Traditional jazz drummer and vocalist Sammy Penn played with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band on tour and in New Orleans.
Samuel Hughes “Sammy” Penn was a New Orleans traditional jazz and brass band drummer and vocalist. A colorful, gregarious figure, Penn is perhaps best remembered as the drummer in Kid Thomas’s band, a position he would hold for more than two decades. In addition to being a powerful percussionist, Penn’s vocals were also widely admired. To amplify his voice, Penn would sometimes hold his snare drum to his cheek so that the drum acted as a resonator, while still drumming with the other hand.
Penn was born on September 15, 1902, in Morgan City. As a child, Penn had an early love for percussion and fashioned a number of instruments out of available materials, including a cheese box for a snare and a washtub for a bass drum. Penn received more formal musical training and guidance from local Morgan City star Jake Johnson and soon became the drummer in Johnson’s band. Throughout his teens and until he moved to New Orleans in 1924, Penn was the snare drummer in a country brass band based in Morgan City. He was influenced by touring New Orleans bands that came through town, often sitting in with them.
Upon relocating to the Crescent City, Penn began playing with the Jules Barnes band. Soon thereafter, Penn became a regular performer in Buddy Petit’s popular group, with whom he would play from 1926 until Petit’s death in 1931. The band performed at a variety of gigs throughout the region as well as train tours and a number of dates in Texas. After Petit’s death, Penn began playing with Mutt Carey, Chris Kelly, and Kid Rena’s dance bands, as well as a number of gigs with Punch Miller and the Eureka Brass Band. In the mid-1950s Penn organized his own ensemble, leading them on a tour to Chicago, Illinois, as Penn and his Five Pennies, where they would play with Mike Delay and Albert French.
A vocalist as well as a drummer, Penn was often a crowd favorite, winning audiences over with his charismatic persona and amplifying his voice with his snare drum when needed, a trick he may have derived from another drummer, Abby “Chinee Bebe” Foster. As jazz writer Geoff Gilbert noted, “To me, the greatest New Orleans drummers for my pleasure were Baby Dodds, Sammy Penn, and Cié Frazier. But Penn had a wonderful second string to his bow. He sang with the same phrasing as the legendary Fats Domino, and with his big cigar and huge smile was a master entertainer.”
As a member of Kid Thomas’s band for much of his career, Penn appeared on all of Thomas’s records and with his band, the Algiers Stompers, when they performed at Preservation Hall. Penn’s best recordings with the band are those found on the Riverside Records album Kid Thomas and his Algiers Stompers.
Penn suffered a fatal stroke while on tour with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and died on October 30, 1969, in LaGrange, Georgia. The Olympia Brass Band played at his funeral.