The old man’s a little tired tonight, quite reasonable for a drummer with over 50 years on the bandstand. He takes a drag of a Marlboro Light, though he knows he shouldn’t. He quickly sips a beer and then heads for the throne. As he sits behind the kit and kicks his trio into action – emphasized with a subtle crash-cymbal accent on the and of 4 on Miles Davis’ “All Blues” – his life passes before him. Visions of tap dancing in the French Quarter for tips. Playing in the studio with Fats Domino and Little Richard. Jamming with Max Roach at legendary New Orleans drummer Ed Blackwell’s tribute concert. Driving a Mercury Montclair to California back in ’57. It all swirls in front of his very eyes as he goes to the bell of his dry ride cymbal on the bridge. Then he loses himself in the music.
A crowd of drummers, including myself, waits patiently to sit in and pay homage to the man, a legend. Considering his reputation as the originator of rock and roll drumming, all are intrigued by his ability to swing the group. Suffering from a bit of jam session jitters, I begin to hyperventilate – pondering how I’ll do behind the king’s thrown – which swells each time the band breaks into another chorus. I quickly head for the bathroom and throw water on my face (is there a doctor in the house?), while listening to him break into an open solo. I’ve just moved back to L.A., and am not only intimidated by his groove, but the pack of waiting stick men. Crack! He’s really burning now, a true sultan of swing, as he trades eighths with the band, while comping the head chart around the toms. “Man, he grooves,” says one drummer sitting next to me. “How did he get so damn good?”
Earl Palmer’s success can only partially be attributed to practice, though he claims that has been quite important. Some of it has to do with good genes: He is a member of a special community of drummers, who by fate, the stars or possibly voodoo, was dropped from the womb into the birthplace of American music, New Orleans. There rhythm and life are one. Palmer, however, did not just become a practitioner of the Crescent City’s old school grooves; he took them and made what is known as the modern-day 6/8 with Fats Domino; he “tutti and fruit-ied them” resulting in a straight-eighth feel, which defined the term “rock and roll” before it was coined. At the same time, he had a keen sense of knowing where opportunity existed, and followed the famous maxim “Go West Young Man,” departing from New Orleans in the late ’50s to make a name for himself in the burgeoning Los Angeles recording scene.
The rest is history. In addition to his heralded status among New Orleans drummers, Palmer is a member of an elite circle of “most recorded drummers” that includes Hal Blaine for his contributions to rock and Billy Higgins for his achievements in jazz. With credits on over 25,000 single tracks, 4,000 records, and 500 film scores – according to music author Russ Wabensky – Palmer’s beats have made it to more wax, tape, eight-tracks and CDs than any other drummer on the planet.
Indeed, a legend.
It wasn’t in Bourbon Street clubs, but on that historic sidewalk where young Palmer tapped out his first cadences with his feet, while listening to the parade/second-line and Dixieland rhythms that grooved the French Quarter. When not hustling tips from passersby, he danced in Vaudeville with his mother at the age of four – an experience that enhanced his understanding of what made the traditional tunes strut. “Tap dancing was a hell of a help in playing the drums in terms of understanding syncopation,” he says. “I learned where the bridges of the tunes came, and when I got to playing drums, I knew how to do subtle things, like alter the cymbal part at the right time.”
Soon after, Palmer added a drum set to his Bourbon Street song- and-dance sessions that featured wood crates for drums, lard can covers for cymbals and a spoon with a rubber band for a kick pedal. Though his setup was crude at best, it gave him the ability to start working out rhythmic ideas that he would soon be showcasing around town – as well as increase his tips.
While he was learning some good ear training, Palmer’s playing experience in his early years, ironically, was quite limited in the second-line domain. His only formal experience at that time came during a brief stint on snare drum with the Joseph A. Craig Elementary School band. “Coming up as a kid, you knew how to play these things, but there were certain jobs that weren’t relegated to the up-and-coming drummers – the old guys kept those jobs,” he remembers. “The older drummers would say, ’You don’t know how to play that kind of music (traditional, second-line parade music) boy.’ It was just a common practice at the time. These days, lots of young drummers can do those gigs.”
Whatever he didn’t acquire in traditional band settings was more than compensated as Palmer entered the club scene, where he had the opportunity to study the artistry of drummers such as Freddie Coleman, Bob Barbarins, and “Big Foot” Bill Phillips. As Palmer approached his teens, he often found himself competing with players much older than he, who appeared relaxed, could swing hard and read charts. “I had a reputation for being one of the best drummers in the clubs for my natural ability,” Palmer says. “But I was being told by guys like (saxophonist) Red Tyler that I really didn’t know what I was doing and that I should get some formal training.”
Upon leaving the military in 1947, Palmer attended the Gruenwalds School of Music in New Orleans to pick up the skills that ultimately enabled him to swing with ease as well as kick a band like “Big Foot” could. He says that his professional career really began at that point.
Boy, did it ever! Fresh out of school, Palmer landed a gig with saxophonist Harold Dejan, whose mother had worked with Palmer’s in Vaudeville. The group regularly played La Vida, a taxi dance hall where sailors paid 10¢ to boogie down with a girl. “On those gigs, if you played drums, you didn’t get much of an intermission,” Palmer says. “You just stopped long enough for the men to change partners and buy a ticket for a dance. And when the drummer was off the band stand, the trumpet player would just sit down and play the bass drum and hi-hat just to keep the time going.”
Working with Dejan also enabled Palmer to expand his rhythmic repertoire. The group, he emphasizes, had to play any kind of music that would keep the tourists and regulars happy. “If someone was from Chicago, let’s say, he might want to hear authentic Chicago-style blues, or maybe a polka,” he says. “Whatever they wanted, man.”