Although New Orleans has produced more excellent musicians than it’s size warrants. it simply hasn’t been able to support more than a limited number of artists.
Even during the commercial heyday of the New Orleans sound, in the 1950s and 1960s, it was outside record companies that kept the wheels turning. Cosimo’s studio stayed busy cutting sessions for out-of town independent labels, but its location off the beaten path of the recording industry meant that opportunities for musicians to advance their careers and make decent money were scant.
Unfortunately, this situation convinced drummer Earl Palmer, whose Backbeat: The Earl Palmer Story has just been published and is excerpted here, that there was a better place to make a living. Palmer, 74, played on virtually every rock and roll and rhythm and blues record cut in New Orleans between 1947 and 1957.
He later moved to Los Angeles and recorded prolifically for two decades. He may be the most recorded drummer of all time. “I could have stayed in New Orleans and been the best drummer in the city.” said Palmer in 1988 after a Jazz Festival set with the late Alvin “Red.” But I would have starved to death.
“Even when we were cutting all those hits in the Fifties, there was just one studio in New Orleans. I could see that if I wanted to get anywhere in the business, inevitably I’d have to leave the city.”
Palmer was one of the first New Orleans musicians to blaze a trail to the West Coast, a path that would later traversed by Mac Rebennack, Harold Battiste, King Floyd, Plas Johnson, Irma Thomas, Ronnie Barron and many others. Another factor which hastened Palmer’s departure was the prevailing racial climate in New Orleans, a subject which he addresses in his autobiography.
“I had met my second wife and she was white,” said Palmer. “New Orleans was more tolerant than other cities in the South, but a white woman with a black man still wasn’t cool. I moved to Los Angeles in February of 1957, and thank God I did.”
After being shown the ropes by session drummer Shelly Mann, Palmer had no trouble finding work. By the 1960’s, she seemed to be everybody’s favorite drummer. Sessions were often postponed or rescheduled to accommodate Palmer’s busy schedule. Besides playing rock and roll with Little Richard, Ike and Tina Turner, Ritchie Vainu. Johnny Otis and Eddie Cochran on studio dates.
Palmer later toured with Frank Sinatra. One of the book’s most humorous anecdotes details Palmer’s visit to the White House with Sinatra to perform at the 1972 Presidential inauguration. Ace Records is releasing a tribute CD to coincide with the publication of his book. Palmer will be playing at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festival this year.