Earl Palmer

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Advisory Board Member: 10th annual LA Music Awards

Earl Cyril Palmer (October 25, 1924 – September 19, 2008) was an American rock & roll and rhythm and blues drummer, and member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Palmer played on many recording sessions, including Little Richard’s first several albums and many other iconic Rock & Roll songs. According to one obituary, “his list of credits read like a Who’s Who of American popular music of the last 60 years.”
Born into a showbusiness family in New Orleans and raised in the Tremé district, Palmer started his career at five as a tap dancer, joining his mother and aunt on the black vaudeville circuit in its twilight and touring the country extensively with Ida Cox’s Darktown Scandals Review. His father was thought to be local pianist and bandleader Walter “Fats” Pichon.

Palmer served in the United States Army during World War II, eventually being posted in the European Theatre. His biographer states,

Most Negro recruits were assigned to noncombatant service troops: work gangs in uniform. “They didn’t want no niggers carrying guns,” says Earl; they carried shovels and garbage cans instead. Earl’s job, loading and handling ammunition, was relatively technical, but his duty was clear: to serve white infantrymen.

—Tony Scherman, Backbeat: Earl Palmer’s Story, 2000, p. 47
After the war ended he studied piano and percussion at the Gruenwald School of Music in New Orleans, where he also learned to read music. He started drumming with the Dave Bartholomew Band in the late 1940s. Palmer was known for playing on New Orleans recording sessions, including Fats Domino’s “The Fat Man,” “I’m Walkin” (and all the rest of Domino’s hits), “Tipitina” by Professor Longhair, “Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard (and most of Richard’s hits), “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” by Lloyd Price, and “I Hear You Knockin'” by Smiley Lewis.

External video
Oral History, Earl Palmer shares moments of his life story and career. interview date August 3, 2002, NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) Oral History Library
His playing on “The Fat Man” featured the backbeat that has come to be the most important element in rock and roll. Palmer said, “That song required a strong afterbeat throughout the whole piece. With Dixieland you had a strong afterbeat only after you got to the shout last chorus…It was sort of a new approach to rhythm music.” Reportedly, he was the first to use the word “funky,” to explain to other musicians that their music should be made more syncopated and danceable.

Palmer left New Orleans for Hollywood in 1957, initially working for Aladdin Records. Palmer soon wound up in the Wrecking Crew, a famous group of session musicians who recorded nonstop during their heyday from 1962-68.

The musicians union tracked Earl Palmer playing on 450 dates in 1967 alone.

For more than 30 years he was to play drums on the scores and soundtracks of many movies and television shows. Amongst the many artists he worked with, included: Frank Sinatra, Phil Spector, Ricky Nelson, Bobby Vee, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Eddie Cochran, Ritchie Valens, Bobby Day, Don and Dewey, Jan and Dean, the Beach Boys, Larry Williams, Gene McDaniels, Bobby Darin, Neil Young, the Pets, and B. Bumble and the Stingers, as well as jazz sessions with David Axelrod, Dizzy Gillespie, Earl Bostic, Onzy Matthews, and Count Basie, and appearing on blues recordings with B. B. King. He was also in demand for television and film scores.

Palmer played drums in a recording session with West Coast folk singer-songwriter Jim Sullivan around 1969 or 1970. The album was released twice with different audio mixes. On the Monnie Records album, U.F.O., Palmer’s drumming can be clearly heard, but on the Century City Record, Jim Sullivan the drums, percussion and bass were moved back in the mix.

He remained in demand as a drummer throughout the 1970s and 1980s, playing on albums by Randy Newman, Tom Waits, Bonnie Raitt, Tim Buckley, Little Feat and Elvis Costello.

In 1982, Palmer was elected treasurer of the Local 47 of the American Federation of Musicians. He served until he was defeated in 1984 and was re-elected in 1990.

His biography, Backbeat: Earl Palmer’s Story, written by Tony Scherman, was published in 1999. In later years, Palmer played with a jazz trio in Los Angeles.

Palmer died in September 2008, in Banning, California, after a long illness. He is buried at Riverside National Cemetery in Riverside, California.

Personal life
Palmer married four times, and had seven children: Earl Cyril Palmer, Jr., Donald Alfred Palmer, Ronald Raymond Palmer and Patricia Ann Palmer from his marriage to Catherine Palmer; Shelly Margaret Palmer and Pamela Teresa Palmer from his marriage to Susan Joy Weidenpesch; and Penny Yasuko Palmer from his marriage to Yumiko Makino. His fourth wife was Jeline Palmer, with whom he had no children.