Bernard “Pretty” Purdie has played on enough tracks to overstuff an iPod. His drumming is, in fact, pretty. And nasty too. Somehow his groove dances nimbly while simultaneously being anchored, deep fried, and stone solid. How can a beat be so weighty and so light at the same time? It’s Purdie’s irresistible combined pocket of commanding force, nuance, and forward locomotion that shakes butts of all ilk. The drummer’s enormous, real-deal output has helped define what the great American R&B-rooted groove feels and sounds like.
Purdie was born on June 11, 1939, and in 1959 left his native Elkton, Maryland, in search of his drumming destiny in New York City. The week he arrived, the confident youngster landed a recording gig with Mickey & Sylvia of “Love Is Strange” fame. His solid time, funky R&B/soul feel, and big, fat sound led to a rapidly snowballing studio schedule.
Along the way were stacks of classics, including James Brown’s “Ain’t That a Groove,” propelled by an irresistible minimalist shuffle with a cracking rimclick on beat 4, which is contrasted by explosive strokes on the horn breaks. This was quickly followed by JB’s biggest hit of ’66, the torrid 12/8 classic “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.”
Another slice of pure Purdie-ism is the drummer-required listening “Memphis Soul Stew,” on saxman King Curtis’s Live at Fillmore West (1971). Curtis is featured “rapping” over a bass line while introducing essential groove ingredients: “Now I need a pound of fatback drums!” Purdie comes slamming in, and it’s hair-raising funk heaven throughout. That stellar rhythm section, dubbed the Kingpins, was an in-demand presence at Atlantic Records. During the late ’60s and early ’70s, Purdie was also a regular at CTI Records, working with Grover Washington Jr. and George Benson.
Spanning a forty-five-year career, the groove master’s recording résumé includes Hank Crawford, John Lee Hooker, Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Al Green, B.B. King, Arthur Prysock, Don Covay, the Coasters, Laura Nyro, Teddy Pendergrass, Dakota Staton, Joe Cocker, Paul Butterfield, Duane Allman, Cat Stevens, LaVern Baker, Jackie Wilson, David “Fathead” Newman, Daryl Hall and John Oates, Michael Bolton, Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Mongo Santamaria, Bette Midler, Chuck Jackson, Gil Scott-Heron, Bob Marley, and Peter, Paul & Mary. As a leader the drummer has also released several discs that are a joy for any fan of the perfect pocket.
Although Purdie is best known as an R&B drummer with excursions into blues, rock, and pop, his extensive track record also includes major jazz names like Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Jimmy Smith, Quincy Jones, Gary Burton, Yusef Lateef, Herbie Mann, Freddie Hubbard, Shirley Horn, Les McCann, Eddie Harris, Gato Barbieri, Stanley Turrentine, Charlie Rouse, Roy Ayers, Branford Marsalis, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, Larry Coryell, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Randy Brecker, Duke Ellington, Gene Ammons, and Lou Donaldson. And in the early ’80s Bernard recorded and toured with the legendary Dizzy Gillespie.
One of Purdie’s career landmarks is his tenure with Aretha Franklin, helming multiple classic sides from 1970 to 1975. Go directly to Aretha Live at Fillmore West, one of the greatest in-concert discs ever. (The LP was recorded at the same 1971 shows as the aforementioned King Curtis album.) Purdie is volcanic here, along with Curtis, his fellow Kingpins, and the Memphis Horns. From the downbeat it’s fever pitch, with the drummer hitting a funky rockettempo “Respect” and then laying down a killer shuffle on “Don’t Play That Song,” followed by a serious swamp backbeat that segues into hyper-gospel on “Spirit in the Dark.”
Although Purdie cites “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)” as one of his personal favorite tracks with the Queen of Soul, there’s one Aretha hit that the groover undeniably owns: the fiery, pumping “Rock Steady” (1971). That track’s hard-charging 16th-note funk groove climaxes with Purdie’s classic syncopated kicker of a drum break. The drummer really lets us know, as the song says, “What it is, what it is….”
The mid to late ’70s offered Purdie a high-profile outlet with the perfect groove-grail seekers, Steely Dan. Two tracks in particular became the gold standards of his signature “Purdie shuffle”—“Home at Last” and “Babylon Sisters.” Between hi-hat strokes and ghosted snare notes, Purdie keeps the triplets popping while throwing down a backbeat on 3, creating a superfunky yet rolling half-time feel. Although much copied, the pattern remains unique in the creator’s hands.
Laying down the law as Purdie does demands colossal confidence. And Bernard is famously outspoken regarding his drumming contributions. Strutting into a gig with his big-brimmed hat and even bigger grin, this guy means business. But watch the imposing figure land the first 1, and it all becomes clear: This is a big kid! He beams as if discovering the joy of the groove for the first time. And that’s what we feel. It’s why we love rhythm and great records.
There’s the legendary studio lore of Purdie arriving at sessions and mounting banners declaring, “You’ve Done It! You’ve Hired the Hitmaker, Bernard Purdie!” He explains this as a reaction to the injustice of early recording days, when session greats remained uncredited. Fair enough. After four decades of tracking, Purdie’s still laying it down, spreading the groove via records, concerts, and samples, and even on stage in the recent Broadway revival of Hair. The strength of his legacy remains as solid as his backbeat. Bernard Purdie, “You’ve done it!”
“Bernard is one of the nastiest groove machines on the planet,” says 2012 Pro Panelist Matt Chamberlain. “I’m sure his groove has created babies and made people drive off the road. He’s one of those people that could play on anything and it would immediately feel amazing. Genius!”