Earl Palmer – From Blues to Rock & Roll and Beyond (Part I)
An Artist Retrospective by Dave Kropf
Part I – A Brief Biographical Sketch
Earl C. Palmer was born October 24, 1924 in New Orleans, Louisiana to a vaudevillian mother, and as early as the age of four he was exposed to the lifestyle of an entertainer. As a singer and dancer, in his childhood he toured with many well-known vaudeville blues artist including Ida Cox. The performance exposure of the vaudeville circuit ultimately led him to discover the drums, where it he took to them easily, having learned a sense of rhythm from his tap-dancing childhood. After a three-year stint in the army from 1942-45, Palmer returned to New Orleans and began his percussion career learning bebop and jazz; however, it was ultimately the blues and R&B that “paid the bills.” Beginning in 1947 he joined Dave Bartholomew’s band in New Orleans and started to make a name for himself in the New Orleans scene.
Palmer recorded several sessions in New Orleans with Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studios where new and influential artists of the area were being developed and discovered. Matassa recorded many significant artists that would later become chart-toppers including Little Richard Fats Domino. Palmer’s association with Cosimo gave the drummer the opportunity to record with many different artists and served to diversify the drummer. These early sessions also solidified Palmer’s status as “the greatest session drummer of all time.”
Palmer remained a New Orleans session, “first-call drummer” throughout the 1950’s, recording several hits including “The Fat Man” (Fats Domino, 1949), “Lawdy Miss Cawdy” (Lloyd Price, 1952), “Tipitina” (Professor Longhair, 1953), “Tutti Frutti” (Little Richard, 1955), “Blueberry Hill” (Fats Domino, 1956), and “Long Tall Sally” (Little Richard, 1956). The success of Palmer’s session work eventually caught the ear of Aladdin records’ executives and in 1957, Palmer relocated to Los Angeles where he continued to record many more hit records such as “Lucille” (Little Richard, 1957), “I’m Walkin’”(Fats Domino, 1957), “You Send Me” (Same Cooke, 1957), and “Rockin’ Robin” (Bobby Day, 1958). Palmer’s career continued to mature and develop as he began to spread out into areas apart from blues and R&B. He went on to record pop hits like Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba” (1964) and The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” (1965). The studio exposure in Los Angeles led to even more prolific session work and Palmer recorded drums and percussion for many television themes songs including the theme to Mission Impossible by Lalo Schifrin in 1965.
It’s interesting to note how, when viewing Earl Palmer’s discography, there is a progression of interests and abilities. In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, Palmer recorded almost entirely R&B records with transitional artists such as Fats Domino and Little Richard. Both of these artists were steeped in the shouter/jump blues traditions and both were piano-playing boogie-woogie performers, and while Domino, more so than Richard, was truer to more traditional blues style, both carried strong jump blues roots. Along with other artists like Lloyd Price and Professor Longhair this group of artists were all integral to the shaping of the emerging New Orleans R&B sound, and laying the groove for all these influential recordings was Earl Palmer – just the right drummer to come along and fuse blues and New Orleans second-line drumming. The end result had a resounding impact on the musical landscape and shaped drumming for decades to come. This style was to become Rock and Roll, and Earl Palmer was there driving it.