Chances are you’ve been listening to Earl Palmer your whole life. He plays drums on “Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard, “You Send Me” by Sam Cooke, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” by the Righteous Brothers, “River Deep—Mountain High ” by Ike and Tina Turner, the theme songs from “Mission Impossible” and “The Brady Bunch,” and literally countless other records. He was a first-call studio musician for decades, racking up more sessions than anyone, himself included, could keep track of.
Though he always saw himself as a jazz drummer, Palmer is revered for establishing the backbeat that would define rock and roll—a strong knock on beats 2 and 4. He recalled clapping on these beats as a child following brass band drummers as they paraded through Treme, where he grew up. His home here, near the corner of North Claiborne and Dumaine, where neighborhood characters hung out by a barbershop and shoeshine stand, was surrounded by music (jazz icon Danny Barker called it a “swinging” corner).
Palmer was a professional entertainer by age 5, when his mother and aunt, both dancers, brought him on stage at the Lyric Theater. (His biological father was probably the pianist Walter “Fats” Pichon.) Palmer danced with his family on the Black vaudeville circuit, sleeping in the luggage rack of their tour bus. When he was home, he tap-danced for tips on Bourbon Street and beat on a drum he made out of an orange crate and a cymbal fashioned from a lard can.
After serving in the army, Palmer enrolled in the Grunewald School of Music on the GI Bill. He was an excellent drummer when he arrived, and one of the best in town when he left, quickly earning a seat in bandleader Dave Bartholomew’s rhythm and blues outfit. In 1949, members of that prestigious group, including Palmer, became the house band at the J&M Recording Studio.
In the studio, beginning with Fats Domino’s “The Fat Man” and culminating in Little Richard’s “Lucille” in 1957, Palmer “rewrote the book on rhythm in popular music” in the estimation of biographer Tony Scherman. Palmer would have rather played something more sophisticated, but these sessions paid his bills. They were a bonanza for record executives, as white teenagers across the country discovered what Palmer had long known: that a thumping backbeat puts bodies in motion.
The Crescent City roots of the rock and roll beat are easy to trace in the Fats Domino song “I’m Walkin’.” The rhythm comes up from Palmer’s feet, with a second line-style bass drum intro leading to a rap on the snare (as demonstrated in this video). Though New Orleans had shaped him, Palmer had to leave town to live the life he wanted: Los Angeles promised higher wages, status, and, unlike the Jim Crow South, a chance to live with the woman he loved, who was white.
In California, Palmer’s sight-reading acumen and versatility made him a studio ace. He drummed in Phil Spector’s wall of sound and Motown’s West Coast productions. After years of playing with everyone from Frank Sinatra to the Beach Boys to Dizzy Gillespie to Neil Young, he earned the unofficial title of “Most Recorded Drummer in History.” In 2000 he was in the first class of sidemen inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
About North Claiborne Avenue
Built over a drained swamp, North Claiborne Avenue began to take shape in the mid-1800s, with a canal running down its center flanked by rows of trees (which is why it’s nearly 200 feet wide).
Around 1900, in the formative years of jazz, the surrounding neighborhoods—Treme and the Seventh Ward—were home to African-Americans, creoles of color, and working-class families of various European backgrounds.
Segregation intensified toward mid-century, with the new Lafitte public housing development admitting black families only. Under Jim Crow, an array of black-owned businesses took root on North Claiborne, catering to those who were denied service elsewhere.
By this time the drainage canal was filled in and live oak branches created a canopy overhead, making the Claiborne neutral ground (median) an ideal promenade for black residents’ parading traditions: Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, Mardi Gras Indians, Baby Dolls, and Skeleton Gangs all attracted crowds here.
In 1966, over the protests of residents, public officials chose to uproot the oaks and build an elevated expressway above North Claiborne. As in other cities, the interstate paved the way for white flight to the suburbs.
A community of artists maintained the cultural vitality of the Claiborne corridor despite the ensuing divestment. Then, in 2005, the flood following the levee failures devastated the area. An uneven recovery followed, with many former residents unable to resettle in their neighborhoods.
Nevertheless, Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, Mardi Gras Indians, and their followers still throng their traditional parade routes along North Claiborne, with brass bands and percussionists using the acoustics of the overpass to amplify their sound.
Though some post-Katrina plans proposed removing the overpass, today the city is trying to revitalize the space beneath it. Ironically, some now see it as a bulwark against the wave of gentrification that has displaced black households from sections of Treme and the Seventh Ward closer to the river.
As part of the revitalization effort, in 2018 local artist Ceaux Young painted murals of local musicians on the underside of the bridge. “It’s hard to control the space you don’t own,” he told OffBeat. “My main job is to protect that footprint.”
An overview of Palmer's career from vaudeville to J&M Studio to Los Angeles, where he became known as the "Most Recorded Drummer in History.