He was born on October 25th, 1924 and began his performing-life as a tap dancer on the streets of the Tremé district of New Orleans. His father was suspected to be a New Orleans bandleader and pianist named Walter ‘Fats’ Pichon. Earl was just five years old and known as ‘Baby Earl Palmer’ when he first began touring in vaudeville with his mother and his aunt in Ida Cox’s ‘Darktown Scandals Revue’.
Eventually the war came and Earl was conscripted into the US army and spent his time in England although it appears he wasn’t doing what he wanted. He wasn’t in a band like many famous drummers I’ve written about – instead he found himself working in a clean-up unit.
His early dancing ability stood him in good stead when, on his demob, he enrolled at The Grunewald School of Music in New Orleans where he studied piano and percussion. He also learned to read music which of course helped his career as a drummer. In the 1940’s he started drumming with Dave Bartholomew’s band and citing Max Roach as his major influence.
Dave Bartholomew was Fats Domino’s trumpet player and co-writer (and incidentally taught to play by the same guy who taught Louis Armstrong). Almost inevitably this association led to Earl playing on Domino’s records. Those seminal tunes, which ultimately turned blues, jazz and Rhythm ‘n’ Blues into Rock ‘n’ Roll, were recorded at Cosimo Matassa’s studios in New Orleans. Besides songs for Fats Domino, Dave Bartholomew had a hand in writing a great many of the R & B songs Earl recorded in New Orleans, which I’ll list in a moment. Incidentally, Dave Bartholomew had once played in the band of Earl Palmer’s alleged father, Walter ‘Fats’ Pichon. It was all a very small world.
Now I’ve written about this before, but Dixieland music didn’t have a pronounced offbeat from the drummer until what was known as the ‘shout’ chorus which was the very last, ‘go for broke’, one at the end. But on Fat’s Domino’s record “The Fat Man”, (written by Dave Bartholomew) Earl broke very new ground by playing the off-beat from the beginning to the end of the song. This became the basis of rock ‘n’ roll drumming.
As time passed Earl’s reputation grew and besides Fats Domino, the likes of: Smiley Lewis, Lloyd Price, and Little Richard called for him to record with them; often at J & M studios. Little Richard later even described him as: “probably the best session drummer of all time”.
I read somewhere that, not to put too fine a point on it, we would all have been compelled to dance by the insistent beat provided by Earl Palmer at some time in our lives! That said here’s an abbreviated list of tracks he played on in New Orleans to get your feet tapping: “Lucille, Long Tall Sally, Good Golly Miss Molly, Rip It Up, Tutti Frutti, I’m Walking, I Hear You Knocking, I’m In Love Again” to name but a few.
In 1957 he decided that he didn’t like the way things were going in America’s Deep South as far as segregation was concerned and headed almost lock, stock and barrel for Los Angeles. So anything credited to him before that year would have been recorded in Louisiana. Arriving on the west Coast he immediately became extremely busy as an A&R man for Aladdin records, although it didn’t take him long to slip back into his old career as a drummer. This was when his career really began to take off with records like “Summertime Blues, Something Else, Love Letters, Cupid, Rockin Robin, Little Bitty Pretty One, Nutrocker, The Ballad Of Paladin, Rubber Ball, Take Good Care Of My Baby, La Bamba, You Send Me, Twisting The Night Away, Shake, I Can’t Stop Loving You”, and he even managed to slip in a couple of Phil Spector ‘wall-of-sound’ classics: “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” and “River Deep, Mountain High”.
He began to record with everybody who was anybody including: Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie, Earl Bostic, Herb Alpert, Paul Anka, Count Basie, Ray Charles, Nat ‘King’ Cole, Barney Kessel, Peggy Lee, Willie Nelson, BB King, The Everly Brothers, The Beach Boys, Bonnie Raitt, Randy Newman, The 5th Dimension, Tom Waits, Neil Young, Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, Bobby Darin, Tina Turner and Elvis Costello. Other super-stars are available so I haven’t put too long a list here for fear the piece would simply become a list-fest. But to put it into perspective the complete list is so complex it may well turn-out to be more interesting to see who he didn’t get around to playing with.
Earl became so busy that producers used to say if he couldn’t make the session, could they hire his drums! Earl found this amusing and asked himself if they thought the drums played themselves. There was a rumour that if they were serious they could have his drums for triple-scale plus cartage!
While he was busy playing on 25,000 tracks on The West Coast, he was ideally placed to make music for Hollywood films too and we began to hear even more of his playing. He’s credited with playing on 500 film scores and some of his masterworks for the silver (or small) screen amongst countless others were: ‘The Flintstones’, ‘77 Sunset Strip’, ‘Batman’, ‘Mission Impossible’, ‘It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’, ‘In The Heat Of The Night’, ‘Mash’, ‘The Odd Couple’, ‘Lady Sings The Blues’ and ‘The Fabulous Baker Boys’.
As far as cymbals and drums are concerned he played Zildjian cymbals all his life, as well as Rogers, Yamaha and DW drums.
Earl Palmer was nicknamed ‘The Metronome’ because he was always on the money and kept a very consistent beat. He stressed in an interview that: “the drums were accompanying instruments, and if you didn’t know how to do that then you’re not a good drummer, you’re a soloist”.
Earl Cyril Palmer, the drummer who coined the word ‘funky’ (meaning syncopated and danceable) died in California on September 14th, 2008. He doesn’t seem to have any regrets other than for the fact that he didn’t get gold discs to show to his grandchildren for the more than 200 million-selling records he’d played on – he didn’t realise you could buy them yourself if the record companies were too cheap to award them to you! When Hurricane Katrina wiped out Fats Domino’s gold discs they were replaced by the RIAA and the record companies but unfortunately the world’s most recorded drummer and Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of fame inductee didn’t get them in the first place. The record companies and RIAA should be ashamed!