*Bernard “Pretty” Purdie is the only musician who can rightfully claim to have played for legendary artists that, in a short list, includes Nina Simone, Donny Hathaway, James Brown, Mongo Santamaria, Miles Davis, Quincy Jones, Bob Marley, B.B. King, Louis Armstrong, Herbie Hancock, Roy Ayers, Dizzy Gillespie, Roberta Flack, Phyllis Hyman, Grover Washington, Jr. Laura Nyro, Les McCann & Eddie Harris, Steely Dan and (in a legendary overdubbing session) the Beatles.
Perhaps most monumental of all was working with the “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin for many years, particularly 1972 on both her Gospel classic Amazing Grace (he’s in the film, too) and the Soul classic Young, Gifted and Black (both for Atlantic Records).
To makes this picture even clearer, when you watch this year’s hit documentary “Summer of Soul” (on Hulu), Mr. Purdie has recorded with just about every artist that appeared on that Harlem stage in ’69!
Born in Elkton, Maryland and a mainstay of the New York City music scene at its `60s/`70s peak, Bernard Purdie is pulling into Los Angeles Thursday evening, September 23rd for a RARE drum workshop at The Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center in Leimert Park. Any drum student or music afficionado in southern California is strongly urged to attend to soak up the knowledge, candor and rhythmic vibrations of The Living Legend.
As a Los Angeles-based music journalist I was honored to score a twenty minute interview with the master in anticipation of his workshop tomorrow evening. What follows is what we discussed:
Galloway: Why did rhythm become such an obsession for you?
Purdie: It was the rhythm and the drums. I heard Leonard Haywood when I was 3 years-old. I had my brother take me down the next street over so I could sit on his drum stool. He allowed me to sit there. And he became my drum teacher for the next 10 years. He was a teacher but he also played in a 14-piece orchestra and taught at George Washington Carver School. I got to hear him every day. After a while, my mother allowed me to cross the one street I had to cross to get to him. And I would be there anywhere from 4 to 6 hours every day. It was the joy of my life. I was only playing the spoons before that but I wanted to be able to play all the rhythms I was hearing and all the sounds he was making.
Mr. Haywood played every style of music. What people fail to realize is that the music mostly being played in my house in the (clears throat) `40s was Country music! There was only one station that broadcast 24/7 and it came outta Tennessee.
No matter what, you had to make the people dance. So, Mr. Haywood was teaching the fundamentals of feeling…having fun and enjoying the instrument – with a positive attitude. In his class, he had one rule: do not speak unless I ask you. Otherwise, you do not exist. The lessons were LISTENING and DISCIPLINE.
Purdie: I hate to say this but when I was 12 years old, I got a chance to play with every artist that came through Maryland – Ray Charles, James Brown, you name it. They allowed me to set up the drums and play with them – usually on just one song. They knew I could play and would not embarrass them on the bandstand.
Boy, was I the happiest person in the world! My ego hit the highest point I thought it could possibly hit…until this other 12-year-old asked to sit in. I had no idea who he was but he had the same kind of attitude that I had. So, they gave him a shot and I was standing on the side of the stage just waitin’ to cut him up when it was my turn. He sat down and started off playing really nice. I told the people, “Give him a solo.” Well, he stood up, smacked the drum and said, “This is the way you do your solo,” and he proceeded to play MY solo lick for lick. When he finished with that part, he jumped up, wacked the snare again then said, “This I what you should have played!” I stood there with my lips flappin’ like, “How did he do this?!” He played it twice as good as me. He was a kid! I was devastated. To this day, I have no idea who he was or where he came from. The lesson THAT day was there’s always someone who wants to take your spot. I understood that. But he never even showed up anymore!
The next time that happened to me I was 22 and it was even more devastating. That time I learned you have to listen to the melody. It was the biggest lesson of my life. There’s always going to be somebody better than you…that knows something different. It doesn’t necessarily make them better but when you have to answer to other people, you better be ready. Because that is how you move forward.
Galloway: I wanted to run just a few people by you to get your impressions of them as musicians and as people. Let’s start with Nina Simone.
Purdie: (chuckles) Nina Simone was a real joy. We had a ball over at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio. She only played a little bit of piano. She was there to do the singing. Back then, you either got 3 hours or 6 hours to cut an album. And when we took a break to have lunch, that’s when you get to know an artist and how they really feel about you. You can establish who you are and ask personal questions. That’s how I got to know so many different artists, one to one.
Purdie: Donny Hathaway was a super, super gem. What most people didn’t know about Donny is that he played 14 different instruments. And he played them well. When he wanted something and they said they couldn’t do it, he’d take their instrument and do it – saying, “This is how I want it.” Everybody’s jaws would drop. (Guitarist) Eric Gaie, (bassist) Chuck Rainey, (keyboardist) Richard Tee and – I hate to say it – Bernard Purdie.
Galloway: What?! Donny showed YOU some stuff on the drums?!
Purdie: I wanted to kill him! (laughs) “Stay over there, Donny! Don’t come over here!! I got it!” I kept messing up this one little thing. He said, “Purdie, you don’t. Now, I’m `bout to show you.” He took the sticks away and played it. I said, “See, I told you I had it!” (laughs) We became super friends. He used to come to my office in New York, every day, for almost 7 years. That’s how close we got. Sometimes it was an inconvenience…so I would have my secretary let me know when he was coming so I could sneak out the back!
Galloway: Mongo Santamaria
Purdie: Mongo was the very essence of what is real Latin, to me. Before Mongo, I had Tito Puente and quite a few others. Mongo liked what I played and how I played it. And that made everything happy for everybody because my drumming never got in the way of his conga drumming. I always supported him.
Galloway: And, finally, Aretha Franklin
Purdie: Well, with Aretha, I was one of the fortunate ones. The biggest thing fir me was the joy. Not only her singing but her piano playing. Phenomenal. That’s how 90% of those records were pure magic.