Your lover did you wrong? It ain’t worth cryin’ over. Put on a Bernard Purdie record. Peelin’ fallin’ from the ceilin’? Don’t worry about it. Get into that Purdie groove. Another gray day? Go out and watch “Pretty”Purdieplaydrums. You’II feel alright.
Known as the “Father Time” of modern drumming, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie has drummed up an almost unbeatable record of over 3,000 album credits, many of them smash hits. He has cut across all stylistic barriers to play with a wide range of musicians: Aretha Franklin, Jeff Beck, Herbie Hancock, Hall & Oates, Steely Dan, Dizzy Gillespie, Gato Barbieri, James Brown, Paul Simon, King Curtis, Ray Charles, Mongo Santamaria. That’s just a sampling. And though he’s slowed down a bit from his incredible schedule of 15 to 20 studio sessions a week during the music-soaked ’60s, he’s still going strong.
“My job is to support the singer or the lead instrument—first, last, and always,” he declares with an almost religious sense of devotion, and you’ve got to believe that whoever’s out front is solid and secure on Purdie’s shoulders. True to his covenant, Bernard doesn’t “showboat” it on stage with flashy solos or twirling drumsticks that glow in the dark. Yet his fat and funky grooves, along with those simmering, simple but sophisticated hi-hat licks that are his signature, will overtake you on the most primal level, and before you know it, your body’s moving and your eyes are fastened on Purdie.
At his drumset, he’s a study in concentration. With eyes closed, his face takes on a beatific glow as his drum rhythms transport him to his own realms of ecstasy—Drummers’ Heaven. Just let him groove all night, and he’s happy.
Your first impression of Bernard might be that he resembles a black Buddha. He’s got the serenity in his smile, the slight slant to his eyes, and a physical size that indicates he’s enjoyed a meal or two. But this Buddha doesn’t just sit there silently. If you’re willing to listen, he’ll share with you all the wisdom he’s gained from 30 years in the music business. He’ll tell you about the highs, the hurrahs, the slights and the slings, not to mention what it took to make it from the small town of Elkton, Maryland, born number 11 of 15 children and orphaned at 13.
He’s expansive, he’s controversial, he’s generous, and he’s a bit braggadocio, but he can back it up. His braggadocio is the shield of a deeply sensitive man. You may or may not like everything Bernard says, but it’s hard not to like Bernard. He’s got his faults and weaknesses, no doubt about it— we all do—but that’s the beauty of the man. He’s a human being—the genuine article. He’s got soul. Sure, he’s trying to hustle a good living like the rest of us nowadays, but he’s no boardroom type. He might even try to base decisions on cold logic, ’80s style, but you know he’ll follow his heart in the end.
BP: They’ve always said I came out kicking. My drumming practice started on bread cans; by the time I was six, I was bashing them all in. I come from a poor country family in Maryland. We commuted back and forth to North Carolina five months out of the year to pick cotton, tobacco, watermelon, and peanuts. I did that for ten years, but 1 didn’t know it was hard work. You get used to it, and it becomes a way of life. I guess I’ve been hungry all my life, and I don’t really want to lose that. I came from nowhere, and I broke through a lot of barriers to get where I did, as a drummer and as a man. 1 was the first black in the whole state of Maryland to graduate from a previously all-white school.
CF: Why you?
BP: They wanted integration to start, but it was voluntary. The all-black school 1 went to, George Washington Carver, didn’t offer any college-prep courses, and I realized I wasn’t prepared for anything. To show how poor everything was, when I entered the all-white school in 12th grade, I was reading at 7th-grade level, and I had been at the top of the class at George Washington Carver. I had to work hard to bring that up, and I did—three or four levels in one year.
CF: You went to college for a few years, and then you came to New York City to make it as a drummer. How did the word get out on Bernard Purdie?
BP: How did the word get out? Every day I’d be downtown asking for a job. That’s how the word gets out! After a few days in town, I had made $80 on a studio gig with Mickey & Sylvia, and I thought I had hit the big time! But in two days, I had $12 left, so I got a job in a laundry on 49th Street. I’d finish the job at 3:00, and at 3:15 I’d be at 50th and Broadway, standing around where the musicians hung out, asking them to give me a job—every day, five days a week, for months. All I wanted was a shot. The few times I got to show them my stuff, I overplayed, but I played. I’d give them every chop I knew in five minutes—the whole history of drumming. They didn’t know what I was playing, but they liked it. Buddy Lucas, the saxophone player, said, “Man, you sound like one of those Mississippi boys. Mississippi Bigfoot—that’s what I’m gonna call you!” I said, “I don’t care what you call me; just call me!”
I was hanging out one day at the Turf Club. Barney Richmond, a contractor, came into the place saying, “Any drummers in the house?” I jumped up, yelling, “I can do it!” He had seen me for months, and asked the same thing. He said, “No, man, I need a real drummer.” So he walked around to a musicians’ bar around the corner. The place was packed, but there weren’t any drummers. He asked again, “Any drummers in the place?” I was right behind him, and everybody was laughing, because I was so loud and obnoxious. So Buddy Lucas said, “Aw, Barney, give him a shot.” Barney was desperate, so he took me to Allegro studio. The session musicians were just standing around there, and I walked in. You could see it in their faces: “Who is this nut?” Barney was in the control room, on the telephone, still looking for a drummer. I walked over and scanned the charts on the piano, and then I sat down at the drums. The bass player began playing a little line, and I started in with a 4 on the rim, cross stick. The other guys joined in, and before you knew it, we were cooking! So Doris Troy came out and heard the song being played! She started singing. In the meantime, they were still in the control room arguing about finding a drummer. They looked outside and saw Doris moving to the music, but there wasn’t a button turned on. The engineer finally turned on the dials and started running the tape. And bam, we did it in one take. The song was cut in 20 minutes—”Just One Look.” A month later, I heard it on the radio; they had used that demo as the master. I was so excited, and then I realized I had never gotten paid for the session! But it didn’t matter.
CF: From that point on, things started to roll. You played on Les Cooper’s big hit, “Wiggle Wobble,” in 1962, and you were about the hottest studio drummer in the ’60s. How much say did you have in your studio drum sound in those days?
BP: I had plenty of say, because at the time not too many microphones were used on the drums in the studio; there was one on the bass, one for the hi-hats and snare, one for the toms, and then possibly one overhead—four. And that was a lot. They would turn the mic’s to a certain point to get the overall sound, and then I would play the way I wanted, with my own dynamics; I controlled it, not the engineer. So I would choose what sound I wanted to dominate, be it the snare, the hi-hat—whatever. Let’s say Chuck Rainey was into a bass line that was dominant. Well, I didn’t want to create a line on the bass drum to fight with him. I would want to enhance what he had, so I would play around his bass line. I would make my snare or hi-hat dominant to keep that going along with Chuck. And that’s how we got that tight rhythm sound, which we called a locomotion.
CF: It was all interaction and integration, right there on the spot.
BP: Yes. Then in the late ’60s, more and more tracks came in, and we started to lose our own creativity, because engineers wanted certain things. It became more complex. Our playing was divided into parts, and it was up to the engineer to put the parts together. I think this division caused rhythm sections to listen to each other less. I was losing control over what I played, because they had all these independent tracks, so I had to tighten up my sound, in order to make one particular sound dominate. I had to recreate my sound, so that no one could take any part away without taking away the whole thing. It was like a total ball of energy that you couldn’t pull apart. They wanted to pull it apart; they tried to put everything on separate tracks and play around with it. But when they did, they found that they lost the feel that was in there in the first place. Then they had to go back and rediscover it—that soul, that human touch.
CF: Do you feel that the ’60s were a better time overall for the studio musician?
BP: That was the only time that studio musicians got any respect from the music business.
BP: Well, it worked this way: There was a feeling of freedom and rebellion in the ’60s, and what made it different was that the people who were rebelling were rich kids. Their folks had made all this money, and they didn’t want the kids around. It’s a drag to say that, but that’s what it was— rejection. So the kids said, “Well, you don’t want us around, so we’re going to do our own thing and you’re going to pay for it.” So they got into the music business, as producers, promoters, players—whatever. They didn’t have any training, but the music business gave them an outlet and a way to make their own money. It was a good thing for the studio musicians, because while these kids had the money to make the records, they needed the expertise of the professionals. But after a while, they became tired of always paying someone else, so they started experimenting and doing the playing themselves. By the end of the ’60s, the studio musicians were being pushed aside, and as the ’70s began, the bands were mostly doing their own playing.
CF: What you’re saying is that, in the ’60s, there were a lot of bands that weren’t good enough to play, so they hired professionals.
BP: Exactly. That was the way it was, especially with the British groups—The Dave Clark Five, The Animals, The Who, The Beatles. Many bands used studio musicians. If and when they learned how to play, the studio musicians were out.
CF: Why didn’t the studio musicians get together and form their own bands?
BP: Money. When you stop being a studio musician, you stop making money. We made more money than doctors and lawyers during the ’60s, but you had to be on the scene at all times. You couldn’t afford to go out and spend two weeks or a month with your own band on the road. You’d lose your spot in that studio world.
CF: In two or three weeks?
BP: Yes. In two or three weeks, you could be replaced. [snaps his fingers] The only time you wouldn’t be replaced was if you let them know you were on vacation, because this was a business, and that was how it was done. No one would call you for that two weeks you were on vacation, but they’d be booking you for work on the day you were scheduled to be back. It was a nine-to-five job, by the book. If you went off the scene, you were out! And if you decided to become a band and that band didn’t happen big for you, you were also out, because you did something that was a no-no. If you tried to do something on your own, you wanted to get too big, and it meant that they couldn’t dictate to you anymore. That’s what this business is about and will always be about—dictation—DIC-TA-TION. That means the young kid down the street can come in and tell Bernard Purdie, “Now I want you to play such-and-such,” and tell Eric Gale, “Play it this way.” If you want to be in that little circle of the studio, you have to do what you’re told.
CF: It doesn’t sound like such a happy life.
BP: It’s not a happy life per se. The happiness comes from the handful of musicians who work together in the studio, because when those musicians get together, it doesn’t matter what anybody says. Eventually, you’re going to have to do it your way anyhow. You’ve got musicians there who you respect, and from that nucleus, that groove is going to happen.
CF: You were talking about how much money you could make in the studio in the ’60s. Can you do that today?
BP: Rarely. If you want to make the kind of money we did in the ’60s, you have to work hard—very hard. Steve Gadd gets paid extra, but he works very hard. The problem so many musicians in the ’60s had was we took the money and blew it, for many reasons. Drugs—they were very plentiful in the ’60s. Drinking—it was easy—smoking, women—the whole works.
But there were exceptions to the rule, and I was one of them. I didn’t drink, because I was an alcoholic when I was 11, so I knew what alcohol was. I stopped at 13. Smoking—couldn’t stand to see my money going up in smoke. Drugs—out of the question! I saw my idols walking down the street asking people for 25 cents to get some coffee or something to eat. That hurt me to my heart so much that I never wanted to try it. I’ve never been high off anything except in the dentist’s chair. I don’t need anything I can’t control, and I ain’t interested in finding out.
CF: Okay, Bernard, you said drinking, smoking, and drugs were out. You didn’t mention women.
BP: [Laughs] Women? Loved ’em to death! It was a downfall.
CF: Have you ever been married?
BP: I was married twice. I have two families: four kids by my first wife, and my second wife had three. They’re all pretty much grown now.
CF: I know it can be hard on a family when a musician’s on the road. Did you do any live playing during the ’60s?
BP: Yes, I did. After doing 15 to 20 dates a week in the studio for almost 12 years, I was becoming so frustrated in the studio that I felt I was boring. That wasn’t what other people were telling me, but that was how I felt. So I went out on the road with King Curtis. I wasn’t on the road that much, but it was a pleasure for me to go on the road, because I got a chance to visit people all over the world. But I’m basically a family person. After the gig was over, 99% of the time I was back at the hotel, exhausted. I mean, I loved what I did, but I worked hard! Then I’d be up at 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning, ready to catch the plane and see what was in the next town. I enjoyed being around people. I know that people think when you’re on the road it’s all wine, women, and song, but if I had tried to live up to that image, I wouldn’t be here. Anybody knows that.
But the music business does make it tough on family life. Any woman who puts up with a man in the music business has got to be a superwoman. And if he’s a superstar, she’s got to be two superwomen. Everybody out there is after him. And what do they want? They want his body. Then they want his money. All they want to do is be able to talk about him. I’ve seen it all the time. That can be hard on a wife’s ego.
CF: Speaking of ego, how important is ego in making it as a successful musician?
BP: Very. If you don’t have it, you’re up a creek, because that ego gives you a chance to be heard. If your ego is big enough and you show self-confidence, someone is going to give you a shot. When you can control that ego, you’re in good shape. I controlled my ego most of my life, but there was a point in my life when I thought I was the greatest drummer in the world. Oh, yeah! You couldn’t tell me I wasn’t! That was in the late ’60s. By this time, I was doing Aretha Franklin—”Respect” and all that. When I walked into a place it was, “Well, I’m Bernard Purdie.” [does a double take] “You don’t know me? What do you mean, you don’t know me?” Well, at that time my name was not on the back of the albums. I’d say, “Hey man, I drummed for Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and King Curtis!” I’d go down the line.
CF: Did you make many enemies in the business with your ego when it was out of control?
BP: I don’t think so. I was a little dumb with mine. I didn’t have the problem with musicians as much as with women. I had money, so that made me tall, dark, and handsome! [laughs] So a woman I had known for a lot of years—and she really was a good friend—finally said one day, “Purdie, I am so tired of you. Your ego is so big and so bad that it stinks!” I said, “What are you talking about?” She said, “Everything you say is I, I, me, me: I did this; I did that.” And I said, “But you asked me …” “No!” she said. “Nobody asked you anything!” And that was the first time I understood what an ego was about. When she finished with me, I was cut down to nothing, but I innocently had not known. That was when I realized what was what and started changing. And it took years; it didn’t happen overnight. I had to change my ways.
CF: You were talking earlier about studio musicians being hired to play on the records for a lot of English groups in the early ’60s. In other interviews, you’ve said that you played drums for The Who, The Monkees, The Rolling Stones, The Animals. What did you play for The Animals? Did you play on “House Of The Rising Sun”?
BP: I’m not sure if I actually did that one or if I just fixed part of that one. That was what was happening. I was fixing most of the things I played on. A lot of it was keeping tempos together. I would find the middle of the road for the song, and play over or under those quarter notes if they weren’t on time.
CF: You’ve made the very controversial claim that you played drums on 21 early Beatles tracks. Millions of people saw Ringo Starr in live performances, and also the drummers in some of the other groups you’ve mentioned, and they say they could play. How do you explain that?
BP: First, ask yourself when you heard those drummers playing live. There are groups I played for that had great drummers, especially in their maturity. But they were young and inexperienced when they started out, and they needed help. Also, remember: A record is scrutinized much more than a live performance and by a lot more people. It’s got to be good. On stage, there’s so much sound that it’s very difficult to pick out an individual performance. You’re listening to the total sound.
CF: You’ve said you were paid to keep your mouth shut about playing on The Beatles songs. If so, why haven’t you?
BP: I thought 15 years was sufficient.
CF: Why won’t you disclose the names of The Beatles songs you played on to strengthen your story?
BP: I have finally been approached by their people, and for the first time, they’re talking about the possibility of doing it right, one way or the other.
CF: Do you want the story told fully, or do you just want more money?
BP: Well, see, it’s not even about that now. It’s the way they would like to have it. The controversy now is Ringo. Ringo really can’t be hurt, no matter what. He’s got everything he needs. It’s all an ego thing for him; that’s what it boils down to. That doesn’t bother me, basically. Now, it’s time for me to be compensated, and that’s what I’m waiting for.
CF: How are you going to be compensated?
BP: There’s a book in the works. I have been approached about it.
CF: This would be your own book?
BP: Yes. That’s where I’ll tell everything.
CF: Don’t you have any qualms about that? To some people, to say Ringo didn’t play the drums is like saying there is no Santa Claus. Don’t you think it makes you look like the bad guy, even if it is the truth?
BP: Not really. The truth is never bad. It’s about time they gave credit where credit is due. That’s how I feel about it. You know, I’ve been threatened, because I’ve said he did not do all the drumming in those early songs. I’ve messed over some people’s idol, I guess.
CF: Fans have threatened your life?
BP: Oh, yeah. I got a call a few years ago, about 1980, when this whole thing was really coming out. This radio station wanted to know if I would go on the air and talk about it via telephone. Well, I did. Five minutes after I hung up, I got this call, and this guy told me I was a dead . . . . [pauses] Well, besides being a dead [man], there were a few other words he used. And by the next morning, he was putting out a contract on my life for telling these lies, because I upset his kids. They were crying and ready to kill themselves because of what I said about Ringo, and this man was ready to kill me. I asked him, “You want to hurt me because I said something about their idol? I think your kids have a problem. You better check out your kids and not worry about me, because you’re going to find out a lot more in the next few years and then what’s going to happen to them? You better start preparing them for some letdowns about some of these people they call idols.”
CF: Have you had bad feelings from people other than fans—people in the music business?
BP: Oh, yeah. I’ve had problems with some producers. I guess you’d call it blackballing. But that’s okay. I’m still working, because I do the job. I’m not trying to steal any thunder from anybody. But if doing my job puts somebody else in a bad light, there’s nothing I can do about that. My job comes first.
CF: Has this practice of “ghost-drumming” you describe continued into the ’70s and ’80s?
BP: Yes. There are times, I don’t care who you are—even a good drummer in an established group—when you can’t get a sound they want on a record. Maybe you just don’t come up to the particular thing they’re looking for. Maybe you’ve got the flu, and they need to cut the song that day.
Take Steely Dan, for example. Steely Dan would cut their records four or five times with four or five different drummers. Now, I was fortunate. After they had cut Aja four or five times, when they came to me, I just did what they wanted. It was that simple. The other drummers were good, but Steely Dan was looking for a sound that I could do, and they could afford to experiment until they found it. It didn’t matter. The record company knew that, if they spent a million dollars for that album, they were still going to make five million.
CF: You have been the drummer on an amazing number of hits through the years. What are the advantages of being a “mature” man playing rock ‘n’ roll?
BP: You learn how to be tolerant and how to accept what other people tell you, even if you think it’s wrong. And who’s to say it’s wrong if other people are getting pleasure from it?
CF: What’s the disadvantage?
BP: It can hurt you here. [points to his ear] It’s so loud. That loudness can hurt you mentally and physically, but if you’re playing rock, it’s got to be loud. It’s a driving force, and it’s excruciating sometimes. It hurts. It takes a lot out of you, so you really have to want to do it. It’s a challenge for me to see if I can still do it. I have no problems adapting to rock ‘n’ roll. Being a musician first has always been my thing. Concept is second. The only problem I ever had with rock ‘n’ roll was to get the speakers out of my ears, so I put the speakers to one side of me and I had no problem hearing. I don’t have to worry about all the power business, because the other speakers are up there in front of me for the other people to hear the drums. I don’t need the drums in my speakers; I know what I’m playing. What I put in the speakers behind me is the lead, which is the melody. That’s my monitor.
When I toured with Jeff Beck, the first thing that went in my monitor was the piano—Max Middleton. Then, I put in just a little guitar, because I could hear it in front of me—20 dB’s, killing you! So I’ve got the bass, the guitar and piano sitting right on top of me, so I can hear what’s happening, chord-wise, melody-wise, and rhythm-wise. That’s all I need. And that volume: Okay, say we’ve got ten dB’s— that volume is only on three. I don’t want anymore. I can hear what I’m doing.
CF: Don’t most other drummers set up that way?
BP: None of them! The first thing they do is put the drums in the monitor, and the bass drum is so loud that they can’t hear.
CF: Is that why some of them wear headphones?
BP: Well, usually what they’ve got in the headphones is the same thing—drums. They’re listening to themselves. Consequently, it’s just loud on top of loud. Before you realize it, all the highs are gone, and they start dropping tempo. If you’re going to listen to yourself, you’re going to get tired of hearing yourself. You think you’re on, and you don’t realize that you’re coming down and dropping tempo, because you don’t hear anybody else.
CF: Yes, I heard someone recently who was wearing headphones and dropping tempo.
BP: That’s normal.
CF: Then why would drummers wear them?
BP: Because they’re so into themselves that they think they know what’s going on, or they’re insecure about what they’re playing.
CF: You’ve played all kinds of music. Does it pose problems for you, having to adjust, for example, from a jazz feel to a rock feel?
BP: You do have to hit harder with rock. You must use force. You’re hitting twice as hard with rock as you are with jazz, and it’s hard not to drop tempo, because you find yourself up on your toes. I don’t look down on rock ‘n’ roll musicians, like some jazz players do. Some jazz drummers look down on rock ‘n’ roll because they don’t know it. They can’t interpret it, so they can’t play it. They can’t play it, so they don’t like it. Rock ‘n’ roll has simplicity. Jazz is sometimes busy, and it’s always easier to play busy. When you play busy, you can hide your mistakes, and the more you play, the more mistakes you’ll make. That’s why it’s so hard to groove. When you’re grooving, you don’t have to play anything but 2 and 4, but when you miss, it sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s harder to play rock and R&B than anything else, because it is so simple.
CF: Do you have a favorite style of music when it comes to drumming?
BP: That’s tough. I guess it would be Latin. Latin is the base of all music. The best way to understand the different concepts in music is to know Latin first. It’s the bridge between all ways of playing. What turned me around on Latin was Candido, the Cuban conga player. From Candido I went directly to Mongo Santamaria. Mongo wasn’t educated in music, but when you saw his expression and heard him play: Any finger that hit that conga said something. It spoke. Mongo and I did three records together, and it completely turned me around. R&B, jazz, and Latin have always worked together as far as I’m concerned.
CF: You toured as Jeff Beck’s drummer on a double bill with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. You’ve said it was one of your favorite tours. Why?
BP: It was fun! I lived like a superstar. I didn’t have to lift a finger except to play the drums. I had two years, first class. I thought I had been first class before, but I lived like a king, with such ease and taste. And I played better than ever; there was nothing in my way. All I had to do was make music. And, oh God, did we make music!
CF: What were the songs on that tour?
BP: From the Blow By Blow album, mostly.
CF: But you never recorded with Jeff Beck?
BP: Oh yeah, we’ve got stuff that’s sitting in the can; I don’t know if they’ll ever release it. I did a couple of overdubs on Blow By Blow, but I think it was Richard Bailey’s name on the cover. I just did a little fixing up. That’s all I ever do—fix things up for people. [chuckles]
CF: Of course, that’s not all you do. I know you’ve done some producing.
BP: Yes, but a lot of people in the business don’t know me as a producer, as a bandleader, or as a businessman. I’m all of those; I’ve always been more than just an artist. But if the record companies dealt with you as a musician first, they have problems seeing you in a business light. They do have a point, sometimes, if you’re not able, as an artist, to separate the music from the business, because when you’re a musician you must never, never think of money when you’re on that stage or in that studio. If you do, you’re doomed from the start. You won’t play right if you’re thinking about getting paid. You’ve got to surrender your mind to the music, totally. Work out the business details before or after you play, but never taint that time when your mind should be on the music. Of course, having a manager can help you keep your mind on the music. Not only that—in this business the number of people who are honest and will give you a decent count is not too good, so you need to have someone to make sure you’re not getting burned.
CF: I know you’ve always spoken about the importance of the drumming teachers you had and your love for passing on to others what they taught you. What makes a good teacher?
BP: Teachers are your guides. If they can guide you in the right direction and keep you motivated, then they are great teachers. It’s that simple. They are not supposed to do your work or get you to mimic them.
CF: They are not supposed to put obstacles there, either.
BP: Oh yes they are! That’s part of the whole thing. Out of 200 students I’ve had, every one of them had the world thrown at them the first day they came through the door. The best thing that can happen to me as a teacher is to see my students become frustrated. I love it, because that means they will learn. They are going to have to force themselves to work through whatever is frustrating them. My obstacles are always musical ones; I’m not into head trips. If you’re coming to me, come prepared to work hard. Come prepared to learn discipline. Discipline is the most important thing for a musician coming up, and you can only get it from a teacher. You can’t go out and be a rebel all your life— not in everything. You have to follow somebody’s rules sometime, even if they’re your own. There are going to be restrictions. But if you learn your craft, you can make it in the system. There’s nothing you can’t do.
CF: Certainly one of your most successful former students is Max Weinberg, Bruce Springsteen’s drummer.
BP: [Chuckles] Oh yes. Max was really going through some changes then. Every week I had to go through detox with him. I finally told him, “Max, don’t come back.” I told him that for six months to a year—”Max, don’t come back. I don’t want to see you.” He had more problems than a barrel of monkeys—his girlfriend, somebody else’s girlfriend—the whole works. Two years later, when he was finally getting himself together and by then working with another teacher, he was starting to apply everything I said, because his other teacher said the exact same thing. I saw him and I said, “Why don’t you go back and listen to the tapes you have from when you were my student?” All of a sudden, everything I said sank in, and he was able to keep his drumming job. He almost lost it, and there were more drummers than you could count after that job. Now Max has really got himself together; he’s on the right track.
CF: You’re somewhat of a father figure in the drumming world. Your name comes up often when young drummers are asked to name influences.
BP: I guess I am. I’ve given something to this business. I’ve set some standards. It feels good to get some credit from the younger drummers for what I’ve done. I was really knocked out by Jeff Porcaro, the drummer for Toto. He gave me credit for influencing him on “Rosanna,” which was such a big hit for him. He was using the rhythm I created—the Purdie shuffle—on that song, and he acknowledged that.
CF: You’ve been a model for young drummers. What have you learned from them?
BP: To stay on top of everything. You cannot slack. Don’t think you can say just anything to them, and they’ll accept it. First of all, they’re too well informed on things. I admire that. I’ve always wanted to know everything I could, in order to understand what everyone in the studio does. Young people have inquiring minds. That’s what’s good about youth. You’re always looking for answers. Old minds don’t ask questions, and they don’t want to hear any.
CF: Can you ever know too much about music?
BP: Well, there are two sides to that. In one way, knowing too much can interfere with things, if you let it. For example, some friends and I went to a concert, and we found ourselves criticizing the young people who were playing—a little mistake here, a little drop in tempo there. Then I said, “Wait a minute. I think we’ve become too professional.” When you become too professional, sometimes it gets in the way of enjoying things. You’ve lost the whole point of making music, which is to have fun and feel good about being alive.
The other side to knowing about music is when you’re young and you’ve got all this information coming at you, from magazines like Modern Drummer, and clinics and teachers. When you’ve got 15 or 20 different people telling you their way of playing drums, it’s time for you to go out and try it your way. Experiment. Pick out what is best suited for you. From each drummer you like, you take a little bit from here, a little bit from there, and before you know it, it’s sounding like a big bit. It’s sounding like you, and not any of them. But you do need the guidance of a teacher.
CF: Don’t you think there’s such a thing as self-guidance and self-discipline?
BP: Forget it. You need the guidance. Self-taught is for the birds.
CF: What about a musical genius like Erroll Garner? He was self-taught.
BP: I don’t care. He couldn’t read music!
CF: Maybe, but listen to how he played!
BP: Wonderful! Marvelous. But did you ever play with him? I played on Erroll’s final two albums. You had to stand around and wait until he learned his part, and that was frustrating for people who read music. I loved Erroll to death, and it hurt me to know he couldn’t read music. I knew what he must have felt when he had 50 musicians there who read music, and he didn’t.
CF: Why didn’t he try to learn?
BP: Because he was self-taught. When you’re self-taught, you learn too many bad habits, and bad habits can be the worst thing for any musician. B-A-D habits— they are the downfall of 90% of all the musicians in the world.
CF: Give me examples of bad habits for drummers.
BP: Sitting wrong. Drummers should sit up, with their backs positioned as if they had braces behind them and with their feet flat on the floor. If you learn how to play flat-footed, it’s easy to come up on your toes when necessary. If you learn to play on your toes, there’s no place else for you to go. And if you always play on your toes, you’ll end up with nerves, so that when you want to hit something light and easy, you can’t do it. So you lose the subtlety—the beauty. You get “thump” instead of “ting.” It can’t be helped. Also, when you play with your fingers and you don’t use the wrists, you can get all the speed in the world, but you’re not going to be able to sustain it because the tendons will stretch. If your tendons stretch, sticks are going to drop out of your hands. So you need the wrists to help you with power, longevity, and discipline. It takes years to find that out.
CF: You said a key word there—longevity. You’re still playing. Besides the drummers who have died from the abuse of their lifestyles, I’ve seen the ones almost physically crippled from the abuse of their playing styles.
BP: Well, that was what my teachers tried to tell me in the beginning, but my head is so hard. I’m from Missouri. Show me. And of course, that’s exactly what it did— showed me. It kicked me and put me on my back—knocked me down. I was dropping sticks all over the place. It scared me to death.
CF: When did that happen?
BP: The late ’60s. I had so much speed that I was playing everything with my fingers; I forgot all about my wrists. It caught up with me. I went to the doctor. He examined me and said, “Purdie, you’ve stretched the tendons in your fingers, so you’re losing the sensitivity in them, and that’s why you can’t hold on to things. I don’t know what I can tell you to do.” I thought to myself, “I didn’t have this problem when I was playing conventional.” So I went back to playing conventional. The first thing that happened was I started playing with my wrists, and it hurt. I said, “Maybe it’s my wrists,” and so I went back to my wrists.
CF: How long did it take you to get it all back?
BP: About three years.
CF: So you had to relearn drumming.
BP: Thank you. [chuckles] But you don’t tell people that. [laughs] I wouldn’t have had any work! I’d have been out of the business if I’d told people that I had a problem. They would have said that I’d lost it.
CF: Back to the question of reading music: Some people would say it’s confining to play from a chart.
BP: Reading gives you freedom. I am definitely freer with a chart than without one, because now I don’t have to worry about where the music is going. I can see it. The problem is that most people read a bar at a time. You can’t do that; you’ll sound mechanical. And one thing you must remember and understand is that reading is interpretation. That quarter note will be a quarter note no matter who plays it. But it’s how you as an individual interpret that quarter note that makes all the difference.
CF: You’ve got one of the most distinctive drum sounds in the business. How do you achieve your studio drum sound?
BP: Well, in the studio, they try to get the sound as dead as possible—no overtones, no ring. They want a thud—a thump. They add the highs or the lows in the mixing. The sound itself is muffled, so you have to hit the drums hard in the studio to get the sound out. But while you’re hitting hard, you’ve still got to keep the sound musical, and you’ve still got to retain your sensitivity. You have to do all this while you’re banging it out! So you have to fake it sometimes—fake that hard hitting that everyone thinks you’re doing and achieve the sound another way. Instead of dropping the sticks, I can get the same impact by coming off the drum at the same time I’m hitting. That’s wrist action. That gives me the clarity—the crispness of feel. I get the hard sound without doing the hard sound. It takes a lot of years to understand the difference between letting the stick fall down and letting it rebound from the drum. Also, I use the rim a lot, not just on cross sticking. I use the rim and the drum together, but I’m not pressing down on it. I’m coming off so I’m still getting the skin, but I’m getting it higher. It’s not as deep as the sound of the drummer who is just hitting the center of the snare. I want the highs, and I want the brilliance that muffling robs and has to be restored with mixing. So I try to give myself an edge by using the rim, so I can get some of my highs and retain my depth of feel.
CF: How do you tune your drums?
BP: I tune the bass drum first, getting the depth that I want for a live sound, and then making it lower and deeper for the studio. Then I move up to the floor tom, and I just tune it so it sounds good with the bass drum. It’s the same thing with the toms and the snare. I never tune the drums to thirds. It’s the worst thing you can do. You alienate the bass player and the piano, because you’re automatically moving into their register. Stay within the drum sound, and you can’t help but sound good.
CF: Why do you play with the ride cymbal on the left?
BP: It’s easier to get to. Why waste energy? It’s easier to play the ride, when you use it as much as I do, in front of you.
One reason I put the ride over to the left was because I was doing a lot of playing behind artists, and I wanted to see them as they played. I couldn’t see them when I had to reach over for my ride cymbal. I was concentrating too much on my right side when everything was in front of me.
CF: You started with an 18″ bass drum, then you went to a 22″, and now you’re back at 18″.
BP: I played the 22″ bass for two years because Sonor, who I was endorsing, asked me to. The 22″ was alright, but it’s just that everything comes up in the air, so you’ve got to reach further to get what you want. I find that the 18″ bass gives me the opportunity to see more and to be seen more, and I can still get a big enough sound. You don’t need a big bass drum to get a big sound. That’s an ego thing.
CF: How do you feel about the incorporation of electronics in drumming?
BP: Well, of course, the drum machines have taken work from studio drummers. But the electronic drum sound is new and different; it has given a shot in the arm to record sales when things were becoming stagnant.
Simmons approached me a few years ago about endorsing their drums. I liked them, but I couldn’t endorse them, because Simmons wanted me to give up acoustic drums. I couldn’t do that. I like the sensitivity, the subtlety, and the overall feel of acoustic drums. They can take me anywhere in the world; it’s unlimited and unpredictable. Electronic drums are limited; it’s just a chip in there, and no matter how you hit them, the sound comes out one way—no surprises. But I’ve never knocked them, because I like the sound. It takes me to another dimension. I enjoy electronic drums as an appetizer—as a side dish, instead of a whole meal—and that’s how I use them.
CF: You don’t think electronic drums will replace acoustic, do you?
BP: Absolutely not. If you’re going to be an all-around player, you need to master the acoustic sound as well as the electronic. If you’re playing rock ‘n’ roll all day and night, you don’t need acoustic drums because you’re basically playing one way: loud. The sound is controlled by an engineer and the rhythm’s just 2 and 4.
CF: Then you think rock ‘n’ roll will go totally electronic?
BP: It could. Many people think of rock ‘n’ roll as guitar music. It’s not guitar music; it’s electrified music. First, electric guitars became the dominant instrument in rock. Then, you had the bass for a while, and the keyboard’s dominant now. When you think about it, the only instrument that hasn’t dominated in rock is drums. And now with the electronic sound in drums, it’s the drum age—a big new sound, a change. But I’ve been in the business a long time and I’ve seen these changes come and go. The whole music business will never go completely electronic. There’s just too much music out there; one kind will never dominate forever.
CF: Of all the stars you’ve drummed for through the years, who were the toughest bosses?
BP: Well, James Brown was tough. I didn’t even know James when I started with him. Sammy Lowe, an arranger, got me the gig because I could read music. James didn’t like to do a lot of rehearsing when he was ready to record, so I had to be a quick learner. But I was so happy just to be working for him. I’d be sitting at those first sessions smiling like Stevie Wonder, bouncing and rolling and stuff, ready to do the job. I didn’t have any problems with anybody. James and I had no conflicts at first, but after a while, I couldn’t handle his way of correcting me on stage. He didn’t have to run any star trips on me; I knew who he was. He was Mr. Brown to me. We parted company, but we’re good friends now.
CF: What about Ray Charles? Was he a taskmaster on stage?
CF: He’s great, but I’ve seen him really humiliate his musicians.
BP: He did that to me about two years ago in Chicago, when we were doing a reunion band. I hadn’t played with Ray for about 12 years. I came in four bars too soon during a piano intro on a song. He yelled, “Hey drummer, lay off!” I felt two feet tall, but I wasn’t alone; he had already crucified the bass player a few songs before.
One thing you will learn with Ray Charles or James Brown is dynamics, if you don’t learn anything else. And that will stay with you forever. With James Brown, you could go from a whisper to a scream. With Ray Charles, you could go from a whisper to a moan. You could never get louder than the piano. So you learned control, and that means hold in.
CF: Is that good for you?
BP: Well, it’s discipline. But that’s why you go out with different people; you’ve got to let it out of yourself. That’s why you go out on a jam session and go crazy, because you’re bottled in. When you work with Count Basie, Duke Ellington, King Curtis, or Ray Charles, you hold it in. I know; I played with them all. Do you remember the Brooklyn Fox? Allan Freed, the DJ, had big name shows there in the early ’60s, and I was in the house band. I also played in the Apollo house band for a couple of years, on and off. It was good experience for a young drummer like me.
CF: Working with greats like King Curtis and Aretha Franklin must have been magical.
BP: It was. The musical love affair I had with Aretha—what I could do for her with my drums and what she could do for me with her voice—was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. And it was magic that night at the Fillmore West when they recorded us.
It was such a loss when King Curtis died. I was asked to direct the funeral. There were hundreds of musicians calling from all over the world who wanted to play and hundreds of singers who wanted to sing at that funeral. I had to figure out how to put this together, so I decided we would have the band of the century for King Curtis, and we would play “Soul Serenade.” He had asked in his will that Aretha sing that song at his funeral.
There were 10,000 people at that funeral, inside and outside the church. I had the band play from 11:00 to 12:00—60 to 70 musicians—you name it. Then it was time for the singers. This was the choir: Dionne Warwicke, Joe Tex, Brook Benton, Cissy Houston—the list was endless. Then Aretha came in with the lead. When she sang those words to “Soul Serenade,” that place moaned; you could feel the walls of the church moving. Then it was time for the eulogy. Marvin Gaye was supposed to give the eulogy, but he hadn’t been told. So Curtis’ wife and mother asked me to do the eulogy. There had been a eulogy for me to read, but I just poured out my heart instead. I proceeded to tell them what King Curtis had done, not only for me as a young musician, but for everybody who had been touched by his music. He had helped so many of us.
CF: Bernard, what has been your biggest disappointment in the music business?
BP: What people say. Whether they don’t call me for a job, or they say I’m too old to do a job, or that I’m a has-been, it hurts. It hurts if it comes from the same people I’ve tried to help. It hurts the most when it comes from fellow musicians. And of course, it hurts when it comes from producers who are worrying about being “in,” the image—things like that. It hurts since I’ve tried to give so much back to this business, because it’s been very good to me for the most part.
CF: It’ll happen to them some day.
BP: Yes, but they don’t realize that. That’s the nature of this country in all things. Throwaways—hot one day, cold the next. It happens with baseball players where they say they’re too old to play. But it can backfire on those owners when they trade that pitcher to another team, because he’s “washed up,” and he meets them and beats them in the World Series.
For me, it makes me work twice as hard. Sometimes I feel like, wow, I’m going right back to the days when I was auditioning. You actually feel like that. You haven’t auditioned in 20 years, but it’s a different ball game now.
CF: In addition to the work you’ve been doing with Cissy Houston and Dr. John, you’ve got a new group called Purdie’s Evolution. How would you describe the evolution of Bernard Purdie?
BP: I’ve gone from one extreme to the other—up, down, up, down, up—but at the same time, never losing sight of reality, and always coming back stronger each time. From what I did 20 years ago to what I do today, I feel I’ve gotten better. It took me a lot of years to fight some of my hangups. I’ve gone through changes, I’ve learned, and I’m still learning. I’ll try just about anything! [laughs] I’ve learned to let people do their thing and not worry about it if it’s not just right. Don’t force your ideas on people. Let it be. Years ago, I would always have to say something at a session. Today, I can put my hands up in the air and say, “Okay, fine,” and get out of there as fast as I can, because I’m hoping like the devil they won’t ask me what’s wrong. If they ask me, I’ll have to tell them, and I don’t want to embarrass anybody. I learned how to subdue myself; it took me many years.
CF: You don’t think people want to hear the truth?
BP: It depends. Each situation is unique. I never really was trying to force myself on anyone, but I’ve had people tell me later that they wished I hadn’t said something at a session and that they stopped calling me because they thought I was trying to run their session.
CF: So that’s part of being a studio drummer: Keep your mouth shut.
BP: Yes, you have to. They’re paying you to be a drummer. That’s all. Don’t try to change the world. When I was coming along, I didn’t know any better, so they allowed me to say what I had to say. I honestly didn’t know any better; I didn’t know I offended people. But I guess I was like a child. If I didn’t like something, it was all over my face.
I’m comfortable now about what I say and do. I know who I am. But when it’s all said and done, don’t look for all the answers in my words. Just give me a chance to play my drums. Watch me work. That tells you everything about Bernard Purdie that you ever need to know.