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The Boston Phoenix Hall-of-Fame Hitter

Drummer Earl Palmer gets his due

By Ted Drozdowski

JANUARY 31, 2000:  Like any good grandfather, Earl Palmer has tried to find interests to share with his grandkids. So far, coin collecting has been a favorite. It's a hobby Palmer says he picked up in the '50s from the bandleader and growling alto-saxist Earl Bostic. But Palmer really started collecting coins 70 years ago, when as a boy of five he began tap dancing on the streets of New Orleans for tips. That's where he learned rhythm. He then became part of his mother Thelma's vaudeville routine, traveling in Ida Cox's Darktown Scandals Review. Next he stepped out to pound the boards with other all-black troupes, like the Bat Brown Orchestra, until he joined the segregated US Army, in 1943. After World War II ended, he returned to New Orleans from Europe and started pounding the drums. And that's how he really made his mark.

Today, Earl Palmer is considered one of the world's finest -- and most influential -- drummers. His career has spanned more than 50 years, starting with Dave Bartholomew's New Orleans R&B band and various jazz groups and continuing on through thousands of LA sessions for films, all sorts of rock, pop and jazz records, and, most recently, B.B. King's 1999 CD of Louis Jordan songs, Let the Good Times Roll (MCA).

Even if Palmer had never moved to Los Angeles -- where he played on Ritchie Valens's "La Bamba," Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues," the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'," Tina Turner's "River Deep Mountain High," and thousands of recordings by Sinatra, Glen Campbell, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, Bonnie Raitt, Jackie Wilson, Buck Owens, Johnny Cash, Neil Young, and so many more that Palmer doesn't remember them all -- he'd still be a historic figure. That's because this is the man who used his sticks to put the rhythmic kicks in rock and roll -- he's the inventor of the backbeat, the hard-pounding, straight-ahead drum sound that was bigger than bebop or Tin Pan Alley pop, that crashed hard on every beat in every measure and pushed singers like a bulldozer.

As Tony Scherman explains in his superb 1999 biography Backbeat: Earl Palmer's Story (Smithsonian), between 1949 and 1957 the drummer sparked the group of New Orleans musicians who became rock's first recording-session band. "Hell, until us, there really wasn't any such thing as studio musicians," Palmer asserts today.

In the small J&M studio, which was built in the back of a record store on Dumaine Street, Palmer propelled hits by Little Richard ("Tutti Frutti"), Fats Domino ("I'm Walkin'," with its revved-up Crescent City street-parade beat), Lloyd Price ("Lawdy Miss Clawdy"), Roy Brown, and others -- sessions that the critic Robert Palmer (no relation) has called "a musical blueprint for rock and roll." Earl's zesty, skillful playing -- acknowledged by early rock drummers like Elvis Presley's D.J. Fontana, Buddy Holly's Jerry Allison, and Sun session drummer J.M. Van Eaton as a prime inspiration -- helped to define the thrust and attitude that's the heartbeat of rock and roll.

Palmer has enjoyed his long career, which has been full of musical and, at times, personal excess. "Many times I thought I wouldn't make it to 75, including recently," the thin, dapper gent laughs over the phone from his Arleta (California) home. "Not just so much from dissipation -- there's been really hard work, especially to get all seven of my kids grown up and educated. That keeps you going. Now I know where the money went!"

Nonetheless, this year brings Palmer a payoff he's relishing. On March 6, he'll be among five musicians inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in the new "Side Men" category. The others who'll be honored at New York City's Waldorf Astoria Hotel are guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer Hal Blaine and the late saxophonist King Curtis and bassist James Jamerson.

For years Palmer has been an outspoken critic of the Hall of Fame. "It's been the consensus of many musicians that the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame is a misnomer, because it only honors singers," he explains. "Singers don't ever perform without music. Yeah, there are bands in there, but where are the instrumental innovators?

"Many times back in the early days of rock and roll, the session musicians were so busy and so hot from doing so many different things that they had a better concept of what the records should sound like than the singers and many of the young producers. To be a producer, it didn't really matter if you were a musician or knew about music at all. People were just named producers for many reasons, most of them having nothing to do with music. You'd be surprised how much the musicians contributed in those days.

"So now, at least there's some respect being given to the sidemen. I'm really happy about it. It's not only an opportunity for myself but for these other guys who have done this great music and played on so many hit records to get some recognition for their efforts. This award hopefully shows that what we did was important."

Palmer also played a vital role in crashing down the racial barriers of the '50s and '60s recording industry. It was something his experience in New Orleans had prepared him for. He grew up in the impoverished and largely African-American Treme District, which parallels the French Quarter. Many of his neighbors, and much of his family, were entertainers. And musicians in particular made an art of finding ways to foil the city's miscegenation laws, which forbade white and black artists from appearing on the same stage, so they could learn and burn together.

But in 1956 Palmer crossed the miscegenation codes in the most dangerous way. He fell in love with a white art student, Susan Weidenpesch. Even before they met, Palmer was bored with New Orleans's session scene. He'd played on hundreds of rock-and-roll records, and recognizing the potential for more diverse musical experiences and more money, he'd tried to persuade his wife, Catherine, to move to Los Angeles -- the center of the music industry. When it became apparent that his relationship with Susan was something more than a fling, he resolved to leave his wife and children and move with Weidenpesch to LA.

Shortly after he arrived, in February 1957, Palmer was hired as an A&R man by Aladdin Records and began finding his way into studio work -- his talent usually winning him a place among the nearly all-white cast of players. Unlike New Orleans, LA allowed Palmer and Weidenpesch to be seen in public as a couple. "That first week or so -- what a honeymoon! Not to have to hide," Palmer tells Scherman in Backbeat. But it soon dawned on him that Susan was enduring "a lot of insults. Heard a lot of things I didn't. Knowing my temper, she kept a lot to herself, 'niggerloving bitch' and shit like that." There were incidents when they were together that nearly drove Palmer to violence.

He learned that in LA's studios things could also get ugly. And not every session leader would hire African-American players. But through endurance and wit, he broke through. In Backbeat, he tells Scherman about a 1960 studio date at which one player "went around the room and invited every other guy except us [Palmer and Ernie Freeman], the only blacks on the gig, as usual," to his daughter's wedding. Later, during a coffee break, the Alabama segregationist Orval Faubus came up in conversation.

"This same guy's opinion was, 'Segregation is a terrible thing, but those people,' meaning us, 'have to be patient. Things don't change overnight.'

"He turned to me and said, 'Do you or don't you agree with me?'

"I said, 'Man, that's a rough question.' I kept scratching my head. He didn't notice I was stepping on his toe, harder and harder.

" 'Hey, you're hurting my toe,' he finally yells.

" 'Have a little patience, man. I'll get off in a minute.' He got my point. We became good friends."

Palmer adds, "In America, we're supposed to think that racism is in the South. I learned long ago, as a child dancing with my mother in the old vaudeville shows, that it was not just in the South. There were times we all slept in theater lobbies or on the bus because we couldn't get a hotel. So it didn't surprise me to see it in LA. You can't legislate what's in somebody's heart.

"What makes me happy is I've lived long enough to see great changes, the diminishing of those kinds of ideas. It's far from perfect, but better than it was."

Palmer's also happy to feel that he's contributed good things to music in his life. "To bring yourself into a situation, as a sideman, and offer ideas or something about yourself as a player that brings a recording to the right resolution -- that's when you recognize you've given something of value." Something that his children and grandchildren -- indeed, every generation of the second half of the 20th century -- can enjoy.

Palmer's picks

Earl Palmer's helped define the sound of rock-and-roll drumming since the very beginning. But he's also been listening over the years, and here's what he had to say about the drummers who have made an impact on him: "One early influence was Sid Catlett, the bandleader. Another wonderful man, who's not living now, was Freddie Coleman, who played in New Orleans. No sessions -- they weren't doing no sessions in New Orleans until we did the Little Richard and Fats Domino things.

"I also like the modern jazz and session guys: Dennis Chambers, Steve Gadd, Dave Weckl. My absolute favorite now is Herlin Riley, a nephew of Melvin Lastie, a great trumpet player from New Orleans. Herlin performs with the Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis."

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