In Memoriam: The Great Earl Palmer

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Published on: September 21st, 2008

photo of drummer Earl PalmerThe brilliant Tremé-born drummer Earl Palmer passed on Friday, September 19 at the age of 83 in Los Angeles. Palmer's contribution to rhythm and blues and rock and roll as a session drummer is incalculable. He was the ultimate sideman who contributed the back-beat that made the star of the recording session shine. Palmer was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.

Earl Palmer was born in the Seventh Ward in Tremé on October 24, 1924. His childhood resembled the childhood of others in his neighborhood: hanging out at the neighborhood spots, playing ball on Claiborne under the oaks, second-lining at funerals and watching Zulu on Mardi Gras.

In the early '30s, Earl joined his mother and aunt on the black vaudeville circuit. He was part of several shows, but spent most of the time in Ida Cox's Darktown Scandals Revue. "It was the most marvelous life a kid could ask for," said Earl of those early days. "Out of the forty-eight states I'd say we played thirty working the big circuits and the small," Palmer remembered.

Palmer sang, danced and clowned during those early days, but didn't become a musician until he was 22, after he got out of the service. His first recording session was in 1947 for a young trumpeter named Dave Bartholomew. Bartholomew recently said, "Earl was better than any other drummer they had in New Orleans. He was the talk of the town. We had a lot of good ones, but they all admired Earl."

photo of drummer Earl PalmerEarl Palmer eventually worked with everyone. His early work included Fats Domino's "The Fat Man" (and all the rest of Domino's hits), "Tutti Frutti" by Little Richard (and most of Richard's early hits), "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" by Lloyd Price, and "I Hear You Knockin'" by Smiley Lewis.

Palmer left New Orleans in 1957 and headed to Los Angeles, where over the next couple of decades, he worked as a session drummer behind a wide variety of artists including Ritchie Valens, Jan & Dean, The Beach Boys, The Monkees, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Righteous Brothers, Cannonball Adderly, Count Basie, Tom Waits and B.B.King.

His work could also be heard nightly on television during those years, as he was the drummer on the theme music for "Ironside," "The Odd Couple," "77 Sunset Strip" and even "The Brady Bunch." Palmer's real passion was jazz; he always considered rock and roll as his day job.

Palmer came back to the city on occasion, sometimes for WWOZ's Piano Night. Palmer married four times and is survived by his seven children. Funeral services have not yet been announced.

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