Saturday, September 20, 2008

R.I.P. Earl Palmer, New Orleans drum legend dies

Earl Palmer, the New Orleans drummer who largely defined the beat of rock 'n roll on thousands of recordings from the late 1940s on, died Friday in Los Angeles after a long illness. He was 84.

Mr. Palmer, dapper and outspoken, may well have been the most recorded drummer in the history of popular music. He stamped his sound on everything from Fats Domino hits to movie soundtracks to the frantic, percussion-heavy theme music of "The Flintstones" cartoon.

"He was my right hand," said Dave Bartholomew, the producer and co-writer of Domino's catalog. "He was a professor of music. (With Mr. Palmer's passing) it's like I died myself."

Mr. Palmer grew up in the Treme neighborhood. He entered show business as a young boy, working as a tap dancer with his mother and aunt on the black vaudeville circuit. After a stint in the army during World War II, he returned to New Orleans and joined the popular big band fronted by Bartholomew, a trumpeter and a friend since childhood.

When Bartholomew became a talent scout and record producer for Imperial Records, he recruited Mr. Palmer as the drummer for recording sessions at engineer Cosimo Matassa's J&M Music on North Rampart Street. Those sessions bore witness to the very dawn of rock 'n roll.

Mr. Palmer's distinct back beat, built on a heavy bass kick and New Orleans second line shuffle, was also influenced heavily by bebop jazz. He considered himself a jazz musician at heart, even though his style, a synthesis of power and subtlety, facilitated the transition from rhythm & blues to rock 'n roll.

Mr. Palmer provided the pulse on scores of Fats Domino singles, including his 1949 debut "The Fat Man" and his hits "I'm In Love Again," "I'm Walkin" and "My Blue Heaven." He backed Little Richard on "Long Tall Sally" and "Tutti Frutti," Smiley Lewis on "I Hear You Knocking," Lloyd Price on "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" and Shirley & Lee on "Let the Good Times Roll."

"Earl was a complete musician, a complete drummer," Bartholomew said. "In the studio, I didn't have to tell him (anything). He would tell me. If it was a sweet song, he knew how to approach it. If it was rock 'n roll, he knew how to approach that."

Mr. Palmer was a fixture on the New Orleans circuit, frequenting the Dew Drop Inn and other nightclubs. "Backbeat: Earl Palmer's Story," Tony Scherman's 1999 oral history-style biography, is rich with colorful tales of New Orleans nightlife and Mr. Palmer's adventures.

But professional ambitions, coupled with frustration over Jim Crow laws in his hometown, compelled Mr. Palmer to move to Los Angeles in 1957. "He brought his big beat to the world," Bartholomew said. "I lost my right arm when he went to California."

On the West Coast, his career as an elite, in-demand recording session drummer intensified. "Leaving New Orleans," Mr. Palmer said in "Backbeat," "was the best thing I ever did."

In California, he worked with legendary record producer Phil Spector on Ike and Tina Turner's "River Deep Mountain High" and many recordings for Motown Records. He is featured on the Righteous Brothers' smash "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" and Ritchie Valens' "La Bamba."

A far-from-complete list of his 1960s credits includes Frank Sinatra, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Bobby Darin, Sam Cooke, Glen Campbell, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Paul Anka, Ray Charles, Nat King Cole, Mel Torme, the Ronettes, the Everly Brothers, the Beach Boys, Willie Nelson, Sonny & Cher, the Supremes, the Monkees and Neil Young. In the 1970s he appeared on albums by Randy Newman, Bonnie Raitt, Tom Waits, Maria Muldaur, Little Feat and Teena Marie.

He also contributed to the soundtracks of dozens of classic films in the 1960s and 1970s. They include "It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World," "Cool Hand Luke," "In the Heat of the Night," "Valley of the Dolls," "Rosemary's Baby," "Kelly's Heroes," "Harold and Maude," "Lady Sings the Blues," "What's Up, Doc?," "Walking Tall," "The Longest Yard" and "The Rose." In the 1980s, his film work included contributions to "Gremlins," "Top Gun," "Predator," "Cocktail" and "The Fabulous Baker Boys."

He played the theme song or incidental music on television shows, including "I Dream of Jeannie," "Green Acres," "Ironside," "The Brady Bunch," "The Partridge Family," "The Odd Couple" and "M.A.S.H."

He continued to record through the 1990s, even as drummers ranging from the Rolling Stones' Charlie Watts to the E Street Band's Max Weinberg acknowledged Mr. Palmer's vast influence and importance. He was inducted into the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.

Mr. Palmer was married four times. His survivors include seven children. Funeral arrangements are incomplete.

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