Feature

Earl Palmer

The session drummer who played for nearly everybody

The session drummer who played for nearly everybodyEarl Palmer1924–2008

Earl Palmer, who has died at 83, was perhaps the most recorded drummer in history. Though best known for his pioneering sound during the early days of rock ’n’ roll, he backed artists as wide-ranging as Frank Sinatra, the Monkees, Dizzy Gillespie, Elvis Costello, and Bonnie Raitt. Palmer’s work can be heard on thousands of songs, and though he personally favored jazz, he was happy in any genre. “I tried to play every session like it was my favorite,” he said.

Growing up in New Orleans, Palmer loved the marching bands that accompanied the city’s funerals, said the London Times. By the time he was 5, he was tap-dancing on the black vaudeville circuit with his mother, who had carried him around in a milk crate. “I had the advantage of knowing music before I played it,” he said. “Being a dancer gave me an understanding of rhythmic ‘time,’ and you can’t teach that.” He was also an altar boy. “That’s where I learned to drink,” he once explained. “The father turned me on to wine, man.” Only after serving in the Army in World War II did he enroll in music school, eventually getting a job as house drummer at Cosimo Matassa’s studio in the Big Easy. “Musically, the city had always marched to a beat quite different from anywhere else in America, and at Matassa’s, Palmer contributed to an entirely new sound that fused jazz, blues, and R&B.” 

Soon, Palmer was deploying his “distinctive backbeat” for some of rock ’n’ roll’s pioneers, said the Los Angeles Times. “He set the rhythm for Fats Domino’s ‘I’m Walkin’,’” for Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba,” and for Smiley Lewis’ “I Hear You Knockin’.” His most energetic work was done with the campy, flamboyant Little Richard, for whom he pounded out “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Lucille,” and “Good Golly Miss Molly.” One admirer said Palmer’s performance on “All Around the World” sounded like “Little Richard backed by a tribe of Burundi drummers.” Palmer took it all in stride. “What was rock ’n’ roll to me?” he once asked. “I was not interested in Little Richard or Fats Domino.”

In 1957 Palmer moved to Los Angeles, reportedly after getting into trouble for dating a white woman, said the London Telegraph. He backed Sam Cooke on “You Send Me” and the Righteous Brothers on “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”; he also worked with Doris Day, the Beach Boys, Neil Young, Randy Newman, and Barbra Streisand. He contributed to 80 movie soundtracks, including Judgment at Nuremberg and In the Heat of the Night; among the TV themes on which he played were Batman, Mission: Impossible, and The Odd Couple. “At one stage Palmer was making an album a day and earning $100,000 a year. But by the early 1970s work was harder to come by.” Bands began relying on fewer session musicians, and Palmer’s “life and finances crumbled when his second wife died from breast cancer.”

In his later years, Palmer returned to the small-club music scene with his own jazz trio. When he was admitted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 2000, his citation commended his “solid stick work and feverish backbeat.” Palmer is survived by his fourth wife and seven children.

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