Legendary session drummer

Times Staff Writer

Earl Palmer, a New Orleans drummer who provided the distinctive backbeat for seminal rock ‘n’ roll songs by Fats Domino and Little Richard, then traveled west to become one of Hollywood’s busiest session musicians, has died. He was 83.

Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, Palmer died Friday at his home in Banning after a long illness, his family announced.

Often called the most recorded drummer in music history, Palmer played in thousands of rock ‘n’ roll, jazz and pop music sessions, as well as on countless movie, television and commercial scores.

He set the rhythm for Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’ ,” Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally,” Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba” and Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” in the 1950s. Producer Phil Spector used him to build his legendary Wall of Sound in the 1960s on such songs as “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ ” by the Righteous Brothers and “River Deep, Mountain High” by Ike and Tina Turner. In more recent years he played with Randy Newman, Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt and B.B. King, among others.


In the “Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll” from 1976, Langdon Winner called Palmer a “master of bass-drum syncopation and possibly the most inventive drummer rock and roll has ever had.”

Born in New Orleans on Oct. 25, 1924, Earl Cyril Palmer was tap-dancing by age 5 on the black vaudeville circuit, touring with his mother, a singer, in Ida Cox’s jazz and blues revue. He didn’t learn to play drums until after serving in Europe with the Army in World War II. He returned to New Orleans and attended the Gruenwald School of Music on the GI Bill. He studied piano and percussion and learned to read, compose and arrange music.

But his childhood experiences served him well, Palmer said years later.

“I had the advantage of knowing music before I played it,” he told jazz writer Zan Stewart in 1993. “Being a dancer gave me an understanding of rhythmic ‘time,’ and you can’t teach that.”

After the war, Palmer also began playing drums with the Dave Bartholomew Band and the house band at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M; studio in New Orleans. Jazz, blues, R&B; and country music were fusing into a new, distinct genre of music, with Fats Domino, Little Richard, Lloyd Price and Smiley Lewis the frontmen laying down tracks in the early 1950s for what would become known as the beginnings of rock ‘n’ roll.

“What we were playing on those early records was funky in relation to jazz,” Palmer told The Times in 2000. “What we were playing already had that natural New Orleans flavor about the music. I played the bass drum how they played bass drum in funeral parade bands.”

In 1957 Palmer moved to Los Angeles to work for Aladdin Records but quickly became a first-call session drummer.

Besides providing the driving backbeat on many rock ‘n’ roll tunes, Palmer can also be heard on recordings by jazz and pop stars Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan and Doris Day, as well as on the TV theme songs for “Mission: Impossible,” “Green Acres” and “The Odd Couple,” among others.


“When you’re working in the studios, you’re playing every genre of music,” Hal Blaine, his friend and another prolific session drummer, said in an interview Saturday. “You might be playing classical music in the morning and hard rock in the afternoon and straight jazz at night. . . . That’s where they separate the men from the boys. If you’re going to be a studio musician, it’s the top of the ladder. You can’t go any higher than that in the music business.”

Palmer had steady studio work through the 1970s, but he began getting fewer calls once singers and songwriters began playing their own instruments, following the lead of the Beatles. Electronic drum kits and digital sampling cut further into his work in the ensuing decades.

He went back to playing jazz in local clubs and became involved with a musicians union, working to ensure that older musicians received credit and royalties they were due.

In 1999 he was the subject of a biography, “Backbeat,” written by Tony Scherman.


A year later, Palmer and Blaine were among the first class of previously unsung sidemen inducted into a new category of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which cited Palmer’s “solid stickwork and feverish backbeat” in laying the foundation for rock ‘n’ roll drumming.

Palmer was married four times. In addition to his wife, Jeline, he is survived by children Earl Cyril Palmer Jr., Donald Alfred Palmer, Ronald Raymond Palmer, Patricia Ann Palmer, Shelly Margaret Palmer, Pamela Teresa Palmer and Penny Yasuko Palmer; 20 grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

Services will be private.