Earl Palmer Tribute

On September 19, 2008, we lost one of the most influential musicians of the last century. Earl Palmer, more than any other single drummer, was responsible for creating the foundation for the rock and roll drumbeat.

In honor of Earl and his contributions to music, we’ve collected some thoughts and memories from some great drummers, as well as including some of our own. We’ve also included some never before seen interview footage from our vault, featuring Earl talking about his history in the studio and some of the artists he worked with over the years.

Please read, enjoy and remember with us, in honor of Earl Palmer….

Prior to the historic sessions that Earl did with Little Richard at Cosmo Matassa’s, J&M Music on North Rampart and Dumaine, in New Orleans, in 1956, when Richard came with “Lucille”, drummers who played dance music with rhythm and blues bands like LouieEarl Palmer and Zigaboo Modeliste, January 2002 Jordan and his Timpany (sic) Five and Dave Bartholemew, were playing shuffles-even if sometimes with a pronounced backbeat. What distinguished the J&M sessions with Richard, was that in order to accommodate his insistent straight-eights, boogie-woogie, piano parts, Earl had to straighten out his right-hand ride pattern. And this made all the difference. As Earl said in Backbeat, the excellent biography of Earl, written by Tony Scherman, “ With Richard pounding the piano with all ten fingers, you couldn’t so very well go against that.”

Earl left New Orleans in 1957 for Los Angeles, where he ruled the studios for the next 20 or so years, recording with everyone from the Mamas and the Papas to Frank Sinatra and played on countless film soundtracks and TV themes. He was a master musician. But somehow, even though he might sometimes have tended to make less of the rock and roll records he played on before he had left New Orleans, with artists like Fats Domino, Little Richard, Smiley Lewis, and Professor Longhair, these are the records that he will be best remembered for.

I had the great privilege of having worked with Earl, producing a video in 1992 called, New Orleans Drumming, (Alfred Pub. Inc.), where he was reunited with Allen Toussaint and Red Tyler, two other New Orleans musicians of legendary status, and also of having been able to spend considerable time with him over the years, since. And though I value the memory of working on the video, which documents his approach to the drum styles he helped create, it is his friendship that I treasure most. I was fortunate to have spent many hours with Earl, including times like one night about twelve of thirteen years ago, when at 2am, in the French Quarter, walking with Earl, I noticed Levon Helm on Decatur Street, all by himself and I waved him over. Apparently, Earl and Levon had, somehow, never met before, even though Earl had been Levon’s biggest hero on the drums. And it was amazing to be there to witness the meeting of these two musical giants.

Another memory is when PASIC was in New Orleans, sixteen years ago, when Rob Wallis and I had dinner with Earl, along with Zigaboo Modeliste, and Zig made us all laugh so much with crazy stories about the early days of the Meters, that Earl, Rob and I, had to stagger into the men’s room in order to be able to breathe.

Every January at NAMM we would try to arrange a dinner with Earl and some of the great drummers who have been so influenced by him like Jim Keltner, Zigaboo, Steve Smith and others. These were always memorable, with all present sitting in awe of this musical pioneer. I remember also, a dinner in New Orleans with Earl and New Orleans genius Allen Toussaint who was visibly moved to be sitting there with Earl Palmer after so many years of hardly having seen one another, talking about the days when they made music history together.

And another time was on September 15, 2004, when we organized a dinner in Earl’s honor in NYC where we had fifteen or so of NY drummers, including Shawn Pelton, Anton Fig, Tony Leone, producing legend Russ Titelman and others. Earl and his wonderful wife, Jeline, sat at the head of the table. Earl regaled everyone with stories and people spoke passionately about Earl, and about what he had meant to their lives and to music, culminating in someone getting so excited that he smashed a wine glass on the table for extra emphasis. It was quite a night. No one who was there will ever forget it, that’s for sure.

At the NAMM show last January (2008), on the fist day of the show, I was standing with Zigaboo at the show and he got a call on his cell phone from someone in New Orleans saying that he had just heard that Earl had passed away. We were both very disturbed by the call of course, and when we tried to confirm it, we were unable to. I could not get an answer at Earl’s house and for the next four days, the story was circulating around the show. On the night before we left, it had begun to become clear that the story was false. And we were very, very relieved.

It turned out that Earl had suffered a punctured lung-having long suffered from emphysema-and was in the hospital in Banning, CA, near where he lived. I made it a point to drive down there after the show with my girlfriend, Beth, so that we could see him and Giline. He was in really good spirits and laughed when we agreed that rumors of his death had been greatly exaggerated. After that, I spoke to him several times on the phone, including what turned out to be the last time, in late summer, when he didn’t really know who I was. But it was great to hear his voice again, nevertheless.

Earl Palmer will be missed by many people, not only for his tremendous contribution to music, but even more so for his deep sense of humanity and his kindness and good humor. There will never be another one like him. Not even close.

Paul Siegel

Steve Smith

Earl Palmer was a true musical pioneer. He was one of the prime rhythmic innovators responsible for the creation of the groove of rock music. To hear one of the very first fully developed “straight 8th” rock beats with a snare drum backbeat played throughout the tune, listen to Little Richard’s 1956 recording “Lucille.” This is Earl on the cutting edge during this most exciting time in the development of a new musical genre.

I had the great pleasure being a friend of Earl’s. He was a beautiful man, a gentleman with a sharp wit and a big heart. He had me sit in on his weekly jazz gig in Los Angeles a few years back. He was always very supportive of the younger generation, full of encouragement and great stories. One night in particular I hung with Earl, Zigaboo Modeliste, Paul Siegel and Rob Wallis from Hudson Music. The banter between Earl and Zigboo was so funny we nearly asphyxiated ourselves from laughing so hard! To get a sense of Earl’s personality and playing style check out the Alfred Music DVD “New Orleans Drumming.” For me this is one of the most informative of all drum videos ever made and Earl’s contribution is priceless. I miss Earl Palmer.

Anton Fig

Earl Palmer: an absolute gentleman, raconteur and helleva drummer. You’ve heard him – even if you don’t know you have. He has played with everybody and influenced everyone – commanding and in the groove – thanks Earl!

Stanton Moore

You can’t turn on the radio or television with out hearing the drumming of or the influence of Earl Palmer. Earl was one of the first drummers to take the back beat from the shout chorus of a big band tune and play it through out the whole tune. This notion of playing the back beat through the whole song was the spark that lit the flame of Rock and Roll.

Earl made many innovations in his time. His unique way of playing has influenced every one from John Bonham and Ringo Star to Steve Jordan. Bonham’s groove for the Led Zeppelin song “Rock and Roll” was influenced by Earl’s in-between straight and swing playing on the Eddie Cochran tune “Somethin’ Else” (Though Bonham’s intro to “Rock and Roll” was actually “borrowed” from another New Orleans drummer Charles Connor’s intro to the Little Richard tune “You Keep a Knockin'”). Ringo Star’s early playing with the Beatles was often a straightened out version of what the Liverpoolian had heard Earl do on many Little Richard and Fats Domino records. Earl was also one of the first drummers to play the skip beat on the ride cymbal and hi hat in a slow triplet blues.

Earl was a consummate gentleman who will be sorely missed and his contributions to the art of drumming are too great to measure.

Shawn Pelton

It doesn’t get any hipper than Earl Palmer. Absolutely one of the wells of inspiration that we all drink from. I love the story of David Lowery from Cracker asking Earl if he was going to be able to play along with one of the songs in a video they were shooting… and Earl cracked back ” I invented this stuff.” Amen!

I would also have to agree with Charlie Watts when asked, “If there was one session in all of recorded music that he could see…what would it be?” His reply was to be hanging at the Little Richard sessions with Earl on drums.

Getting to meet Earl at a great dinner party that Paul Siegel and Rob Wallis had in New York was one of the most amazing nights of my life. Earl Palmer was one of the nicest cats that ever was, and one of the hippest cats to ever pick up a pair of sticks. We’ll all miss him very, very much.

Rob Wallis, Hudson Music

My first thought about Earl is what a gentleman he was. Many others have spoken who are far more knowledgeable than I am about Earl’s contributions to music. About his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, his tracks on who knows how many records with the likes of Fats Domino, Little Richard, Lloyd Price, The Beach Boys, and his work on millions of sessions for movie soundtracks and TV show themes when he left New Orleans and moved to Hollywood.

What I want to share are some impressions of Earl — starting with his dapper look. The first time I met him, he was wearing dark blue suede loafers with a gold embossed crest on top — a cross between slippers, boat shoes, and something royal. I’d never seen anything like them. They are etched in my mind. And then there was the blue double-breasted sport jacket and ascot. Earl was dapper like Roy Haynes is dapper – just in different ways, with Earl the statesman and Roy the hipster.

Carlo and Steve Gadd, Ernie Ely, Larry Goldnings and Earl Palmer – New Orleans, April 2006He was soft spoken (though you didn’t want to be on his wrong side), and he could grab your attention and hold court, telling stories that left you hanging on every word. And when he told those stories, his eyes would light up and he would often end up laughing at them, like they were being told for the first time.

I first met Earl in New Orleans about 15 years ago. At our dinner were Earl, Zigaboo, and my partner, Paul Siegel. Well Zig and Earl got to telling stories. It went on for hours, each one funnier than the one before. After a while, we got to the point where we were laughing so hard, that I had to get up from the table. My stomach hurt and my chest was in such pain from laughing that I couldn’t catch my breath. I thought I was having a heart attack.

David Garibaldi, Zigaboo Modeliste, Rob Wallis, Earl Palmer, Freddy Gruber and others – NAMM 2002I went into the bathroom to splash water on my face and to catch my breath and a few seconds later looked up and there was Earl doing the same thing. And we started laughing all over again, in the bathroom … at nothing. Just looking at each other, faces dripping wet, each thinking this was a very special night. For me, it was literally the hardest I have ever laughed.

And Earl’s memory was amazing. He could talk about various sessions and records like they happened a month ago and he could talk about different players, songwriters, and producers that his career touched with great detail. How we all enjoyed those stories that were really lessons on the history of American music! Earl worked with them all.

As far as I can see, Earl is as much responsible for developing the backbeat as anyone — what he early on called “the after beat.” Think about that for a minute: It’s like knowing the person who invented the steering wheel, and no less significant.

I have one more personal note to add about Earl. When I was about 10 or 11 years old, for some reason (and I have no idea why) I became obsessed with the title song from a record called “The Lonely Bull,” by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. I played with it over and over for days on end. Recently I learned that Earl played on that record. Thanks, Earl. I’m sorry I never got to tell you how much that song meant to me as I was just starting to play the drums.

My suggestion to you: Go listen to some of Earl’s classic tracks. Google his name and you’ll have a very large body of work to choose from. And while you’re listening, and appreciating his originality and his groove, think about …. those shoes.

Harvey Mason

Earl Palmer was a drumming pioneer, consummate musician, a gentleman and a true professional.

When I first arrived in Los Angeles, Ernie Watts invited me to a session and EP was the drummer on the session. He warmly received me, made me feel welcome and within an hour told me to go to Paramount Pictures as they were looking for a drummer for a TV show. He said it was an acting job and instructed me to be sure and say that I had acted before. I went immediately to the call and to my amazement there were 30 or so actors waiting there turn to be interviewed. I had no idea what was happening but I didn’t feel any urgency about getting the acting job as I was jazzed to be in Hollywood and experiencing something so special. My turn came and I went in, spoke, read a few lines and much to my amazement I was hired. It was a TV movie in which I never actually played the drums but had major speaking parts as a member of a band. I was also listed as a co-star in TV guide along with Jeff Bridges and Yvette Mimmieux!

Another milestone in my budding studio drumming career came when EP couldn’t make a Sammy Davis Show that he’d rehearsed for. He called me to sub for him and I went in and sight read the show. The musicians on the show quickly spread the word and my studio career instantly shifted into high gear. I’ve always thanked Earl for his help and tried to return the favor by recommending him for a few gigs. Earl’s unselfish and self assuredness allowed him to help a young and upcoming drummer. I’ve tried to emulate Earl by doing the same for a few other drummers.

God Bless Earl Palmer, May he rest in peace.

Pat Petrillo

Every time I teach the US Roots Drumming Class at Drummers Collective, I spend 1 full hour of a two hour class on Earl Palmer’s impact and grooves that set the foundation for all of groove music that followed. It hardly seems enough, but it’s the least I can do given our time constraints.

My favorite Earl Palmer track is Little Richards “Slippin’ & Sliddin”, which Earl masterfully lays down with that “in between” feel that only he could deliver. That song has a profound effect on my drumming and feel. Many students are amazed at his feel, and find it hard to achieve, but it is my duty to continue to pass the torch to the next generation of drummers about the great influence of Earl Palmer.

Thanks, Earl. Although we only met briefly, you were a gentleman, and it was a humbling experience.

John DeChristopher – Zildjian Company

So much has been said about Earl being a gentleman, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t say it as well. He epitomized class and humility and came from a generation of musicians that appreciated the simplest things. I remember years ago he called me about getting a different sounding Ride cymbal than the one he had, and I said “of course Earl, no problem”. After I sent it, he called to say how much he loved it and how thankful he was. He was so genuine and sincere. And I remember reading about it in a Modern Drummer interview and I was so thrilled that Earl Palmer mentioned my name!

That was Earl Palmer, the person. But he was equally as impactful behind the drums, creating some of the greatest music the world has ever known. A pioneer, a trail blazer, innovator, master, the accolades could go on forever. I remember at the NAMM show years ago, Earl and Hal Blaine were swapping war stories about their days in the LA studios (Hal was a little more “colorful” – Earl was always the perfect gentleman) and I was laughing so hard, I was practically in tears. The genuine love and respect they had for each other was so obvious. I think that was the year we (Zildjian) had a huge party to celebrate Earl’s, Louie Bellsons’ and Roy Haynes’ 80th Birthdays.

I was with Hal at this year’s NAMM show (2008) when we heard the rumor that Earl had passed away, and it felt like the wind was knocked out of us. We were relieved the information was false and Earl was still with us. Thankfully, Earl’s musical legacy and beautiful spirit lives on. I can still hear the sound of his voice clearly in my head. God Bless you Earl, and thanks being a great role model for all of us to follow. With the greatest respect…”

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