Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Backbeat: Earl Palmer’s Story by Tony Scherman

If Earl Palmer had never gone on to become the great drummer who appeared on such timeless pop classics as Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’,” Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba,” Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep Mountain High,” the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” and Sam Cooke’s “Twistin’ the Night Away,” this book would still be a fascinating read. Meticulously researched by Scherman and told in Palmer’s own colorful voice, Backbeat travels from the funky Treme neighborhood of his New Orleans youth to the big time recording studios of Los Angeles where he made his reputation as an in-demand session man in the ’60s and ’70s, playing on literally thousands of songs by the Beach Boys, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Bobby Darin, the Mamas and the Papas, and others.

Palmer’s reminiscing of Treme and all the colorful characters and customs of the Sixth Ward is particularly vivid, interspersed with sociological insights about poverty, racism and the animosity that existed between dark-skinned blacks and light-skinned blacks (or passé a` blancs ). The pungent flavor of life in New Orleans, circa late ’30s, comes across in these pages in the same way that Crescent City icon Danny Barker conveyed it in his autobiography, A Life in Jazz (Oxford).

Palmer makes equally pointed observations about his three-year stint in the segregated U.S. Army from 1942 to 1945.

Of greatest interest to music aficionados are Palmer’s descriptions of landmark recording sessions at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studios and of the wild nightlife of New Orleans, circa 1945 to 1957. Some great tales of playing in Dave Bartholomew’s band at the Dew Drop Inn along with some hilarious inside anecdotes about Ray Charles, Big Joe Turner, Guitar Slim, and Ornette Coleman: “Ornette was a drag to play with, man. He sounded terrible. Whether he knew the right changes or not, he didn’t play them. If Blackwell wasn’t playing with Ornette, he played like he was supposed to, with very good taste.” Also one revealing anecdote about how drummer Shelly Manne befriended Earl during a gig in New Orleans with Stan Kenton, encouraged him to make the move out to California and later introduced Palmer around and got him TV show work.

The chapter on life in Los Angeles, post 1957, has some intriguing behind-the-scenes looks at the session grind, including Palmer’s humorous impressions of everyone from Ricky Nelson to Johnny Otis to Earl Bostic, Phil Spector, Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin, Jimmy Durante, Sarah Vaughan (“The Hang Out Queen”), and Ed “Kooky” Byrnes of TV’s 77 Sunset Strip. It also includes the payments he received for sessions, including a ridiculously low $81.25 for a Buck Owens session and the same amount for a Jackie Wilson-Count Basie session.

There are plenty of colorful and ironic accounts in this entertaining book by Palmer, whose backbeats helped transform the music and usher in the era of rock ‘n’ roll.

Originally Published