Sunday, January 29, 2017

Let the Drums Speak!

Unlike many who were around when Bernard Purdie first laid down his sticks, I discovered the man's identity on a record's liner notes, under "Personnel".  Purdie's 2014 (auto?) biography Let the Drums Speak! repeatedly verifies that it was difficult to know who the musicians were back in the day.  His drumming can be heard on a litany of artists' recordings.  Check this list, not even close to being comprehensive:

Count Basie
George Benson
Cannonball Adderly
Wilson Pickett
Al Green
Steely Dan
Stevie Wonder
The Jackson 5
Aretha Franklin
Alison Kraus
The Staple Singers
The Beatles
Frank Sinatra
Nina Simone

And on and on. Purdie was considered the cream of the crop of session players in the '60s and '70s.  His time keeping and ability to play across several genres put him in great demand. His reputation for his skills with reading a chart cold and his knack for helping to create certified hit records became legend in New York, Los Angeles, and pretty much anywhere artists performed and breathed. Purdie even had signs made up that read things like ANOTHER HIT BEING MADE, which he would place by his drum kits at sessions.  Confident guy.

But there was also a fiery brio, a monstrous ego to match, one that sometimes earned him a deserved dressing down.  Herb Lovelle, a hotshot drummer in his own right, is remembered by the author as one who observed a young Purdie treat others with disrespect, and summarily set the boy straight.   In the documentary about the making of Steely Dan's Aja album, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker reminisce of Purdie's extreme confidence, and the drummer is seen confirming this with his own recollections of the recording.  He managed to convince the notoriously picky duo to allow his patented "Purdie shuffle" a backbeat style that can be heard on "Home At Last" quite clearly.  Also on the later "Babylon Sisters" from SD's 1980 album Gaucho. 

The large personality started early in Purdie's life,  as he grew up as an enterprising but dirt poor kid in Elkton, Maryland in the '40s and '50s.  We get a decent sketch of his (large)family life, often in very cramped quarters. Purdie's ability was obvious from the earliest days, and Let the Drums Speak! spends its early pages on Bernard's (then known as "Bugsy") association with a stern drum teacher who initially only let the boy listen in from the stoop outside.  Much later, when Purdie finally made it to NYC, he spent much energy trying (and once failing spectacularly) to impress Harlem bandleader King Curtis.  Their relationship provides the most satisfying portion of this rather frustrating book.

That's the thing.  For a portrait of such a gifted artist, you'd think someone blessed with the ability to write would've been given the task to document what must have been a highly colorful life.  Purdie himself is credited, yet the book is written entirely in the third person.  I just don't get it.  It creates an odd effect, like someone trying to be cute or weird, never referring to themselves as "I".  I would've accepted this if the writing wasn't so clipped and just, bad. No flow, no real effort at transitions or segues. Even incorrect dates and at least one incomplete sentence!! Let the Drums Speak! reads like a pile of notes that need to be fashioned into a coherent, smooth whole.

Even though Steely Dan get an entire chapter, the near non-information is maddening.  Was Purdie trying to be polite? He does pay them respect, but at least a few anecdotes would've been nice. There have to be some good tales.  Maybe Fagen and Becker (who did contribute some in the Aja video) can elaborate someday. And the acknowledgment of the Ringo Starr controversy? The one that alleges that Purdie overdubbed some of the Beatles' drumming? Another disappointing chapter.

All sad to report.  Even sadder, as I have a signed copy of this book.  A family member met Purdie in a restaurant one night in New Jersey.  I was expecting something as expert as the man's licks.  Unless you're just burning with curiosity, I think skipping the printed word and just listening to the music will tell you far more.

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