The bedrock of New Orleans R&B in the late 40s and early 50s was that funky second-line backbeat that powered the records of Fats, Fess, Little Richard and the like, which got the whole world dancing. More often than not, the man behind the drumkit on those sessions was Earl Palmer. Like Fred Below‘s Blues shuffle in Chicago, Earl’s distinctive feel for the New Orleans ‘parade beat’ gave his work the signature sound of his native city. After a move to the West coast, Earl spent his later career as one of the most sought-after session drummers in LA, and this jovial, good-natured figure was always in the studio with the hottest backing musicians in the business, as immortalised in Denny Tedesco’s brilliant documentary film, ‘The Wrecking Crew’.
Earl Cyril Palmer was born in the Tremé district of New Orleans in 1924, and spent much of his early life on the road with his mother and aunt in Ida Cox
‘s ‘Darktown Scandals Revue’. Pretty soon Earl was tap-dancing and when he took to the drums as a teenager, adventurous be-bop rhythms were seeping into ‘mainstream’ swing music. Service in WWII interrupted Earl’s progress, but after he was discharged, he studied piano and percussion at the Gruenwald School in his hometown, paying the bills by drumming behind ‘exotic dancers’ in the clubs. Dave Bartholemew
hired him for his jazz combo in 1947, and when the band came to terms with Earl’s Afro-Cuban backbeat, a distinctive template for New Orleans R&B began to emerge. Earl was in Dave’s band, crammed into Cosimo Matassa
‘s tiny studio in December 1949, when Fats Domino
‘s breakthrough single ‘The Fat Man’ was recorded. He went on to provide the same service on Professor Longhair
‘s ‘Tipitina’, Lloyd Price
‘s ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’, Smiley Lewis
‘s ‘I Hear You Knockin’ and Little Richard
‘s ‘Tutti Frutti’. These massive R&B hits were pounding out of radios and juke-boxes all over the world as that infectious rockin’ beat had everyone dancing. It is rumoured that Earl was first to use the word ‘funky’ to explain to fellow musicians the ‘syncopated feel’ he was setting up for them.
Earl’s long career is celebrated with this 30 track collection of mainly R&B hits, from Fats, Little Richard, Etta, Eddie Cochran, Richie Valens and many more.
BACKBEAT…THE WORLD’S GREATEST DRUMMER.
After many years as a ‘first-call’ session drummer in New Orleans, Earl was tempted to the West-coast in 1957 by a contract with Aladdin Records. From the early 60s onwards, Earl was part of ‘The Wrecking Crew’, a team of top LA session men who backed everyone from BB King
to the Beach Boys via Dizzy Gillespie and the Monkees. He played on Eddie Cochran’s ‘Summertime Blues’, Richie Valens’ ‘La Bamba’, the Righteous Brothers ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ and Ike
and Tina’s ‘River Deep, Mountain High’, and his Musicians Union log shows he played 450 dates in 1967. The Film and TV industries kept Earl busy too, with the TV themes for ‘The Flintstones’ cartoon and ‘Mission Impossible’ and films like ‘Lady Sings the Blues’ and ‘The Fabulous Baker Boys’, among literally hundreds of others. Earl’s later work includes many great albums with Tom Waits, Tim Buckley, Little Feat, Randy Newman, Elvis Costello and Bonnie Raitt
, and he is rightly honoured as one of the greatest session drummers of all time, earning a place in The Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame. After a long period of illness, Earl passed away in California in 2008.