64 Parishes

Earl Palmer

Earl Palmer was an innovative, influential drummer in New Orleans and Los Angeles.

Earl Palmer

Courtesy of New Orleans Jazz And Heritage Foundation Archive

Earl Palmer with Herman Earnest and Cyril Neville. Ice Cube Slim, photographer

Earl Cyril Palmer evolved from a tap-dancing child into a prolific recording session drummer heard on hundreds of hit records. In New Orleans and later in Los Angeles, his percussion work contributed to thousands of rhythm-and-blues (R&B), rock-and-roll, and pop recordings as well as more than one hundred film and television soundtracks. He is often cited as the most prolific studio drummer in recorded music history.

Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, Palmer drove the tempo for two of rock and roll’s genre-shaping recordings, Fats Domino’s 1950 hit, “The Fat Man,” and Little Richard’s 1955 commercial breakthrough, “Tutti Frutti.” Music critic and historian Robert Palmer was one of many who cited Earl Palmer’s impact. “If any single musician can be credited with defining rock and roll as a rhythmic idiom distinct from jump, R&B, and all else that preceded it, that musician is surely Earl Palmer.”

In New Orleans during the 1950s, Palmer was the most sought-after drummer for studio dates because of his rhythmic perfection. Recording at Cosimo Matassa’s New Orleans studios from the late 1940s to 1957, he helped propel Little Richard’s explosive run of hits, including “Long Tall Sally,” “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” “Rip It Up,” “Lucille,” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly.” Palmer’s other New Orleans-made classics include Domino’s “My Blue Heaven,” “I’m Walkin’,” and “I’m in Love Again”; Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”; and Shirley and Lee’s “Let the Good Times Roll.”

Moving to Los Angeles in 1957, Palmer was even more prolific. His West Coast studio work includes Sam Cooke’s “Shake,” “You Send Me,” and “A Change Is Gonna Come”; Ritchie Valens’s “La Bamba”; Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues”; New Orleans expat Larry Williams’s “Boney Moronie” and “Short Fat Fannie”; and Phil Spector’s productions of the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep—Mountain High.”

Early Years

Born October 25, 1924, Palmer grew up with his single mother, singer Thelma Theophile, in Treme, the oldest Black neighborhood in the United States. As a small child he tap-danced along Bourbon Street, gaining the innate timing that prepared him for the music career he began in his early twenties. “Being a tap dancer, you’re drumming, syncopation wise,” he explained in a 2003 interview. “I knew the tunes before I played any drums. I knew where the bridge was, and if there was an elongated chorus or a couple of extra bars. I came by all those things as a dancer.”

Palmer also played drums during his childhood, starting with a toy set when he was four years old and continuing with the snare drum he played in a school marching band. In the early 1930s he danced professionally, joining his mother and aunt, the singing Theophile Sisters, on the Black vaudeville circuit. They often traveled with the nationally touring blues singer Ida Cox and her Darktown Scandals Revue.

Following his service in the US Army during World War II, Palmer returned to New Orleans. A childhood friend, saxophonist Alvin “Red” Tyler, encouraged him to invest his GI Bill benefits in studying music and drums at the Grunewald School of Music on Camp Street. In 1947 trumpeter and bandleader Dave Bartholomew invited the twenty-two-year-old drummer to join his band. Bartholomew later told Palmer’s biographer that he was the best drummer in New Orleans. “We had a lot of good ones, but all of them admired Earl,” Bartholomew said.

In-Demand Session Musician

Palmer launched his recording career with Bartholomew, who was then Imperial Records’ artist and repertoire representative in New Orleans. Palmer’s early sessions included Bartholomew’s recordings and local talent Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, and Tommy Ridgley. As the decade progressed Palmer also recorded with Professor Longhair, Ernie K-Doe, Earl King, Smiley Lewis, and Huey “Piano” Smith.

Perhaps Palmer’s most consequential New Orleans session happened in 1955, when Specialty Records producer Bumps Blackwell brought Little Richard to Matassa’s studio. The sessions yielded the singer-pianist’s ground-breaking “Tutti Frutti,” a recording that broke dramatically from the shuffle rhythms Palmer had previously recorded with Domino and others. “The only reason I started playing what they came to call a rock and roll beat came from trying to match Richard’s right hand,” Palmer said. “Richard moved from a shuffle to that straight eighth-note feeling.”

In 1957 Palmer moved to Los Angeles to escape racial discrimination in New Orleans as well as to find more and better-paid studio work. He initially scouted for new talent in his role as an artist-and-repertoire (A&R) representative for Aladdin Records but went freelance in 1958, recording for the city’s many labels in many studios. The drummer and percussionist estimated that he played for five times as many sessions in a single year in Los Angeles than he had during his entire career in New Orleans. Busy making rock-and-roll hits in the late 1950s, the early 1960s saw him playing sessions for urbane vocalists Frank Sinatra (Sinatra and Swingin’ Brass), Ray Charles (Modern Sounds in Country and Western), and Sarah Vaughan, as well as film and TV soundtracks. “Earl took over,” said session bassist Carol Kaye. “He was the greatest drummer I’d ever heard.”

Pragmatic and versatile, Palmer accepted an eclectic array of studio work. In the 1960s and 1970s he recorded with Bobby Darin, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Beach Boys, Petula Clark, Neil Young, Bonnie Raitt, Buck Owens, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson. “It was a professional job to me now, and I took pride in being able to do this, that, and the other,” he said. “Like it or not, I took pride in playing it, and I tried to play it, all of it, like it was my favorite.”

Acclaim and Late-Career Projects

Backbeat: Earl Palmer’s Story, a 1999 biography and oral history written in collaboration with Tony Scherman, and the release of a compilation of his recordings by London’s Ace Records preceded Palmer’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. His late-career recordings include 1994’s The Ultimate Session, an all-star collaboration with New Orleans peers Lee Allen, Alvin “Red” Tyler, Allen Toussaint, Edward Frank, and Dr. John. In 2000 Palmer participated in San Francisco singer-pianist Mitch Woods’s reunion of studio musicians who worked with Bartholomew. The sessions and interviews were released as the CD/DVD package Big Easy Boogie. In 2002 Palmer’s reunion performance with Bartholomew was a highlight of the Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans. Palmer died on September 19, 2008, in Los Angeles at eighty-three years old. Married four times, he was survived by his wife, Jeline, seven children, twenty grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.