Bernard Purdie Signature Shuffle Enjoys a New Life


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For bowlers the ultimate test is the 7-10 split. For card sharks its the hot shot cut. For drummers its the funky little miracle of syncopation known as the Purdie Shuffle.

Youve heard Bernard Purdie better known as Pretty Purdie perform his creation on Steely Dans Home at Last, from the 1977 album Aja. And youve heard variations on songs by Led Zeppelin (Fool in the Rain), Toto (Rosanna) and Death Cab for Cutie (Grapevine Fires).

Created with six bass, high-hat and snare tones, the Purdie Shuffle is a groove that seems to spin in concentric circles as it lopes forward. The result is a Tilt-a-Whirl of sound, and if you can listen without shaking your hips, you should probably see a doctor.

Now the beat has a whole new life. On YouTube dozens of amateurs, aspiring pros and assorted dilettantes have uploaded videos of their attempts to teach or demonstrate the Purdie Shuffle.

But you post at your peril. A guy identified as BazyBeats was savaged in the comments section of the video he posted of his attempt at Fool in the Rain. He slightly bungled the pattern on the snare, and dozens of angry nitpickers let him know it. Eventually he asked them to go somewhere else with your negative, hateful, blackhearted and useless souls.

Mr. Purdie can be found these days at the Al Hirschfeld Theater playing for the Broadway revival of Hair, which has been in previews since early March and opens Tuesday.

For Mr. Purdie, the Hair gig is one of those full-circle experiences that cant be planned. He worked with the shows composer, Galt MacDermot, in New York in the early 1960s, when demos of the songs for the show were first recorded. Those tracks were later refined for the musical.

At the time Mr. Purdie was a relative newcomer to the city, having spent most of his life in Elkton, Md., a town near the Delaware border. One of 15 children, he had started by banging on his mothers pots and pans.

I knew right away thats what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, he said. No matter what happened, I wanted to play the drums.

Mr. Purdie, who says he is 68, was sitting at a sushi bar across the street from the theater, dressed in a dark suit and a satiny white tie. He was an hour from changing into Tommy Bahama-style casual wear and climbing onto the rear of a colorful pickup truck stationed onstage, where he drums for the show.

Hes an ample, teddy-bearish guy with a graying mustache, a hearty laugh and an ego that is legendarily large. For years he showed up at sessions with two professionally made signs, which he would place on music stands near his kit. You done hired the hit maker, read one. If you need me, call me, the little old hit maker, said the other. It was both a gimmick and a calling card, and it would have come across as pure braggadocio except that Mr. Purdie always delivered.

He was one of the top five drummers in Manhattan back when Atlantic was recording here, when all these great independent labels were recording here, said Phil Ramone, a producer who worked with Mr. Purdie in the late 60s and went on to record Paul Simon and Billy Joel. Purdie just had a way of inspiring confidence in everyone.

He also had a way of implying that he was finished with a session as soon as he had nailed his part, which was often before anyone else in the room.

Youd do a first take, and hed put on his overcoat as if he was about to leave, said Donald Fagen, the Steely Dan keyboardist. The problem was that some of the other musicians had just become comfortable with the chords. You had to cajole him to do some other takes so everyone else could polish up their parts a bit.

Within a few years of arriving in Manhattan Mr. Purdie was touring and recording with the greats of 60s soul, funk and jazz, including James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Louis Armstrong. He is heard on more than 4,000 records.

Some of the greats, in his telling, were ornery characters. The Godfather of Soul fined him $25 for a mistake he didnt make, prompting Mr. Purdie to quit. During a concert with Ray Charles in Chicago, when Mr. Purdie started playing a few bars too soon, Charles barked, Dont play, drummer, into the microphone, a rather public embarrassment before a huge crowd.

He would turn around and look at you I always thought the guy could see, Mr. Purdie said. And hed say, What is your problem? Now, what are you supposed to say to that?

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