Born Earl Cyril Palmer, 25 October 1924, New Orleans, Louisiana
"The world's greatest rock 'n' roll drummer". That is the subtitle of the Ace CD "Backbeat" (1999), one of the few CD compilations to present a representative overview of a sideman's work, in this case Earl Palmer. The qualification is fully justified. Palmer is considered as the father of the backbeat, the signature sound of the second half of the 20th century. Also, he is probably the most recorded drummer in history. The musicians union tracked him playing on 450 dates in 1967 alone.
Born in the Tremé ward of New Orleans, Palmer was a professional tap dancer by the age of five, later joining his mother and aunt in a minstrel revue on the black vaudeville circuit. He served in the US Army during World War II, eventually being posted in several European countries : England, Holland, Belgium, France and Germany. Soon after the war Earl enrolled at the Grunewald School of Music in New Orleans, under the GI Bill. By then he was already the best drummer in town. Be-bop jazz was his first love, but R&B and blues paid the bills better. In 1947 he joined the band of Dave Bartholomew, which soon became the house band at Cosimo Matassa's J&M Recording Service, the only recording studio in New Orleans. This was the studio that would keep him occupied for the next decade. It is often alleged that Palmer plays on most of the early Fats Domino records, but in reality he plays on only a few of Fats's New Orleans recordings. He was present at the first session in December 1949 ("The Fat Man", etc.) and next on two sessions in 1950, but then it took until January 1957 (the "I'm Walkin'" session) before Earl played behind Fats again.
The arrival of Little Richard at Cosimo's in September 1955 was a turning point for both Palmer and rock 'n' roll. Inspired by Richard's energy, Earl transformed his trademark shuffles into a thunderous backbeat, thus effectively bulldozing R&B into the emerging world of rock 'n' roll. The result was "Tutti Frutti", soon followed by "Long Tall Sally", "Ready Teddy" and other seminal rock n roll recordings by Little Richard. The reason for his move to Los Angeles in February 1957 was revealed in Palmer's autobiography : he'd got himself into a mess after falling in love with a young white woman. This was the South, remember. Just as he was dreading what might happen next, Aladdin Records suddenly offered him an A&R position out in California. So Earl packed his bags, leaving a wife and four children behind, and headed West. Palmer was quick to let Aladdin boss Eddie Mesner know that he wasn't just a drummer but a music school graduate who could compose, arrange, and supervise a record session. The Aladdin deal lasted only a year, but in that time Palmer was responsible (as arranger / producer/ drummer) for some remarkable recordings, by Thurston Harris ("Little Bitty Pretty One"), Big 'T' Tyler ("King Kong") and Gene and Eunice, among others.
Soon he was one of the busiest session men in L.A. Of all the labels that utilised Palmer's services, Class Records was the most consistent and they hired the drummer for just about everything they put out. By far the biggest hit on Class was "Rockin' Robin" by Bobby Day (# 2, 1958). Other session credits from the 1957-59 period include Larry Williams, Eddie Cochran, Johnny Otis, Don and Dewey, Ritchie Valens, the Hollywood Flames, Richard Berry, Ricky Nelson and the Ernie Freeman Combo.
In the studio Earl had almost daily contact with guitarist Rene Hall and saxophonist Plas Johnson (both also raised in Louisiana). The three men talked often about how they could make some extra money without having to leave the studio. They instigated a publishing and production venture called "Record Masters", in an attempt to win some of the spoils that would usually pass them by. Rendezvous Records in Los Angeles was the first company that picked up on the projects and after the chosen single, "In The Mood" (credited to the Ernie Fields Orchestra) became a Top 5 hit in 1959, the follow-up LP gave Earl full arrangement credits on the sleeve. The sixties opened a whole new era for Palmer. There was his own album deal with Liberty, membership of Phil Spector's legendary Wall of Sound, movie soundtracks, TV specials and, as always, still plenty of takers for those never-diminishing drumming talents. He remained in demand in the 1970s and 1980s, playing on albums by Randy Newman, Tom Waits, Bonnie Raitt, Tim Buckley, Little Feat, Elvis Costello and many others. When the powers-that-be at the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame decided to add a new category, "Sidemen" in 2000, Earl Palmer was one of the first to be inducted. During the later years of his life, he played mainly with a jazz trio in Los Angeles. He died in September 2008, after a long illness, aged 83.
(Auto)biography : Tony Scherman, Backbeat : Earl Palmer's Story. Washington, D.C. : Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999. 196 pages. Written in the first person, this book is a transcript of 125 hours of raw material on tape. Includes a selective list of Earl's recorded work. Highly recommended.
CD : Earl Palmer, Backbeat : The World's Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Drummer (Ace 719). 30 tracks, including I Got It (Little Richard), That Mellow Saxophone (Roy Montrell), Shame Shame Shame (Smiley Lewis), Chicken Shack Boogie (Amos Milburn, 1956 version), King Kong (Big T. Tyler), Drum Village, 1 & 2 (Earl Palmer and his Ten-Piece Rockin' Band), Koko Joe (Don and Dewey), Red Hot Rockin' Blues (Jesse James), Rockin' Robin (Bobby Day), La Bamba (Ritchie Valens), Somethin' Else (Eddie Cochran) and In The Mood (Ernie Fields). Annotated by Stuart Colman. Released 1999.
Acknowledgements : the autobiography, Stuart Colman.
Dik, August 2012
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