Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, one of the most recorded drummers in history, has played on thousands of sessions in a career that stretches from the early 1960s to the present day. A native of Maryland, he learned his trade by deputising for his music teacher who often had a little too much to drink. Arriving in New York, he used perseverance to obtain his first jobs. His reputation earned him the rest. By the late 60s he was one of the city’s first-call drummers, the album “Soul Drums” for Columbia’s Date subsidiary marking his debut as a leader. Over the next few years he recorded two more LPs for Prestige and became the drummer in Aretha Franklin’s band, creating his signature break on 1971’s ‘Rock Steady’ and playing on a number of her other hits.
Around that time he was made Musical Director at Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman label, which resulted in him appearing on records by Gil Scott-Heron, Leon Thomas and Gato Barbieri and cutting two albums of his own. The first, “Stand By Me”, appeared via Nashville label Mega. The second, “Soul Is…”, is unusual in that Purdie sings on two of the tracks: ‘Don’t Go’ and ‘Song For Aretha’. In addition to that tribute to his boss, he covers her ‘Day Dreaming’, as well as hits by Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers and the Crusaders. The album ends with ‘Heavy Soul Slinger’, an original by Horace Ott, who also marshalled the band of top session players.
Purdie’s success with Franklin led to him being in even greater demand from outside his usual field of jazz, soul and R&B. The increased workload resulted in him not making his own albums anymore. If “Soul Is…” is anything to go by, that is very much our loss.
By Dean Rudland