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'We Kept The Music Going': Bernard Purdie On Drumming For Aretha And More

May 20, 2018
Originally published on May 20, 2018 7:42 am

Bernard "Pretty" Purdie is on the shortlist of the hardest-working drummers in the history of recorded music. The list of artists he's worked with, on the other hand, is quite long: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Lloyd Price, James Brown, Steely Dan — on and on stretching back to 1962. On many of those recordings, you can hear a triplet rhythm that's come to be known as the Purdie Shuffle.

"It's a two-bar phrase," Purdie explains. "It's controlled rebound — that's the key. It all came about from the locomotion of the railroad tracks, because I lived next door to the trains that were going to Washington, to Baltimore, when I was a child — 7 and 8 years old."

Purdie's latest album, his first in nearly a decade, is called Cool Down. Speaking with NPR's Lulu Garcia Navarro, he says that although he's been honing his craft since he was a child, at least one of the iconic grooves of his career happened by accident — when a piece of sheet music slid out of place at a session with Aretha Franklin.

"We were actually recording 'Rock Steady.' She's at the piano. Chuck Rainey on the bass. Cornell Dupree. Hugh McCracken, he was there, too. But the thing that happened is that her music fell off the piano," he says. "The red light was on — the red light means you always are recording. Tape was very, very expensive."

So, Purdie says, he seized the moment and bashed out a drum break. "We kept the music going, and I captured the eight bars that has taken me around the world. Everybody thought it was the most phenomenal drum break in my life — and all I was doing was keeping my time. I just smile, because 98 percent of the people of the world didn't know my drum break was an accident. I love it."

Hear Bernard Purdie's full conversation with Weekend Edition Sunday at the audio link.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Bernard "Pretty" Purdie is one of the hardest-working drummers in the history of recorded music. By his count, he's been on 4,000 albums. He's played with all the greats.

BERNARD PURDIE: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Lloyd Price, James Brown.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He's been recording since the early 1960s. This past week, Bernard Purdie released his first album in nearly a decade. It's called "Cool Down."

PURDIE: I still got a little bit left in me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (laughter) No doubt about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Besides being known just for the sheer number of recordings you've done, you're also famous for something called the Purdie Shuffle. And I want you to describe it. But first, let's play a song where we can clearly hear it. This is Steely Dan's "Babylon Sisters."

PURDIE: (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF STEELY DAN SONG, "BABYLON SISTERS")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So explain the Purdie Shuffle.

PURDIE: The Purdie Shuffle - it's a two-bar phrase. And if you'd like for me to demonstrate it...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I would.

PURDIE: Let me play a little bit now with my brushes.

(Playing percussion brushes on tabletop).

It's controlled rebound. That's the key.

(Playing percussion brushes on tabletop).

(SOUNDBITE OF STEELY DAN SONG, "BABYLON SISTERS")

PURDIE: It all came about from the locomotion of the railroad tracks because I lived next door to the trains that were going to Washington, to Baltimore.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When you were a child?

PURDIE: When I was child - 7 and 8 years old.

(Imitating locomotive sounds).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I love the idea of a childhood train being sort of the engine that drove your career.

PURDIE: Well, it sure did. But it was Mr. Hayward who kept me focused. He was my teacher. And he lived in the next block. And I used to go every day, seven days a week. I started at the age of 3, sitting on his stoop and watching him teach other young kids to play the drums. But they had to learn to play the snare drum first before you could play all the rest.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right.

PURDIE: And I was in a hurry because I wanted to play all the drums because I knew I could.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to talk about your new album. You have some special guests playing with you - the Nevilles, vocalist Anthony Cole. But first, let's listen to a bit of the song "Deep In Love," featuring Mayteana Morales.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEEP IN LOVE")

MAYTEANA MORALES: (Singing) Baby, I don't want you one time. I want you all the time. Yeah. And I don't want a diamond or a bent knee. I just want you near to me. And I can't get enough like when you shine your light...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You recorded the album in Brooklyn in an open studio. And usually, drums are isolated, kind of literally walled off. How did that vibe change when you were open to the room?

PURDIE: It changed basically because I learned how to not play so hard like you're playing in a stadium. I just control the sound.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Was it a lot more fun, though, being in an open room with all the other musicians?

PURDIE: Oh, yeah. It's always more fun because it feels like you're playing live.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: With all these amazing musicians that you have played with, I'm sure you have some stories. And...

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...And so I'm going to ask you to tell me some because it's just us two here. No one's listening.

PURDIE: Yeah. Sure.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (laughter).

PURDIE: OK. Somebody that you might know - Aretha Franklin.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Please.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARETHA FRANKLIN SONG, "ROCK STEADY")

PURDIE: We were actually recording "Rock Steady." She's at the piano. Chuck Rainey on the bass. Cornell Dupree. Hugh McCracken - he was there, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK STEADY")

ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) Rock steady, baby. That's what I feel now.

PURDIE: But the thing that happened is that her music fell off the piano. We were grooving. The red light was on. And we kept the music going. And I captured the eight bars that has taken me around the world. And everybody thought it was the most phenomenal drum break in my life. And all I was doing was keeping my time (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK STEADY")

FRANKLIN: (Singing) Rock steady. Rock steady. It's a funky and low down...

PURDIE: I just smile because 98 percent of the people in the world didn't know my drum break was an accident. (Laughter) And I keep on keeping on. I love it. I love it (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Bernard Purdie & Friends album "Cool Down" is out now. Bernard Purdie, thank you so much.

PURDIE: My plasma.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Your plasma?

PURDIE: Oh, yeah. That's a good one. I've been using that for 50 years.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

PURDIE: I love it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.