Earl Palmer's Story

By Tony Scherman

Smithsonian. 196 pp. $24.95

Reviewed by Charlie Braxton

To the average music fan, the name Earl Palmer may not strike a familiar chord, but chances are you have heard his funky drumming, felt his booming bigbeat or danced to his intoxicating rhythms. He is hailed as the inventor of the straight-up backbeat, the rhythmic foundation that all major forms of contemporary popular music (i.e., rock-and-roll, rhythm and blues, soul, etc.) are built upon.

For that reason alone, his place in the annals of American music should be secure, but Palmer's accomplishments don't stop there. He is also the drummer who has been the driving force behind hundreds of major pop and R&B hits. Chief among them are Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti," Nat King Cole's "Ramblin' Rose," and Sam Cooke's "Cupid"; and Palmer was a session man for countless TV movie scores.

Palmer, who is the subject of Tony Scherman's new biography, started out as a tap dancer, worked the vaudeville circuit with the legendary blues diva Ida Cox and learned various taps from tap masters. This phase of his career was extremely useful to him as a drummer because it gave him a sense of timing and the coordination to work the kick drum with a rare rhythmic precision. He was first introduced to the drum in his native New Orleans by local marching bands playing at Mardi Gras and funeral processions. Later, he became one of the city's leading jazz drummers and eventually a member of the house band at Cosimo Matassa's legendary J&M Studio, where he first perfected the backbeat by incorporating rhythmic elements of New Orleans street music.

Tony Scherman, a seasoned music journalist, has taken the time to listen to the life-beat of Earl Palmer. Scherman takes Palmer's words and weaves them into a powerful first-person narrative that gives the reader Palmer's personal account of his life as an African-American vaudevillian, a soldier during World War II and a professional drummer in the Big Easy and in California, where he worked as one of the first African-American session musicians to do TV and film scores. The book is filled with wonderful anecdotes, such as this one about the first time Palmer met pioneering rocker Little Richard:

"Richard wasn't a star when he met us," Palmer recalls. "[But] I thought he was. He walked into J&M like he was coming off stage: that thick, thick powder makeup and the eye liner and the lipstick and the hair everywhere in big, big waves. Walked in there like something you'd never seen. And meeting him all them times since, I still get the same feeling."

Back Beat serves as a rich resource for anyone interested in African-American life during the dreaded Jim Crow era, as Palmer gives numerous accounts of his experiences with segregation and bigotry. Of a particular encounter with a white Red Cross worker who refused to serve black GIs until the white ones were served, he says poignantly, " `Wait, boy!' -- that's what [the] Red Cross woman said to me. I was so hurt, I cried like a baby."

The author introduces each chapter with an insightful essay that illuminates the socio-cultural background of the period being recalled. These pieces are lucid, but it is the sheer eloquence of Earl Palmer's words -- which at times pack the emotional power of a blues man's growl -- that makes this book so impressive. However, the book would be better had the author placed all of the background information at the beginning. That way the reader could enjoy the beauty of Earl Palmer's words uninterrupted.

Charlie R. Braxton is a poet, playwright and journalist who writes frequently about music and pop culture.