to have around. What a groove player he is!
MD: Speaking of Liberty, when he learned we were speaking with you, he wanted you to answer two questions. First, how did you come up with the snare/hi-hat fill on “Memphis Soul Stew” from the record King Curtis Live at Fillmore West?
Bernard: Hello, Liberty! I came up with that fill to stay out of the way, the idea being that less is more.
MD: His second question is, How does it feel to be the creator of a groove with your name on it?
Bernard: All I can say is that I feel very humbled and proud that the Purdie shuffle will live in infamy. Liberty, it feels “Purdie” good! [laughs]
MD: How did you come up with that groove, and who named it?
Bernard: It came from the sounds and rhythms that were all around me as I was growing up. The slow rhythmic sounds of freight trains pulling in and out of the station ultimately became the foundation upon which that beat was built. Who named it? I did. [laughs] But in all honesty, I think my early teacher, Mr. Heywood, did—but I’ll take the credit. [laughs]
MD: One more name: Ringo Starr.
Bernard: Ringo’s drumming approach is a world apart from mine. His drumming has never been an issue for me. He’s not a bad drummer. I’m not here to judge. But in my honest opinion, his drumming is not up to par for my standards.
MD: What about the controversy about you playing on early Beatles recordings?
Bernard: All I’m going to say on that topic is that the issue with that situation was addressed long ago to my satisfaction. I cover it in my book, and I’m at peace with everything.
MD: Why have you finally come out with your official life story?
Bernard: The book came about when I was working with one of my students. Because of the many stories and the examples I used to help get my point across, the idea of writing a book was born. Very simply, he said to me, “You should write a book, and I will help.” I’ve been working on it for fifteen years. I feel that the time is right, because I’m not getting any younger, and I needed to preserve my experiences and thoughts. And cleanse my soul.
Tools of the Trade
Purdie uses a five-piece setup (he doesn’t currently have an official drum endorsement); Sabian cymbals including 13″ hi-hats, a 22″ and an 18″ or 20″ crash/ride, a 20″ China, and an 18″ crash; Cappella sticks; and Remo heads.
Aretha Franklin “Rock Steady,” “Until You Come Back to Me” /// Daryl Hall and John Oates “She’s Gone” /// Steely Dan “Home at Last,” “Deacon Blues” /// Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack “Where Is the Love” /// Mongo Santamaria “Cold Sweat”
Marvin Gaye “What’s Going On” /// Herb Alpert “Rise” /// the Doobie Brothers “What a Fool Believes” /// Stevie Wonder Songs in the Key of Life /// Dizzy Gillespie “A Night in Tunisia” /// Phoebe Snow “Don’t Let Me Down” /// Duke Ellington “Mood Indigo” /// Teresa Brewer “Put Another Nickel in the Nickelodeon” /// Procol Harum “A Whiter Shade of Pale” /// the O’Jays “For the Love of Money”
At the Foot of the Funk
Peers and Disciples on the Wonders of Pretty Purdie
Liberty DeVitto (the Slim Kings, ex–Billy Joel)
Most musicians are pigeonholed in their playing—rock, jazz, gospel, blues…. Bernard has no boundaries. He’s crossed the lines in all kinds of music with his feel, passion, and incredible ability to know exactly what to play to make a song a hit record. He’s what all musicians should be. He is music.
Russ Titelman (producer, songwriter)
Bernard Purdie doesn’t play the drums—he plays music. He has an innate sense of what is exactly the right thing to play, and what he plays always has a pocket that never falters. His performances embody what people call funk and soul—a shine with a lightness of touch and a sense of joy that make you want to get up and dance. He’s a natural and one of the all-time greats.
Chuck Rainey (bass legend)
Bernard is a very integral part of my recording career, “off record” as well as on, and I always make reference to him when I perform at clinics. Bernard is a household name in recorded music history, and he deserves as much attention as the universe allows.
John Blackwell Jr. (Prince, Justin Timberlake, D’Angelo)
The Purdie shuffle changed my life. I like challenges, and that shuffle is one of them. Day after day I study my Steely Dan records, and I still can’t play that shuffle correctly. That is one solid groove. I pay much respect to Bernard for always teaching me how important it is to groove—and he can surely back up his words with all the albums he’s graced for decades. Much love and respect to you, Bernard.
Bobby Whitlock (Derek and the Dominos)
Bernard Purdie is the foot of funk. I was a drummer first, before I played the Hammond B3. I grew up listening to Bernard back in the mid to late ’60s, playing with everything from Aretha to King Curtis. He’s still an inspiration to me with his Purdie shuffle. Lock-tight and funky!
Jonathan Joseph (Jeff Beck, Joss Stone)
Back in 1986, while I was attending the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami, I had an opportunity to enjoy a clinic featuring Bernard. At the time I wasn’t that familiar with his work, and needless to say I was knocked out by his musicality and groove. He seemed to have a certain style built into his persona, which was expressed in the way he laid down the groove. The feel of his funk shuffle was so sweet! Watching him play was an experience I will never forget.
Carmine Appice (Vanilla Fudge, Cactus, BBA, Rated-X)
Bernard has a tremendous groove and feel. I especially love his hi-hat work. He’s a huge influence on me.
Dom Famularo (educator)
Bernard exudes the joy of life and the power of music in every note he plays. He is a master musician, a legend on drums, and he constantly inspires everyone when he plays. I love his feel in every song. He makes me want to dance. And he is always so positive and happy. When I grow up, I want to be Bernard Purdie!
Story by Billy Amendola
Photos by Alex Solca