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Bernard “Pretty” Purdie
Let the Drums Speak!: The Life Story of the World’s Most Recorded Drummer
Bernard Purdie is the man responsible for the dynamic rhythms on Steely Dan’s 'Aja' as well as on too many hits to mention, but the list includes fine recordings by Aretha Franklin, King Curtis, Paul Butterfield, Todd Rundgren, Jeff Beck and James Brown. He has approximately “4,000 albums to his credit.” He has toured with the Monkees and the Beatles and in the 1960's musical, 'Hair'.
Born in Maryland, he was one of fifteen children. By six, he was pounding out beats on his mother’s pie tins and pot lids. By fourteen, he had forged a professional career, playing with carnival and country bands. “Pretty” was determined to learn and master every style he came across; that dream eventually came true. Along the way he was blessed by the kindness of several strangers.
Life was challenging due to their family’s poverty, but his parents rose to the occasion. His father, James, alternatively worked at a diner, on the railroad and caretaking an estate. He was known for “working hard and playing hard.” His mother, Mary, “prepared meals for her family on a coal-burning pot-bellied stove.” A surrogate grandfather named Cap looked after the children and served as an important mentor.
When only about three, little “Bugsy” discovered the home where the local drum instructor, Mr. Heywood, lived. Mesmerised, he would sit on the stoop and eavesdrop on the students. Mr. Heywood caught on to the child’s natural talent and allowed him to practice on his very own drum set, as he became older. Soon Purdie graduated to the apprentice level, where he would help out the Clyde Bessicks Orchestra and be allowed to play a song at the Elkton Summer Concert. He would soon act as “roadie” for band members of the Duke Ellington and Count Basie Bands, when they came through town. Heywood, realising he had a serious protégé, encouraged the young man to learn autoharp and additional instruments to improve his understanding of harmony and to better his orchestration and sight reading skills.
Twice a month, at family reunions, music naturally evolved. He would play metal spoons and “chant rhythms.” One of his teachers noted that he seemed to have an almost photographic memory. He was extremely outgoing and frequently misunderstood by teachers when he questioned material or their answers, as he was incredibly curious and gifted for his age.
Aware of his family’s need for currency, he did whatever he could to help with the bills: delivering flyers, running errands for store owners or showing couples how to locate the local preacher. When shining shoes, he developed a clientele because he not only did an immaculate job, he developed unique rhythms when using the rag.
But it seemed like there was a tragedy at every turn. At eleven, his mother died.
Fortunately a few kind women pitched in to help with housework and childcare, so that James could continue working from dawn until dusk and social workers would be kept at bay, as the children could have been sent to foster homes without this intervention.
Bugsy talked his way into a job delivering newspapers for John Stanley, who would become the mayor of Elkton. It meant getting up at 3:30 a.m. and delivering multiple papers, whilst Stanley kept the van’s motor running.
In 1955, tragedy struck again when Bugsy’s father was shot dead after winning money in a craps game. Stanley was sensitive to the fact that the children were now officially orphans. He would buy him his first drum kit.
Bernard eventually formed a trio, which found work at the naval base club and teen dances. Jackie Lee and the Angels opened for Fats Domino, James Brown, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry, honing their craft and commanding work at bigger and better venues.
In 1959, Bernard became the first black student to attend and graduate from Elkton High School. He was still moonlighting, scrimping and saving. “He gave Cap every penny that he had and helped his grandfather raise his sisters.”
With Stanley’s blessings and assistance, Purdie would also have the opportunity to attend college, which he did for a time, but he was so anxious to plunge into a full-time career and make his mark in New York that he dropped out after some serious soul searching.
He started his own band and convinced them to move to New York. No sooner than he arrived, he was asked to play drums on the updated recording of Mickey and Sylvia’s ‘Love is Strange’.
As a laundry worker, he engaged in “backbreaking manual labour”, but it paid the bills and he was determined to “make something happen.” His original band went back to Maryland, so he built a new band which was booked at elite Bronx clubs.
The book charmingly chronicles the story of Purdie trailing a musician all over town, who needed a session’s drummer, but ignored Purdie’s offers. Purdie followed the man to the gig and finally sat down at the kit, nailing the job, without ever having been formally asked.
He was rapidly becoming an indispensable session musician, with superior sight reading acumen and the uncanny ability to improvise at a moment’s notice in just about any style.
One of his biggest claims to fame is the “Purdie Shuffle,” influenced by “the trains that would shimmy through Elkton at full speed on their runs between New York and Washington.”
He created a strong liaison with Herb Abramson at Manhattan A-1 studio. Abramson had been co-founder and former president of Atlantic Records. Purdie played on ‘Mercy Mercy’ and ‘High Heel Sneakers’. In the 1960s, Brown’s “This is a Man’s World’ reeled from Purdie’s punctuation. He played on Bob Marley’s first three records, embracing the still new, but irresistible reggae form.
And, although he had exceptional talent, he always knew a bit of promotion went a long way. In an act of ‘product differentiation”, Purdie was known to mount his own designed signs on music stands, which read: “the little old hit-maker” or “Pretty Purdie”. Even when producers didn’t catch his name, they would later request, “Get the kid with the signs.”
This warm, insightful memoir rewards the reader with lots of information about the business and the challenges that even a hardworking, driven artist, faces. Purdie comes across as a very, likeable man with immense talent and musical savvy.
The last section dabbles in philosophy and definitions: 'What is Funk?' and 'Purdie Wisdom' take in both. Also included is a section of glossy, colourful photographs that name check key players. 'Let the Drums Speak! is a seriously good read for both pro drummers and coffee can whacking wannabees.
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Bernard Purdie is one of the most sought-over session drummers in the world. In 'Raging Pages', Lisa Torem reviews 'Let the Drums Speak!', his recent memoir
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