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Panama Francis Dies at 82

Panama Francis, a drummer who played with the greatest bands of the swing era, lent his incisive rhythms to many studio recordings, and managed to last long enough to lead the swing revival in the 1980s, died Nov. 11 at a hospital in Orlando, near his home in Altamont, Fla. He was 82.

Born on Dec. 21, 1918 in Miami, Francis first performed on the drums at age eight and got his first night club gig at the age of 13; his mom waited backstage to take him home. His father separated from his mother while he was a teenager; at age 19, Francis wired his father for a ticket to New York City, where he got a job within four days, playing without maternal supervision for saxophonist Tab Smith. Francis went on to play in the bands of Billy Hicks, Roy Eldridge, Lucky Millinder and Cab Calloway. He often worked at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, the fabled “Home of Happy Feet.”

After he left Calloway’s band in 1952, Francis spent ten years as a session drummer, pounding out the rhythm on such classics as Ray Charles’ “Drown in My Own

Tears,” Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue,” the Four Seasons’ “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and Bobby Darin’s “Splish Splash,” in addition to Elvis Presley’s demo tape. He eventually returned to jazz, however, playing the jazz festival circuit during the late ’60s and throughout the ’70s, recreating the jazz sounds of his youth.

The most successful outcome of these labors was his own Savoy Stompers, a group formed in 1979, which became one of the leading ensembles of the swing revival. Playing with an authenticity that could only come from an original practitioner, the group developed a loyal audience and wowed critics; two of its six albums were nominated for Grammys.

Francis always kept the beat strong, and was dismayed when his fellow drummers did not do the same. He often expressed consternation with modern jazz. “I don’t know what you’d call it,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s not jazz. You can’t to dance it.”

Francis is survived by his wife, Alyce, of Orlando; his sons, James and Melvin Steel, of New York; his daughters, Naomi Francis, Eilene Francis and Denise Steel-Tyson, of New York and Michelle Jones, of Hampton, Va.; seven grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.

Originally Published