About Earl Palmer
Though he didn’t became well-known for it until late in his life, Earl Palmer was one of rock and roll’s principal architects, singlehandedly responsible for its most important and identifiable element: its backbeat. Drawing from his New Orleans childhood, his jazz apprenticeship, and his time in Latin America, he gave rhythm and blues a new beat unheard of in popular music.
And while he parlayed that into a wildly successful career as a sessionman, Palmer’s status as the most recorded session drummer in music history remains only one of his major accomplishments.
Earl’s first major influence was the snare-heavy “parade beat” of Crescent City music, but while it led him to begin playing, it proved to be only one element in his invention. Palmer brought the bass drum front and center in a way that had rarely been heard in recorded music, but his move into the city’s jazz scene also led him to develop a swing in his rhythm (not to mention his unerring sense of how to best bring out the feel of a song). That swing, harder and more prominent than any in R&B, can be heard in his 1950 recording of Fats Domino’s “The Fat Man,” and it was one of the main factors in its status as one of the first rock and roll songs. His parade beat influence, meanwhile, can be clearly heard on Fats’ hit “I’m Walkin’,” and the 6/8 stroll he also developed anchors songs like Domino’s
“Walkin’ to New Orleans.” But it was while working with Little Richard on his early hits that he developed his most lasting legacy: a straight Afro-Cuban 4/4 beat, simplified from his usual attack, that didn’t let the snare get in the way of Richard’s relentless boogie rhythm.
So in demand was Palmer, in fact, that he rightly began to feel there were greener pastures for him, and by 1957 he had left NOLA for the West Coast, where he soon fell in with the famed “Wrecking Crew” of Los Angeles sessionmen. The move afforded him the chance to expand his repetoire significantly — bebop and rock still, but also pop, folk rock, and soundtracks for TV and film. In the meantime, his beat became the cornerstone of a movement, and then pop music in general, before funk began to slowly seep into the Top 40 in the ’80s. By that time, the drum machine had limited Palmer’s output, but he remained a hero to locals,fellow sessionmen, drummers of all stripes — and those few rock fans who knew the real history of the form. Palmer passed away in 1998, but not before being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Famous songs on which Earl Palmer played drums:
- “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” Lloyd Price
- “I’m Walkin’,” Fats Domino
- “Donna,” Ritchie Valens
- “Lucille,” Little Richard
- “Dead Man’s Curve,” Jan and Dean
- “Mission: Impossible Theme,” Lalo Schifrin
- “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” The Righteous Brothers
- “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me,” Mel Carter
- “River Deep – Mountain High,” Ike and Tina Turner
- “Meet the Flintstones,” Hoyt Curtin