Music: Slave to the rhythm

Earl Palmer invented rock drumming one day by keeping pace with Little Richard's right hand. He played on hundreds of hits. But was it ever more than just his day-job? By Geoff Brown
Click to follow
New Orleans, 1955. In the cramped and rudimentary recording studio of Cosimo Matassa, an Italian immigrant, a small group of musicians are clinging to the musical coat-tails of Little Richard, an outrageous singer/ pianist from Georgia, who is hammering the living daylights out of the studio piano as he careers through "Tutti Frutti", screaming "a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop, a-lop-bam-boom!"

At the end, as the dust settles and silence falls, Earl Palmer, the drummer on the session, realises that music has changed for ever. After his successful attempts to keep pace with and mirror the relentless pounding of Richard's right hand, the drummer's approach to his kit will never be the same again.

Anyone remotely interested in rock music has been listening to Palmer's drumming since then, usually without realising it. The driving drum fills on Sam Cooke's "Shake"? That cannonade of tom-toms in The Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling"? The charging tempo of Tina Turner's "River Deep, Mountain High"? The feathery breath of brushes in Ketty Lester's "Love Letters"? All Palmer's. Yet, like a lot of Fifties and Sixtie session men, Palmer was a jazz player by inclination and remained disdainful of most rock music.

If these days a little lacking in total recall of the hundreds of sessions he worked, Palmer's story, as told in a new book, is still an object lesson in the evolution of rock drumming. He's full of salty opinions on many long-revered names, too. The habitually lauded New Orleans pianist Professor Longhair? "People got caught up in the excitement and never heard the bad notes... a totally unschooled player and not a very intelligent person... just a guy that played for nothing, for fun, for wine." For Earl, playing was serious work and you got paid. The drink, weed and women came when the tape stopped rolling.

By the time Palmer started drumming he had been on stage for a decade. Most of his childhood and teenage years were spent as a tap dancer (great training for a drummer) in the blues singer Ida Cox's vaudeville show, The Darktown Scandals. His mother, Thelma, also danced in the show.

His father was thought to be Walter "Fats" Pichon, a legendary local pianist/ bandleader. After the Second World War, Earl, already a good drummer, used a GI scholarship to study music and joined Dave Bartholomew's band in New Orleans. He started session work in 1947 and became part of the fabric of popular music.

Even before the Little Richard session, Palmer had provided the muscle behind Fats Domino's 1949 debut "The Fat Man", Smiley Lewis's "I Hear You Knockin'" and Lloyd Price's "Lawdy Miss Clawdy". By the end of 1956 he realised that ambitions and earnings in the Crescent City were limited and that Los Angeles offered a better living and slightly more equitable social standing for a black man. His first wife refused to go with him, so he left her and four children behind. His lover, with whom he'd been running around in New Orleans in some considerable danger - she was white - followed him. They married and had two children.

Earl's studio work was as fecund as his marriages. Lured as A&R man to the independent Aladdin label, he arranged Shirley & Lee's "Let The Good Times Roll", produced Thurston Harris's "Little Bitty Pretty One" and used his know-how when the white pin-up Ricky Nelson copied Fats Domino's "I'm Walking", the prelude to a string of successes.

Palmer's workrate in the Sixties was unrelenting, drumming for pop bands whose studio skills were wanting - notably early Beach Boys and Byrds sessions - and, with Hal Blaine, sharing the load on Phil Spector sessions.

At his mid-Sixties peak he was doing three sessions a day (9am-noon, 2pm-5pm, 8pm-11pm, with jingles squeezed in the breaks) and pulling in $100,000 a year. When self-contained bands who could really play ate into the work, he moved to TV and film work, racking up 22 sound-tracks in 1967-8 and spanning 1961's Judgement At Nuremberg through In the Heat of the Night to 1986's Top Gun and beyond.

Oddly, the most demanding work was reading the complicated dots as he added music to countless cartoons.

Between times he got prestigious album dates, such as Sinatra and Swingin' Brass and The Explosive Side of Sarah Vaughan, but by the end of the Seventies technology could duplicate a session drummer's work at a fraction of the cost. The machine operators had taken over, a fatal blow to the fat years.

Although rock'n'roll had begun in 1951 with Ike Turner's "Rocket 88" (released as a Jackie Brenston single), the drumming of the frustrated bebopper Palmer drove and defined the music better than any other. "Sometimes I felt like I was prostituting myself," he says, but "like it or not I took pride in playing it and tried to play all of it like it was my favourite."

`Backbeat: Earl Palmer's Story' by Tony Scherman (Smithsonian, pounds 14.95)


Benny Benjamin Motown house drummer; in the Sixties copyrighted the modern dance beat by thwacking with equal weight on all four beats of the bar. DJs in the nineties are still at it.

Al Jackson Jr The Southern soul master and Stax house drummer: impeccable timekeeping but suggested that the beat dragged. See also Roger Hawkins at Muscle Shoals and Howard Grimes at Hi.

Keith Moon The Who's one-of-a-kind template for energy rock drumming, the model for all drummers who think their kit is the band's lead instrument. See also Mitch Mitchell.

Jon Bonham Led Zeppelin leviathan. Good, driving group drummer but lengthy solos foretold subsequent hard rock and heavy metal outrages. Has a lot to answer for.

Earl Young Philadelphia International's distinctive house drummer and leader of Trammps. Zipping hi-hat work a speciality. An unsung hero on the best Philly disco records. See also Ed Greene.

Clyde Stubblefield Key member of James Brown's drumming dynasty, who form the most sampled group of stixmen ever. Nat Kendrick, Clayton Fillyau, Melvin Parker and Jabo Starks also served.

Bill Bruford In terms of technique and taste, by far the best British drummer of his and subsequent generations. Came to fame with prog-rockers Yes and King Crimson and later proved an excellent jazz drummer.