ARCHIVE: Sitting Purdie at Jack’s

BP-Cvr.-Japan-MagazineBy TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit September 4, 2008)

Bernard “Pretty” Purdie? You’ve heard of him — even if you haven’t.

Let us ‘splain. For very nearly 50 years, the man who’s been called The World’s Most Recorded Drummer has been putting sticks to skins, steering the back of the firetruck, thumping crucial tub for some of the biggest names in the music business.

Seriously, the biggest. Old school jazzbos like Louis Armstrong and Bucky Pizzarelli. Newer school guys like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. R&B greats like James BrownAretha FranklinRoberta Flack. Symphonic soul composers Isaac Hayes and Quincy Jones. Classic rockers Jeff Beck and Hall and Oates. Country hat Alan Jackson. The Beatles, maybe. The original production of Hair (and its recent revival in Central Park). To say nothing of all those people who defy categorization — Todd RundgrenNina Simone,Stevie Wonder. We could go on and on, but we’re getting a cramp from putting in all these links.

Oh, and when Steely Dan needed someone to lay down the patented “Purdie shuffle” on their biggest-selling albums, they knew who to call. In fact, check that link for a great YouTube video in which Purdie ‘splains the sweet science behind his signature beat.

When the 69-year old Bernard Purdie comes to Red Bank this Saturday, it’ll be in the company of Tom Gavornik — a borough resident, tutor of guitar studies and a jazz recording artist whose too-infrequent releases have gotten noticed by some very influential people, not the least of whom is a certain World’s Most Recorded Drummer.

The two will be appearing at the first in what’s hoped to become a regularly scheduled series of Local Music Day events at Jack’s Music Shoppe, the musical mecca that’s hosted in-stores by people from Springsteen to Simple Plan. It’s an afternoon and early evening of live sets that also features jazz siren Chelsea Palermo, folkie fave Scott Liss, Red Bank’s unofficial musical mayor Chuck Lambert and championship guitar heavyweight Matt O’Ree.

Red Bank oRBit caught up with the always-on-the-move Purdie when he happened to stop for gas — perhaps only because he happened to stop for gas. Here’s how that played out.

RED BANK ORBIT: It’s a surprise to hear that you were appearing in Red Bank at Jack’s — definitely a bonus for anyone who wants to stop by and hear some music. I guess the first question would have to be, what’s a busy player like you doing at a record store in New Jersey on Saturday, when you’ve got a big gig in San Diego on Sunday? And how did you get together with Tom Gavornik?

BERNARD PURDIE: I just met him recently — his bass player, his name is Cummings, got us together. But it’s a bonus for me, you see, because I happen to be very impressed with Tom’s music.

I know him as a guy who gives lessons out of his home in Red Bank, but the handful of CDs that he’s released seem to be really well regarded among musicians.

Absolutely. His stuff gets attention in the right places, because it’s good. (Purdie interrupts himself here to order “$20 worth of hi-test” from a station attendant)

I’m looking at your itinerary, and you’re gonna be all over the map in the coming weeks — not just San Diego, but Santiago, Chile. You’re gonna need more than 20 bucks’ worth to make it into Chile! So it seems you’re still up for just about any gig, any place? Do you lug a drum kit around everywhere you go, or just improvise from whatever pots and pans are handy?

Listen, I can make great results from pots and pans! That’s how I started, me and my pots and pans. But I can work with any set of drums because I learned about tuning from my teacher. I can make anyone’s set sound like Bernard Purdie.

I know you teach at the New School, so you surely have a lot to say about the value of music instruction.

I started at the New School 22 years ago, left for a few years and then came back two years ago. I tell people that good things happened for me in my career because I had great teachers, great producers — and great studio engineers, who took the time to show me how to get the right drum sound in all sorts of situations.

I teach R&B Ensemble there, and I’ve been trying to tell my students that you have to learn the business part — you have to learn arranging, writing, composing, and make it all work together for you.

Just looking over the list of people you played with — we could go on all day that way — I’m interested especially in your years with James Brown. His was, I guess you could say, a different kind of band, almost a throwback to big-band days but really out front with a sound that hadn’t been heard before.

I racked up a lot of mileage with James Brown. You had to rehearse a certain amount each day; we all had to learn a particular way of doing things.

Did you ever get hit with one of those famous fines that he would level at musicians who he thought had made a mistake?

Yeah, I got one — and then I gave him two weeks’ notice. He wouldn’t take it back, and I wasn’t the one who made the mistake. Of course a couple of years later I started making records with him again.

After James Brown, a couple of other guys you were associated with have passed away — Isaac Hayes, Jerry Wexler.

Oh, Jerry Wexler was one of the big-time producers for me, in terms of calling me in for sessions. I had my run-in with him, too — I was a bit cocky in my younger years!

One name that really stood out from the list would be The Rolling Stones. You think Stones, you think Charlie Watts. So what exactly did you do for them?

I worked with the Stones in the beginning of their recording career. There were studio musicians then who were called in by the record labels to fix a record, or to play in place of the band. That’s just the way things were done in those days, not just the Stones, but The Animals, all the British Invasion bands. That wouldn’t change until it was almost the 1970s.

And Tom Jones? I thought he recorded all his stuff in London — they would send you there to work with him?

Sure, I went to London to fix a record. At that time you could take your drum kit with you, but the studio would rent one for me when I got there.

So a great deal of your reputation in the industry is based upon this period when nobody in the general public knew who you were, but everyone in the business had your phone number.

There were only a handful of people who were making records at that time. It was great; I was givin’ people what they asked for — I made sure it had the right kind of groove. I fixed records for Decca, RCA, A&M, Atlantic — that’s how my checks came in.

You’ve recorded in all kinds of settings, from the old days of having all the musicians present in one big studio, doing it take by take — and then on to the modern methodology of making records. Do you miss the days of having 20, 25 players together in one place?

More like 75 to 80 people in a room. That’s how it was done with one of the super names.Johnny Mathis, and Sinatra — his whole thing was about the performance in that moment — he refused to work any other way.

But you also worked with Todd Rundgren, who’s always been a meticulous studio guy with overdubs — he was one of the first guys to really embrace digital recording, and he did a lot of things where he played all the instruments himself.

You know, I enjoyed working with him immensely. We did a lot of work up in Woodstock; a lot of experimenting went on up there.

Still, there must have been some sour times for veteran drummers in the 1980s, when everyone was going crazy with programmable drum machines. It’s like a whole generation of drummers was lost there somewhere.

I was still working, mostly playing live, and I had my foot in the door in the studios. But since then, we’ve been coming back to live. And I’m havin’ a good time; playing live and playin’ around with the machines.