You Have Heard Bernard Purdie Play Drums

Buddha-calm and Buddha-bellied, Bernard Purdie sat alone at a huge conference table in the green room of the Clef Club in downtown Philadelphia. At 74, even with sharp white sideburns, Purdie looks youthful: His impish smile is all broad cheeks and squinting eyes, like a little boy turning on the charm when Mom walks in angry. The showmanship extends to his fashion choices, which that day included cowboy boots, a gold watch, a grape-sized pinkie ring, and a silver chain that peeked out from the collar of a jaggedly striped multicolored sweater.

But look past the gleam and he has the presence of a mountain. Nothing rushes him. He unwrapped a massive sausage and green pepper hoagie with the same unhurried precision that defined his work as the most prolific drummer of the 20th century.

“I’m on over 4,000 albums,” he said, a claim he’s made often in interviews. It would be nearly impossible to fact-check, though no one has ever disputed it. “I never looked at any one of them as, ‘Oh that’s a great opportunity.’ It’s a freaking job. I got paid to do my job.”

You have heard Bernard Purdie play drums. He has made you dance. This isn’t about musical taste — it’s just math. “What a Wonderful World.” “Rock Steady.” “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.” And those are just a few of his better-known, uncontested credits. In his heyday, the early ’60s through the ’70s, he was punctual, nailed songs on the first take, worked for hours on end, and played with inspiring energy and perfect, metronomic time. Producers loved him. They called him “Pretty.” Bernard “Pretty” Purdie. You have heard him play drums.

But once the pop industry began to move away from the session-musician business model in the ’80s, Purdie diversified. He teaches private lessons, holds clinics at recording industry events, and regularly travels overseas where he’s heralded as royalty by funk and hip-hop heads. His summer schedule included a Steely Dan tribute in a New Orleans club, a Russian breakdancing competition where he’d serve as a judge and accompanist, and the upstairs bar of a tiny Italian restaurant near Asbury Park, with plenty of others in between. His Philly audience, typical these days, would consist largely of fellow musicians, drummers especially. Many of them would buy Pretty Purdie T-shirts and the autobiography Let the Drums Speak!, which he published in 2014. A crowdsourced documentary about his life, made with his excited participation, is in production as well. The gig coincided with his most recent appearance on the cover of Modern Drummer, the biggest percussionists’ magazine in the world, where a worshipful profile found him dispensing wisdom about finding the groove and smiling while you play.

These are just the latest achievements in a 50-year career of expert self-promotion, another area where Purdie broke ground as a session man. Back when he recorded his first tracks, studio musicians weren’t appreciated or even known by name outside the record industry. But Purdie was one of the foremost sidemen to advocate for his own visibility, and few others had his charisma or cockiness. Everywhere he goes, Purdie is called upon to play his defining creation, the Purdie Shuffle, a notoriously complex four-limb beat that he invented (and quickly named after himself) in his salad days.

It has since become a rite of passage for every aspiring drummer, pilfered even by John Bonham for Led Zeppelin’s “Fool in the Rain.” Well before individuals, let alone backup musicians, practiced “branding,” Purdie had mastered it. In the time of 20 Feet From Stardom, Searching for Sugar Man, and Muscle Shoals, he’s well-positioned to be the latest hero of our culture’s habit for belatedly celebrating its unsung musical legends.

For now, he’s ably cultivating a legend even though his Top 40 days are long past. In Philadelphia, decades after he kept the busiest schedule of any drummer in Manhattan, that night’s ticket bore his name: Bernard Purdie and Friends, one of a few small combos he regularly performs with now.

“It’s taken a lot of years,” he said, “but people are finally starting to come see me for my own thing.”

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Downstairs, in the steeply angled 200-seat theater, the Friends were setting up onstage. Miho Nobuzane, a waifish young Japanese woman, ran scales and checked her charts as a sound man clipped a microphone to the inside of her grand piano. Right next to its open lid, on a stool by his amp, her compatriot Tetsuya Sato tuned his electric bass. Frankie Cicala, a short, middle-aged guy who looks like an extra from The Sopranos, strapped a hollow-body guitar to his upper chest and bent a few strings. Purdie came up the stairs on far stage left and unzipped the drum cases that were waiting for him.

The Clef Club is a jazz school for Philadelphian kids as well as a venue, and one of its teenage students was helping set up the stage audio. He walked over to Purdie’s kit with a cord loosely wound around his palm.

“Do you need a drum mic?” he asked.

Barely looking at him, hands in his pockets, Purdie shook him off. “Don’t need it.”

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He was once that young man himself, at the feet of mentors in a downbeat hometown. Purdie was born and raised in Elkton, Maryland, a county seat wedged between the Mason-Dixon Line and the Delaware border. In the ’40s and ’50s, Elkton was full of old plantation money, and the racial climate was unsurprisingly grim. Black Marylanders were raised to expect a lifetime of labor with no chance of building wealth or improving their lives. His father and grandfather both laid steel for the railway lines, and Purdie joined them from age 6. He held the spikes as his elders hammered. From there, he never stopped working.

“Racially, we were owned,” Purdie says now. “It was slave ownership only worse, because you never knew where you stood.”

But as a child, he seemed to have never thought about race or oppression one way or the other. He moved from track work to newspaper delivery to shoe-shining downtown, which put him in touch with local elites, including the white mayor, John Stanley, who took to Bugsy, as he was then known, like he was his own son.

“Working for the mayor, I could go home with $75 to $100 a week,” he says. “I did anything I wanted, because I was friends with the mayor. I went in any door, ate at any counter. I was 10 years old!”

Purdie evolved into a bona fide local character — the beloved black kid who worked hard, never had a bad word for anyone, and accepted the social way of things. A crowd-pleaser, in other words, and a well-paid one.

Armed with letters of recommendation from his teachers at the black-only George Washington Carver High School, Purdie applied to enter the town’s white school in his senior year.

Purdie in high school.

Cecil County Public Schools

Word spread that the school was about to integrate, and Purdie’s white friends asked him “who the nigger was” that would be enrolling. When he drove onto campus and walked up to sign in, he heard one of them shout, “This is no nigger, this is Bugsy!”

“I was the first black to integrate in the state of Maryland, which I didn’t know,” he says. “I just wanted to go to school with the kids I delivered papers to.”

By that point, Purdie had already discovered the drums. Elkton was a known stop on the so-called chitlin circuit for Southern black musicians, and a robust local gig scene had sprung up alongside.

Inspired by all the nearby talent, young Bugsy became a student of local drummer Leonard Hayward, helping the old man set up his kit and and occasionally stepping in for him on stage when he drank too much. By high school Purdie had a band of his own, a trio called Jackie Lee and the Angels.

This was the late ’50s, and the Angels were an interracial group: white guitar player, Hawaiian bassist, and Purdie on drums. Purdie loved jazz and R&B, but he also loved rock ’n’ roll, and especially country, and he wanted to play all of it. After graduation, he moved to Baltimore, where North Avenue, the borderline between the city’s north and south sides, held a thriving ecosystem of clubs, bars, and burlesque venues.

“You made money if you wanted to in Baltimore,” he remembers today. “Music happened every night, seven nights a week, starting at 5 or 6 in the evening and going ’til 5 or 6 in the morning. Your credibility was being on time, and being able to hold down the chair.” The former 6-year-old rail worker fit in fine.

But Purdie already knew what it was like to be a small-town success. Playing drums was his job, and though Baltimore was comfortable, there was only one place that mattered in the industry.

“New York was the ultimate place to go,” he says. “I needed to go and see the ultimate.” He left in 1961, at age 19.

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After setup and soundcheck in Philadelphia, a few more teenagers brought out a long card table and placed it onstage. A woman about his age and half his size helped Purdie unpack boxes of autobiographies, stacking them carefully on the table next to the T-shirts as the club’s main doors were opened. It was 5:30. A few acolytes came in, approaching the stage in hushed awe.

“You’re a master,” said a black man in a soft leather jacket. A middle-aged white man had brought a drumhead for Purdie to sign. For these and others, including a few who brought their plainly uninterested young sons, Purdie had a few minutes of the vague, koan-like shoptalk that musicians live for: “Being able to read music is what puts you above everybody else.” “I don’t care who you are, you gotta land on the one.”

When the autograph session ended, he turned to the woman who’d accompanied him and handed over a bulging, broken leather wallet held together by a rubber band. “We’re going upstairs to eat,” he said.

“Yes, sir.” This was Celia Thompson, who says with pride, “I’m his better half.”

Thompson’s from North Plainfield, New Jersey, a second-generation Italian-American with an accent that would sound at home in the old Yankee Stadium bleachers. Few people look so satisfied while lugging someone else’s boxes on and off a small stage.

“I’ve been a nurse for 40 years, but this” — being “Pretty” Purdie’s muse and cheerleader — “is the best thing I’ve ever done,” she says.

Four years ago, Thompson’s daughter took her to dinner at a jazz club in Madison, New Jersey, and Purdie happened to be playing in the band. They started talking in the break between sets, though she had no idea who he was. Later, he described his early career, listing some of the songs he played on. Amazed, she told him, “I’ve known you my whole life.”

Since then, she’s traveled with him whenever possible, taking pride in every request for the Purdie Shuffle and every book sold. “I just love watching him soar,” she says. “It’s my joy in life.” Their song is one of his earliest hits, Doris Troy’s “Just One Look.”

“That’s me,” Thompson smiles.

“Just One Look” was recorded in 1963, two years after Purdie landed in Manhattan looking for work. He found it miraculously quickly, in only his first week. He met Mickey and Sylvia, whose biggest song, “Love Is Strange,” from 1956, was about to be re-recorded. Purdie leaped at the job.

Purdie performing with his band at New York’s Lone Star Cafe in 1985.

Ebet Roberts / Redferns

“I had no studio experience in Baltimore, but I wasn’t gonna tell people I didn’t have it,” he says. “All I know is, when I got to that studio, in four hours I made $80. I’d never made that much money. I was rich. No one could tell me otherwise. I bought all the drinks for everyone that night.”

From that point, Purdie’s life switched from Baltimore strip clubs to Manhattan recording studios. As a member of the Brill Building–era hit factory, he would show up to a studio and the producer would supply him with either a new chart or a prerecorded track that he would play over, a process known as “sweetening.” Sometimes the tracks were by established acts; other times they were merely songwriting demos for labels to shop around.

“Just One Look” was intended as a demo, but Atlantic Records released it as a single and it ended up hitting the top 10. It’s not a big drum feature — few recordings of the AM radio period were — but even within the confines of a mid-tempo, three-minute pop song, all of Purdie’s signature elements are in place.

There’s a surprising depth in the bass drum, an uncommon heaviness for the time. On top of it, Purdie layers a simple but insistent snare drum pattern that really swings — he puts just enough space between the notes to make the tune rock back and forth. Compared to, say, Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party” or the Four Seasons’ “Walk Like a Man,” “Just One Look” sounds like a funk song.

The New York studio scene allowed Purdie to bring all of his lifelong talents together — the nonstop schedule ensured that the insatiable workaholic always had the next job lined up, the variety of music allowed him to play multiple genres a day, and his eagerness to please made him a welcome member of the relatively tight-knit community of musicians.

“When I was in the studio, headphones on, I was totally into the band,” Purdie says. “I heard everything. I would start with the volume really low, then slowly bring it up, paying attention to all the nuances.”

Galt MacDermot, the pianist and composer who later wrote the music for Hair, met Purdie in the mid-’60s, after spending a half decade in South Africa. “I’d heard most of the drummers in town by then,” he says today, “and he was by far the best. He translated that African sound that I’d heard into North America.”

To non-musicians, it might seem that the drummer’s main role in a band is to keep the tempo, but that’s only a small part of the job. Drummers give a song its personality: They make it loud or quiet, they dictate where the beat is, and they define the entire character of a band by their relative power or absence. And this, more than anything else, is what Purdie brought to the instrument. He increased the energy and clarity wherever he played. He expanded the dynamic range of pop drumming in every direction — deeper bass, tighter snare, increased volume but also increased subtlety.

Every song has a hundred components — the lyrics, the arrangement, the melody, the production, the vocals, and on and on.

“My job,” Purdie says, “is to make it work.”

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At 7 p.m., Purdie emerged onstage in a short-collared red silk shirt and black jacket. The club, about half full, whooped and hollered.

“It’s your night as well,” he announced as his international group plugged in behind him. “We’re gonna have a lot of fun, we’re gonna enjoy ourselves. And we’re gonna make sure you enjoy yourselves too.”

Then he sat down, hit his sticks together four times, and the group began a slow, bubbling instrumental version of Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day.” Purdie’s shoulders jumped, his wrists snapped, his knees hopped, his feet danced. Throughout, he looked around to each band member and made eye contact, flashing that huge-cheeked smile. Whenever he hit his snare, it was like a rifle shot through the air.

They moved on to a gentle waltz version of “Blue Moon,” then a slow jazz song for which Purdie switched to brushes, then a bossa nova tune with Miko on vocals in Portuguese. A massive guitar feature followed, for which Frankie stepped to the front of the stage and shredded like he was trying to break a land-speed record while standing still.

Over the course of the ’60s, he moved from the record industry’s best-kept secret to a full-on celebrity among musicians without ever seeming to break a sweat, yet he wasn’t known for flashy solos. But his flair shone through in other ways, like the homemade sandwich-board signs he brought to sessions. In bold red and blue, they screamed:

YOU’VE DID IT AGAIN PRETTY HIT MAKER PURDIE

IF YOU NEED ME CALL ME THE HIT MAKER PRETTY PURDIE

The New Yorker mentioned the signs when they featured Purdie in a November 1967 Talk of the Town story, which caught him leading a Shirelles session amid a 12-hour workday behind the kit that also included James Brown and commercial jingles. “I’ve had seven days off in the last four years,” he told the magazine, before listing a few recent clients, including the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, and “all the acts from Motown.”

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 January 28, 2016 at 11:05PM