The fantastic rhythm method and legacy of drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie

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Photo courtesy of the artist
Photo courtesy of the artist

Over the course of a career that’s lasted more than five decades (and counting), Bernard “Pretty” Purdie has anchored countless hits spanning virtually every musical genre. Touted as “the world’s most recorded drummer,” Purdie boasts of having played on more than 500 number one hits and with over 2,200 different artists. He’s also, more controversially, claimed to have overdubbed Ringo Starr’s drum parts on early Beatles records.

Even with some allowance made for exaggeration and hyperbole, Purdie is the man behind the kit on countless songs that have provided the soundtrack of American life for the last fifty years. That’s Purdie on Aretha Franklin’s “Rock Steady” and the Queen of Soul’s Live at the Fillmore West; check the liner notes for James Brown’s Cold Sweat and Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud or Steely Dan’s The Royal Scam and Aja; there he is again on Hall and Oates’ “She’s Gone.” His resume goes on to include Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Gil Scott-Heron, Joe Cocker, Todd Rundgren, B.B. King, The Last Poets, N.W.A, Herbie Mann, The Chemical Brothers, Cornell Dupree, and enough other names to fill the remainder of this article.

Given the stunning range of styles and approaches represented by that list, how does Purdie define his own personal sound? “I have a signature,” he says. “My signature is to make sure that the song feels good, no matter what. But I also add to it. I want you to dance. I need you to move your body. I don’t care if you’re sitting in a wheelchair, you can still move your body. Whether you get into it, close your eyes, sway, whatever, you’ve got to let the music move you, let the music groove you.”

Philly audiences will have a chance to experience that signature first-hand this weekend as Purdie takes a rare turn as a leader with four sets at the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz on Friday and Saturday nights, with a drum clinic for musicians earlier on Saturday. The drummer will lead a five-piece band through a set drawing on his vast repertoire as one of the world’s most in-demand session players. “We’ll do some dance music, some listening music, some happy music, some jazz, R&B, pop – I may even touch a little country,” Purdie says. “We’re really going to cover the gamut.”

A native of Elkton, MD, Purdie moved to New York City in 1960. His official biography still lists his birth date as 1939, but he claims that be a couple of years early, a holdover from his arrival in Manhattan, when he needed a cabaret license to play in the city’s bars. “I’m a couple years younger than that, but it’s ok,” he says. “I accept whatever folks put down. But I’m still making records after fifty years and I’m still enjoying it. I’d like for people to know
that age is not a problem for any musician who wants to do it.”

The drummer is best known for his namesake rhythm, the funky half-time groove known as the “Purdie Shuffle,” variations of which can be heard on everything from Toto’s “Rosanna” to Led Zeppelin’s “Fool in the Rain” to – in the hands of the creator himself – Steely Dan’s “Home at Last.” Purdie says that the Shuffle “came from where I live and that locomotive sound from the train.” Despite his presence on so many classic records, Purdie – like so many session musicians – has rarely found himself in the spotlight. Renowned session bassist Nathan East, who will play the Keswick Theatre next week with his long-running supergroup Fourplay, called Purdie “my hero” when I spoke to him earlier this week. But Purdie finds satisfaction in achievements other than fame, he says. “The joy of hearing the record is always the biggest joy for me. But on top of everything else, it means that what I helped create is still going strong. I like what I hear because I like what I’ve done in the past and I like what I’m going to do in the future. We all have to have an ego in order to survive in this business, but it’s great just to be able to create something that’s going to be out there for the rest of our lives and so many more behind us. We’re the standards of the world now.

“The same music that we did fifty years ago still makes people feel good,” he continues, “and that’s wonderful. You can’t beat melodies, and you can’t beat a damn good rhythm.”

Below, watch a video of Bernard talking about some his great recording moments.

Bernard Purdie plays The Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz this Friday and Saturday, June 20th and 21st, Go here for tickets and more information about the shows.

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