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Charles Connor, drummer for Little Richard, James Brown and Sam Cooke, dies at 86

Charles Connor
(Courtesy of Alex Solca)

Charles Connor, known for being Little Richard’s explosive drummer, who went on to perform with other music greats such as James Brown and Sam Cooke, has died. He was 86.

Connor died early Saturday while under hospice care at his home in Glendale, said his daughter, Queenie Connor Sonnefeld. She said her father had been diagnosed with normal pressure hydrocephalus, a brain disorder that causes fluid buildup.

“He was one of those drummers that was a bricklayer of creating that rock ‘n’ roll genre,” she said. “He played behind so many legendary musicians in the 1950s. He was a loving grandfather and was very proud of his family and took a lot of pride in his contributions to rock ‘n’ roll.”

Connor began playing drums at age 12. Three years later, he started his professional career when Professor Longhair, a singer and pianist, hired him as a last-minute replacement for the 1950 Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

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After Connor turned 18, he joined Richard’s original road band, the Upsetters. The band appeared in several popular feature films including “The Girl Can’t Help It” with Jayne Mansfield, along with “Don’t Knock the Rock” and “Mr. Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

Little Richard, the flamboyant, piano-pounding showman who injected sheer abandon into rock ’n’ roll in its early days, died Saturday. He was 87.

Little Richard and Connor sometimes went to lengths to find the perfect backbeat for a song.

In breaking down “Keep a Knockin',” for example, Connor told The Times’ Randall Roberts that Richard, searching for an example of what he was looking for, took him to a train station, where the two sat and listened to the loud chugging sound of a locomotive.

“He said, ‘What kinds of notes are those?’ I said, ‘Those are eighth notes.’ And he said, ‘Well that’s what I want you to play behind me.’”

During his career, Connor toured with various musicians, such as Brown, Jackie Wilson and the original Coasters. He also received a certificate of special recognition from Rep. Maxine Waters in 1994.

Born in New Orleans in 1935, Connor was the son of a merchant marine who immigrated from the Dominican Republic. His mother was a native Louisianan. He joined forces with Little Richard in 1953, his muscular style of drumming bringing a signature sound to Richard’s high-octane performances.

After his musical career slowed, LA Weekly reported that Connor worked days as a security guard at radio station KROQ, a fact not lost on the radio staff, especially when Brown and other celebrities stopped by to visit him.

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Connor released the motivational book “Don’t Give Up Your Dreams: You Can Be a Winner Too!” in 2008. He was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame two years later.

In 2013, Connor released his EP album “Still Knockin’.” At the time of his death, he was working on an autobiographical documentary, his daughter said.

Connor is survived by his wife, Zenaida, his daughter, son-in-law Joe Sonnefeld, and a granddaughter, Viviana.

A Times staff writer contributed to this report.


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