Earl Palmer: Hiding in Plain Sight

In his 1978 book Rhythm and Blues in New Orleans, writer John Broven quotes Earl King attributing the word “funk” to drummer Earl Palmer. “At the recording sessions, he would say, ‘Look, man, let’s play a little funkier,’ and the word would start going around,” King said. But Palmer’s not known for funk. He was one of the most influential musicians New Orleans ever produced, and he probably did more than any other single person to invent rock ’n’ roll drumming. The way he played his bass drum and combined it with the snare, informed by the New Orleans parade band style, became such a commonplace sound that we don’t recognize it as anything unusual. Palmer, who liked to joke that New Orleans was the town where even the whitepeople clapped on 2 and 4, defined both basic versions of the rock ’n’ roll backbeat, shuffled and straight.

When 83-year-old Earl Cyril Palmer died on September 19, he hadn’t lived in New Orleans for over 50 years. But his beats never left. How could they? They came up from the streets of Tremé, and they’re still at home there. Palmer’s life encompassed a broad arc of African American show biz. Born in 1924, he started tap dancing in the French Quarter for tips when he was “four, five years old,” he told Tad Jones in a 1994 interview. “The Dog House on Rampart, the Silver Slipper down on St. Claude and St. Bernard, other clubs around town that had floor shows, we’d do three different shows in three different clubs on Friday and Saturday.” Many well-known drummers started out as dancers. “Being a tap dancer, you’re actually playing drums with your feet,” Palmer told NPR interviewer Liane Hansen.

People think of drummers as being about rhythm, but they’re about a lot of things. In the studio, it’s the drummer who leads the way the tune moves and outlines the shape of a piece. As a dancer, Palmer said, “you get to know the structure of a song, so when you become a drummer, you know where you should change color on the instrument, change to another cymbal because you’re on the bridge.”

In the classic Tremé manner, Palmer started to play drums while still a tap dancing child, with a bass drum made from an orange crate (complete with a homemade version of that New Orleans innovation of the 1890s, the bass-drum foot pedal) and a lard-can cymbal. He traveled the vaudeville circuit, getting to know the country while working with his mother in Ida Cox’s Darktown Scandalsrevue. As a child, he sat on Bessie Smith’s lap, and he did a brief stint in the Rabbit Foot Minstrels.

When he was 16, in 1941, he stowed away on a United Fruit Company steamer for a three-day vacation on the down-low in Havana. In Tony Scherman’s oral history/biography of Palmer, Backbeat, Palmer said, “Do you realize Havana, Cuba, in 1941 was one of the wildest places on earth?—gambling and prostitution and dope all over, and music hipper than anything I’d heard to that day.” That there was somewhere with hipper music than New Orleans was quite something for a New Orleanian to admit, but then, he caught New Orleans’ big sister city of Havana at a transcendental moment in Cuba’s golden age of dance music.

Years later, when Tad Jones asked Palmer what was different about New Orleans drumming, he said, “Latin music.” For Palmer, that meant a whole set of moves that became part of his playing, sometimes dropped in with his second line stuff. He came up with ways to synthesize swinging time with the straight time of Afro-Cuban music. His metric mind-funk was essential to Professor Longhair’s 1953 recording of “Tipitina,” and he once analyzed Longhair’s playing as marking a common point between what in New Orleans was called “rumba” and the congruent Mardi Gras Indian rhythms.

After a stint in the army during World War II, Palmer used his GI bill to study music in New Orleans, learning to read music and play piano and percussion at the Gruenwald School of Music. He joined Bartholomew’s band in 1947 and gave Antoine—soon to be “Fats”—Domino what turned out to be an important break.

According to Palmer, he was the one who invited the poorly dressed Domino over Bartholomew’s objection up to play breaks at Al’s Starlight Inn on North Dorgenois Street. Later, Bartholomew would lead Imperial Records head Lew Chudd down a dirt road in the Lower Ninth to the Hideaway to sign the youngster up.

Fats Domino was the first rock ’n’ roll star, and while his first record, “The Fat Man,” might not sound like rock ’n’ roll as it was later defined, it was rock ’n’ roll avant la lettre: boogie woogie simplified and locked down by Domino’s pounding right-hand and insistent bass throb. With “The Fat Man,” a line had been crossed. This stripped-down way of playing boogie woogie, using triplets in the right hand and thumping left-hand power chords instead of walking basses, was less flexible, more driving. Domino followed it with a string of piano-triplet-and-snare-backbeat hits that made him the most successful recording artist of the ’50s besides Elvis.

Palmer played on the seminal hits of R&B and rock ’n’ roll that were cut in New Orleans—Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” (with the backbeat snare way up front in the mix), Smiley Lewis’ “I Hear You Knockin’,” Larry Williams’ “Slow Down,” and many of Domino’s hits. Singers came to New Orleans from other cities to work with that band including Sam Cooke, who cut his first sides as a solo artist in New Orleans in 1956 with Palmer on drums.

When “Little” Richard Penniman arrived at Matassa’s studio from Macon, Georgia, Palmer played a shuffling backbeat behind him, and they started making hits. But one day in 1956, Penniman brought a number where the shuffle wouldn’t work. Recalling the recording of “Lucille,” Palmer said in Backbeat, “with Richard pounding the piano with all ten fingers, you couldn’t so very well go against that.” Instead, he played straight time, in which the eighth notes were equal in length to each other, with a snare on the 2 and 4. The rock ’n’ roll beat was born.

The distinction between shuffle and straight time is crucial. First-generation white rockers played both shuffles (Elvis did a lot of them, with drummer D.J. Fontana) and straight time, often resorting to the Latin book of tricks for the latter (since Afro-Cuban music is all straight time and never shuffles). Buddy Holly, for example, played in shuffle time for “That’ll Be the Day” and straight time for the rumba-rocker “Peggy Sue.” But the second-generation Brit rockers of the ’60s rarely played shuffles because their drummers couldn’t swing. They went for that straight-eighth-note rock beat. By the mid-’60s, the style Palmer had instigated was the main style.

Palmer moved out of New Orleans in 1957. Like many New Orleanians, he went to Los Angeles. He explained his reasons for leaving town at least two different ways on different occasions, but they boil down to the same thing. The first explanation was that he was involved in an interracial relationship with Susan Weidenpesch, who would become his second wife, at a time when such relationships were criminalized by anti-“miscegenation” statutes and could be hazardous to one’s health.

When Tad Jones asked him in 1973 why he left, Palmer said, “The reason most black guys leave the South! Better opportunities! I was the best drummer in New Orleans, but I still didn’t make enough to support my family, while the guys down on Bourbon Street were able to get the better jobs and we couldn’t work those places…. New Orleans would only support the white musicians because they got the better jobs.”

Palmer had played on a string of hit records in New Orleans that we remember half a century later, but he still wasn’t making a living. Sidemen were hired help, and the musicians’ union was weak. Actually, it was “unions,” plural: Local 174 for “white” musicians and Local 496 for “black” ones. (The number of the New Orleans local today, 174-496, reflects the fact that the two merged in 1971.) The division made a mockery of the whole idea of a union.

In Los Angeles, the two color-caste locals merged in 1953 into Local 47, and in Hollywood, the musicians’ union had clout standing alongside the other performers’ unions (SAG and AFTRA). Palmer’s union card was his ticket to getting properly paid to spread his beats through all streams of pop music, and he was a passionate union man. There have been some good obituaries of Palmer, but most of them glided over his commitment to the union. Daniel Wolff, who interviewed him for his biography of Sam Cooke, recalled that “[The union] was what he liked to talk about, more than the music…. The union gave him his due.”

Initially relocating to California to play for Aladdin Records dates, he became a charter member of the studio band that came to be known as the Wrecking Crew, which pretty much defined the music that came out of Los Angeles in the 1960s and beyond. When he got to L.A., he was known as the rock ’n’ roll drummer, which wasn’t a compliment. As Wrecking Crew colleague Hal Blaine recalled, there was a time when Palmer was the only professional drummer who would accept rock ’n’ roll dates. Palmer didn’t mind; asking him to play rock ’n’ roll was asking him to play like himself, because, as he once put it, “I invented this shit.” It was particularly easy when he wound up replaying his second line part from Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’” so that Ricky Nelson could cover the song. There is a story of Palmer listening to a baseball game throughout an entire session on a second pair of headphones and never missing a beat.

Producers in Los Angeles loved to hire Earl Palmer because he could play all by himself what they were in the habit of hiring two, or even three, players to do. Producer Bob Keane hired Palmer for all the sessions on his Del-Fi label including one in 1958 with the barely musically competent Ritchie Valens for “La Bamba.” Palmer played drums and woodblock (the latter via the then-uncommon technique of overdubbing), creating a cha-cha-chá rock template that future rock bands would recycle throughout the ’60s (The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” reproduces the 1-2-cha-cha-chá Palmer played on “La Bamba” all the way through the song.) On Valens’ “Come On Let’s Go,” Palmer created a prototype for garage-rock drumming as we would know it in the ’60s.

He never recorded a slouch because if you hired Earl Palmer, slouching was impossible. He did records built around the beat: Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues,” and Johnny Otis’ “Willie and the Hand Jive.” He did Sheb Wooley’s “Purple People Eater,” and Dante and the Evergreens’ “Alley Oop”—comical records that became hits because they were also so sharp. And then there were the records Palmer played on that were classics from front to back: “Dance With Me Henry” (basically a duet between Etta James and Palmer), “Little Bitty Pretty One,” “You Send Me,” “Twistin’ the Night Away,” Ray Charles’s genre-transforming version of “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” and “Let’s Go Get Stoned.” It’s endless. Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Band’s “Express Yourself.” He was in the Wall of Sound, too, sweating away over the tubs in the snake pit at Gold Star where Phil Spector worked. That’s Palmer on “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” and propelling Tina Turner forward through the sonic sludge of “River Deep, Mountain High.” He capped a collaboration that lasted throughout Sam Cooke’s solo career with the great record of the Civil Rights era, “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

There’s nothing approaching a complete discography of his work. You might as well just list half the hits recorded in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 70s; on the other half of them, the drummer was Hal Blaine, who got started as a session drummer picking up the overflow that Palmer was too busy to do. Palmer played not only on scads of records, but also on major movie soundtracks and TV themes. Thanks to union agreements that producers have been trying to bust ever since, musicians who played TV themes got paid every time the show aired, and playing for movies got you paid when the movie played overseas or on TV. Palmer did The Flintstones theme song and the grooving 5/4 of Mission: Impossible, and Hawaiian Eye, 77 Sunset Strip, and lots more. He had a set-up guy running ahead of him from studio to studio as he polished off three different sessions a day, every day. On some dates, it was both Palmer and Blaine. Together, they created an archetypal big-surf sound for Jan and Dean by playing the same drum part in unison.

He appeared at the Ponderosa Stomp in 2002, soloing on “Caravan” with Dave Bartholomew’s band. Coaxed out of retirement, he came to Piety Street Recording to play on Dr. John’s 2004 album N’Awlins, Dis, Dat, and D’uddah. The tracks he played on are among the best recordings of Dr. John’s long career, especially the minor-key, 12/8 backbeat-dirge version of “When the Saints Go Marching In” that restores the song to a place of honor at the intersection of life and death. Smokey Johnson, with one leg amputated, rocked the tambourine in such tight sync that a casual listener wouldn’t realize there were two players.

Palmer, greatly irritated at being old and infirm, showed up at the studio full of spirit to lay down perfect, simple, funky time that would support Davell Crawford’s spiritual-church harmonies and Mac Rebennack and Mavis Staples’ heartfelt vocals. There would have been no way to make those tracks more soulful. Like so much of Palmer’s work, you barely notice his part, like you don’t notice the oxygen you breathe. But he noticed the oxygen he breathed; a longtime smoker, he was missing part of a lung by then. What he played oxygenated the song. It’s so right, you can’t imagine that it might not have existed.

Which is to say that, like New Orleans itself, the way Earl Palmer changed music was all too easy to take for granted.

Ned Sublette is the author of The World that Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square and Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo.