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

Bernard Purdie and his band. <em>Cool Down</em>, the latest album by Bernard Purdie & Friends, is out now.
Azumi Oe
Courtesy of the artist
Bernard Purdie and his band. Cool Down, the latest album by Bernard Purdie & Friends, is out now.

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 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.
Ned Wharton is a senior producer and music director for Weekend Edition.