History of Rock Drumming

In The History of Rock Drumming: Part I—The Blues Influence, we traced the development of rock drumming through one of its main sources: blues. The contributions of such great drummers as Fred Below and Clifton James were discussed and analyzed to a degree, in an attempt to focus attention on the pioneer drummers in blues who created many of the drumming styles and techniques that we take for grunted today.

Country music was the second source of inspiration for rock music. That it’s discussed as the second part of this series in no way implies that it had less of an influence than blues. I thought it would be helpful to go back briefly to 1935 to find the roots of drumset playing in country music, and then we will meet some of the great players of the Fifties, like D. J. Fontana, J. M. Van Eaton, and Jerry Allison.

The ending of this second part deals with the likes of Little Richard and Fats Domino, who were literally a blend of both blues and country, and were arguably the first rock hands.

 

Country drumset playing began with one man: Smoky Dacus. Smoky was the drummer with Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys from 1935-1941. Bob Wills originally had a fiddle band that became a country-swing band that arguably influenced every drummer to follow in country music. “Bob came to me in late “34,” Dacus told me, “and he wanted me to play drums with him. At that time, his type of music had two names: it was either a fiddle band or a string band, and they did not use drums! Their rhythm [section] was a bass fiddle, a banjo, the guitar helped a little, and the piano player.”

The backbeat in country drumming evolved in the same way it evolved in blues music. Dacus literally became the first drumset player in country music, and literally had to pioneer a concept for playing drumset in a fiddle band. “At that time the way you played a bass fiddle in a string band was you pulled or noted the bass fiddle on the first and third beat in a bar. Then you slapped it on the two and four beat. Well, when they slapped… it was that bass string slapping against the neck of the bass fiddle which made a “click.” That was the rhythm.

“When I went to work with Bob, I thought he’d lost his mind. What the hell do you play? I played press rolls on some tunes, [on others] I went to wire brushes. Different styles would work on different tunes, but what do you play that is basic with all the tunes’? I began to listen to that slap on the bass fiddle and I began to notice—when I couldn’t hear the rest of the music very well, I could still hear the slap of that bass fiddle. It was the tonal frequency that just cut like a knife. You could hear that” slap two blocks from the dance hall and that’s all you could hear. The slap, together with the banjo and the rhythm guitar, choked the second and fourth beat.

“My problem was ‘What do you play?’ I’d come up playing in this concert band where the main objective was to take seventy pieces and make it sound like one. With that in mind, I took a brush in my left hand and played two and four on the snare. That brush blended with the choke of the guitar, the slap of the bass, and the whack of the banjo. I would play cymbal or close my sock cymbal and play [it] with my right hand, like a “bounce” rhythm. I learned I could play on all four beats with my brush. It just added a little bit to the first and third beat, but it was a matter of accent. I didn’t accent the first and third beats but you could feel it there. But, when I hit the second and fourth beats on a closed sock, the sound just melted into the rhythm guitar. That’s when I finally found out what I could play on drums that matched every other instrument in the band.”

Smoky Dacus

Dacus credits Duke Ellington’s Orchestra, Count Basie, and McKinney’s Cotton Pickers (all important jazz orchestras of his era) as influential to his style of drumming. Ellington’s drummer, Sonny Greer, was a man Smoky “hero-worshipped.” Bob Wills “…grew up influenced by his father’s fiddling and by the soulful blues of neighboring black sharecroppers as well.” We could dwell on other drummers in country music between 1935 and the 1950s, but that’s not the purpose of this article. Suffice it to say that Smoky Dacus was the first, and he was coming from a background of jazz, popular, blues, country, and classical music. He was also studying music in college while majoring in English and Philosophy.

The Illustrated History of Country Music points out that “…the full scale rush toward rock ‘n’ roll was begun by three individuals: disc jockey Alan Freed, singer Bill Haley, and recording entrepreneur Sam Phillips.”

In 1952, Freed had a radio show called “Moondog Rock and Roll Party,” broadcast nightly from WJW in Cleveland. “Freed’s programming of black music for white kids, (was) one of the most revolutionary media moves in the twentieth century.”

The first rock record to become a national pop hit was “Crazy, Man, Crazy” by Bill Haley and the Comets in 1953. Haley’s group was coming from a heavy country and western swing influence; the music made popular by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Haley even had a band in 1940 called Bill Haley and The Four Aces of Western Swing! Other artists had achieved some success in rhythm and blues and in country music crossing into pop hits, but “…those weird glimpses of something new in (that) music…the outright fiery newness…were smuggled into the back yards of America by Bill Haley…(who) was more of an entertainer than a rock ‘n’ roll madman. Haley spread interest in modern black music so that by the close of 1954, every hip kid in America was into rock ‘n’ roll.”

Haley’s best remembered hit is “Rock Around The Clock,” which had an incredible impact in 1955 as a world-wide hit after it was used as the theme song to the movie Blackboard Jungle. “Rock Around the Clock” was based on a standard blues progression. The drums are heavily rooted in a swing style, and the accents are even played on a tiny splash cymbal like some of the swing-band drummers. The acoustic bass drives the band harder than the drummer! Haley’s other hits, “Shake, Rattle and Roll” (originally done by black bluesman Joe Turner) in 1956, and then “See You Later, Alligator,” were simple, shuffle tunes.

This next paragraph in the Illustrated History of Country Music depicts perfectly the mood of the United States prior to the explosion of Elvis Presley.

Monday, July 5, 1954. The most popular albums in America are Jackie Gleason’s Tawny on Capitol, Frank Sinatra’s Songs for Young Lovers, also on Capitol, the film soundtrack of The Glenn Miller Story, and the television soundtrack of Victory at Sea, both on RCA/Victor. The No. I song on “Your Hit Parade” is “Three Coins in the Fountain.” The biggest-selling rhythm-and-blues artists are The Midnighters, and the biggest-selling country artist is Webb Pierce. Although rock ‘n’ roll is a widespread phenomenon, only one white rock singer has yet achieved any success: Bill Haley. On this summer day, something is happening down in Memphis that will eventually change the course of American music. Within the Sun Record Company at 706 Union Avenue, Sam Phillips is cutting a first session on a local kid named Elvis Presley.

Sam Phillips started a recording studio in 1950, recorded southern black musicians and leased the recordings to independent record companies like Chess. Some of the more important Little Milton, James Cotton, and Earl Hooker. In 1952, he and his brother Judd started their own record company. Sun. Sun was a blues label that also recorded “hillbilly” music.

In 1954 a country band called Doug Poindexter and The Starlite Wranglers recorded a single for Sun that “came closer to country rock than anything Phillips had produced.” Poin dexter then left the music business. Scotty Moore, his guitarist, and Bill Black, his bassist, found themselves in the Sun studios in 1954 making records with a new singer named Elvis Presley. The Presley story is common knowledge. The first Presley hits recorded for Sun had no drums. The song that caught on was “That’s Alright, Mama” in 1954, which became the number one country record in Memphis.

Almost all of Presley’s records at this time were either reworked traditional country songs or blues songs written by black musicians. “That’s Alright, Mama” was penned by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup who also had versions of his songs done by Elton John, The Grease Band, and Creedence Clearwater Revival.

In 1956 Elvis moved to RCA records. Enter one of the greatest drummers in rock: D. J. Fontana. D. J. lived in Shreveport, Louisiana and came to the attention of Sam Phillips and Elvis while he was house drummer on a regional radio program—a counterpart to The Grand Old Opry—called The Louisiana Hayride.

J. started on drums in his high school band and had a local teacher who played with a tremendous amount of finger technique. “Almost no wrists,” said D. J. I asked him if country music was a big influence on his drumming and D. J. said that it had “no influence. I was listening to big bands all the time. Woody Herman with Sonny Igoe (on drums) and Don Lamond. And Dizzy Gillespie.”

The first recording session with Elvis was D. J.’s first studio gig. “All of us were a little scared. I didn’t know the fellas.” Prior to D. J., “Bill Black slapped the bass and sounded like drums. I learned to stay out of the way. What they had going was already good. I just added to the sound. I didn’t help or hurt it.”

Elvis’ Golden Records on RCA “…is simply one of the basic…founding rock ‘n’ roll records,” according to Griel Marcus, author of a great book on rock called Mystery Train Taking the recordings on that album in chronological order it’s interesting to see how D. J.’s drumming evolved. “Hound Dog,” is basically a blues (written by Mama Thornton) and was recorded in 1956 in Nashville. There’s absolutely no drums during the first chorus; just guitar, bass, and piano. The drums enter on the second chorus with D. J. playing brushes. Sounds like he may have only recorded on one snare drum, playing a straight, even quarter-note feel with no accents on beats two and four. D. J. played a lot with a triplet feel or 12/8 feel of the blues songs. In ’56 he played very laid back. He used brushes in “Heartbreak Hotel” throughout. Also in “I Want You. I Need You, I Love You” he used brushes. On “Don’t Be Cruel,” D. J. played sticks on closed hi-hat and on snare drum. In July of ’56, with “Hound Dog,” there were some pretty interesting changes; D. J. playing on a closed hi-hat—primarily with sticks—and he varied the rhythms. This was probably not a conscious effort. Simply, he’s playing what fit with the music. On “Hound Dog,” the handclaps really help strengthen and swing the tune. For the first time on record, D. J. uses a ride cymbal during Scotty Moore’s guitar breaks. It’s also the first time we hear D. J. playing fills, mostly triplet fills.

 

Heartbreak Hotel

On “Too Much” there’s some really incredible drumming. D. J. is playing with a lot more power. The hi-hat is half open while he’s playing on it, which gives a sound somewhere between a closed hi-hat and a ride cymbal. He plays with a lot of power, really laying into the drums. There’s a couple of triplet fills where D. J.’s using the toms very effectively and musically.

“All Shook Up.” A mind blower! D. J. is laying way back. The song rocks like mad and he’s laying in the back playing with a straight quarter-note feel or the basic jazz-style ride on snare with brushes. Also, there’s a sound which could either be handclaps on two and four, or D. J. playing the left hand clave style with his stick on the rim of the snare, or a guitarist tapping the guitar pickup for an effect. It could even be somebody in the studio slapping something. That sound really adds to the backbeat, much more than the brush playing. “Teddy Bear” features some great brush work, and D. J.’s sensitivity to dynamics. He plays with the jazz ride rhythm and lays way back without accenting two and four when Elvis is singing. When Elvis isn’t singing, even if it’s just a bar or two between vocal phrases, D. J. will emphasize the two and four. As soon as Elvis comes back in, he goes back into playing the even four beat feel. Beautiful dynamics.

“Jailhouse Rock,” is an amazing piece of music. The beginning section is in a “stop-time” feel. Playing on closed hi-hat, stick on snare, a lot of emphasis on “uh one.” Crashing down. During the break D. J. is almost playing a straight eighth-note feel. It’s actually a shuffle-rhythm on closed hi-hat with two and four on snare drum. Fontana switches to his ride cymbal during guitar breaks, playing two and four on snare drum, and varying the ride cymbal beat.

 

Jailhouse Rock

On “Treat Me Nice” (which takes us up to the late ’50s), D. J. is playing with a definite straight eighth-note feel on a closed hi-hat at the beginning of the tune, but during the tune, the feel drifts constantly between the eighth-note feel and a shuffle feel. An interesting transition.

The bass drum was not very prominent on these early Elvis records, probably due to miking techniques. D. J.’s drumset in the studio consisted of “One bass drum, one tom-tom, one cymbal (and obviously a snare and hi-hat).” The drums were recorded with “one overhead mic’.”

What Sam Phillips was trying to discover (“If I could find a white man who had the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.”), he found in Elvis Presley. The music that was created by Elvis has since been dubbed “Rockabilly.”

Another drummer who was very instrumental in the evolution of rock drumming was James “J. M.” Van Eaton. He was, in effect, house drummer at Sun records when he was roughly seventeen years old. Carl Perkins was another Sun artist who wrote and performed classic rock tunes. He was from Tennessee, influenced by both country and black rhythm-and-blues music. His two best known songs were “Blue Suede Shoes” (1958) and “Matchbox,” which was a revamped “Matchbox Blues” done by bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson in 1927!

Van Eaton was a fiery, loose drummer. Most of the Sun sessions he played on were done in either a shuffle rhythm or a jazz ride rhythm with a heavy backbeat on two and four. On “Matchbox” it’s interesting to hear the drums entering with a straight eighth-note fill into a shuffle rhythm. After the vocals, J. M. starts a two-bar fill using triplets beginning on the third beat of the first measure of the fill, crossing over the bar line and ending on the fourth beat of the second measure of the fill. He uses the same technique on “Red Hot” by Billy Lee Riley, using straight eighth notes instead of triplets.

Billy Lee Riley never made it very big, and Carl Perkins, although his songs are still famous and he’s still active, had a serious car accident just as his career was climbing, that put him off the scene for a year. Afterwards, his career never regained the same momentum.

Matchbox

Probably the best-known recordings with Van Eaton on drums are the songs of Jerry Lee Lewis. Van Eaton did virtually all of Jerry Lee’s records for Sun, and Jerry Lee had two of the biggest hits in Sun’s history with “Whole Lot Of Shakin’ Goin’ On” in 1957 and “Great Balls of Fire” between 1957-58. Both those songs crossed over onto the country charts, the pop charts, and the rhythm-and-blues charts, which simply means they appealed to almost everyone! Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” had done likewise.

 

Whole Lotta Shaking Going On

 

Jack Clements, engineer for the Lewis sessions, spoke to me about what it was like for a drummer recording those hits: “You get the drums over to the left and you stick a mic’ somewhere up above. If you’ve got two mic’s, then you stick one down close to the snare. If you happen to have three, you can put one on the bass drum. Most of the time I had to do it with two, sometimes one.

“It was just a bass drum, snare, a cymbal or two, and a top hat. Maybe one tom-tom they’d bring out once in a while. It was a pretty live room and we didn’t use baffles. There was always leakage, and it was always a fight to keep the drums out of the vocal mic’, but that’s really what gave it its charm.

“Everybody wasn’t ‘drum happy.’ The drums played with the band. If the tempo moved—the drums moved, of course! This is all bullshit to me with letting the drummer have the

tempo. You let everybody have the tempo. If they want to change it—change it!

“J. M. Van Eaton inspired a lot of drummers; session guys around Nashville today. One of the top session drummers told me he learned to play drums from them old Sun records. And when J. M. Van Eaton would speed up, he’d speed up. That’s the way you’re supposed to do it!”

In addition to his unique phrasing, J. M. Van Eaton came up with an unusual cymbal rhythm—for the time—on “Great Balls of Fire.” It’s almost a Latin rhythm, but not quite.

Earl PalmerThere were several other “Rockabilly” artists in the Fifties. Gene Vincent and his Blue Caps had a few hits, most notably “Bee-bop-a-Lula,” and one song “Jumps, Giggles, and Shouts,” featured drummer Dicky “BeBop” Harrell on drums.

In March of 1957, a group called Buddy Holly and The Crickets released a hit record called “Peggy Sue.” The song was co-written by Holly and teenaged Jerry Allison, the drummer in the band, and one of the most original drummers in rock and roll.

Holly and the Crickets never had a number one hit and never had a hit on country radio. But, the influence of the group and their music was phenomenal. They were the first group to feature lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass and drums, and Holly was one of the first performers to rely on his own music almost exclusively.

Holly and drummer Jerry Allison were schoolmates in Lubbock, Texas. Allison had a seemingly normal upbringing for a teenager interested in playing drums. “I started playing drums in the school band in the fifth grade, studying music, the rudiments, and going through high school band and all that,” he said. “The kind of music I liked was Little Richard and Fats Domino. You couldn’t really get much rock and roll around Lubbock, Texas, but when it started happening, I really enjoyed it and tried to play like Little Richard’s drummer. Earl Palmer played a lot of that stuff, I think.

“Country was about all you could listen to on the radio around Lubbock for the longest. I was already in high school the early ’50s—where you didn’t get anything besides country music. I wasn’t ever particularly crazy about it at the time, but I heard a lot of it. There wasn’t much drums on it. I don’t remember ever stealing any licks from any country records. “We used to listen to a station in Shreveport, Louisiana that had some blues like Etta James and the Peaches. I wasn’t ever a big blues collector, just some old rock and roll sort of in between country and blues, like Jimmy Reed and those sort of things.”

“Peggy Sue” has a drum part that is totally different from what anyone else was doing at the time. Allison shrugs it off by saying, “Basically, that was just paradiddles. Just a basic rudiment.” With the exception of Clifton James with Bo Diddley, no other drummer used the whole drumset as much as Jerry Allison. In fact, Holly and The Crickets recorded “Bo Diddley,” and it is interesting to see how Allison reinterpreted Clifton James’ drumming. This rhythm was also used by Allison on “Not Fade Away.” There had been some question as to whether the Bo Diddley beat was originated by Bo Diddley or Buddy Holly. I asked Jerry Allison if he got that rhythm from Bo Diddley. He said, “Oh yeah, for sure. We used to play the shit out of “Bo Diddley” at dances.”

 

Not Fade Away

On top of everything else, Jerry Allison played the most “musical” drums of his era in rock and roll. There may have been other drummers with more rhythmical sophistication and more technique, but Jerry Allison was the most musical. For instance, on “Well All Right”—a tune he co-wrote with Holly— the entire drum part consists of this figure on the bell of a cymbal.

 

Well All Right

It’s the perfect touch. On the introduction, with cowbell, to “Heatbeat,” and the introduction to “Love’s Made A Fool Of You,” Allison takes the most common, basic rock beat and creates a feeling of not knowing where the one beat is by playing it between snare and small tom, without support of cymbal, hi-hat, or bass drum.

Love's Made A Fool Of You

“We always tried to keep everything relatively simple. That was part of the plan,” said Allison. After his high school rudimental studies, he never practiced anymore. “After that I figured, ‘Well, this is working. I’ll sort of stick with this.’ ”

Jazz drummers weren’t much of an influence on Jerry Allison. “Gene Krupa—I was flipped out with him when I was a kid. I was real impressed with his drum solos and the stuff he did, but it wasn’t ever my ambition to be like that. I never did like drum solos to start with. I was impressed if someone could play them and come back in on one.”

Prior to forming the band with Buddy Holly, Jerry Allison “played with a few country bands in Texas, just around joints. It beat sacking groceries. While I was still in high school, I was doing that for spending money. We’d split the door or something. Little Richard used to come through Lubbock. Holly and I used to go out everytime he came around. I don’t remember what his drummer’s name was, but he was just great! [The drummer was Chuck Connor] He leaned on his knees with his elbows while he played those really off-the-wall licks.

“One of my favorite licks ever was on “Lucille” in the instrumental part. We used to work out some of that stuff, like for “Maybe Baby” and those tunes. It was right when we were recording that we’d go out and see him. We were tickled to death when we finally got on the road to do some shows with Little Richard.

“One other thing—I always listened to big band stuff. In the school band I did quite a few gigs like that, where it’d be three saxes, two trumpets, and maybe a couple of trombones. Swing band stuff. The first stereo record I bought was Stan Kenton, and Ted Heath used to have a drummer that’d play more with his left hand than I could play with both of mine, but it wasn’t something you’d want to dance to!”

Perhaps another key to Allison’s style was that often he and Buddy Holly would play with just the drums and guitar. “That was always fun. I think that helped his playing and mine both because you’ve got to play a whole bunch of stuff! We did that occasionally because there wasn’t that many musicians around at the time.”

Some writers have written about Holly splitting from the Crickets to record in New York with studio musicians. Allison said, “There was really only one date like that; a big string date. I was there, but it was Dick Jacobs’ orchestra’s thing. Holly did some things in his apartment that were overdubbed later, that were just awful, for my money. He did one, “Early In The Morning,” which was a rush cover job. Joe and I had gone back to Texas and he was covering Bobby Darin or some deal. But, that’s the only two I didn’t play on that I know of.

“We wrote a lot of songs together and we pretty well worked them out together, because he was just getting into rock and roll himself. And we went to school together and we’d hang out, learning together, and getting a lot of the ideas.”

In addition to the musical output of Chess Records in Chicago and Sun Records in Memphis, there was a Los Angeles based label, Imperial, that went down south to New Orleans and found Fats Domino. Fats was a major contributor to rock music and his recording band consisted of all New Orleans musicians, including drummer Earl Palmer.

Earl had been a dancer in vaudeville since he was four years old, and had always dabbled in drums. He went in the service in 1945 and when he came out, he began “…playing drums around New Orleans, but I didn’t know what I was doing.” So, on the G.I. bill, Palmer attended music school and started playing in a local orchestra with bandleader Dave Bartholomew. Earl helped Bartholomew in arranging songs for the band, somewhat of an assistant producer role, and one day Lou Chudd, the owner of Imperial records, came into town looking for local talent.

“We used to play in a club in New Orleans called Al’s Starlight Inn, and Fats used to come around,” Earl told me. “He played only boogie-woogie piano, and I let Fats play during intermission. That’s how I got to know Fats.”

If Jerry Allison was the most musical drummer on record in the Fifties, then Earl Palmer was the master of the bass drum! There’s a collection of Fats Domino’s hits on United Artists records called Fats Domino. The liner notes credit all but four of the records (originally recorded for the Imperial label) to drummer Cornelius Coleman. According to Earl Palmer, “Cornelius Coleman may have played on one album of Fats’ at the most. Ninety percent of Fats’ recordings were done in New Orleans before I left there, and he never recorded anything other than with Dave and me playing on it. Dave Bartholomew wrote ninety-eight percent of the tunes! Cornelius never really recorded with Fats. He played in Fats’ band and traveled with him until he died.”

All of Domino’s songs were based on the blues progression, and many of them were based on a boogie-woogie style. On “The Fat Man,” recorded in 1949, it’s difficult to clearly hear the drums because of a roaring ride cymbal. It sounds like Earl is basically playing quarter notes on the cymbal and snare drum, accents on two and four. On “Goin’ Home,” a slow blues in a 12/8 feel, Earl throws in some 16th-note hand/foot independence between snare and bass, which is very incredible and unusual.

Goin Home

“Please Don’t Leave Me” features a shuffle rhythm. On “Ain’t That A Shame,” there’s some stop time in the beginning and then some basic 12/8 cymbal. Coming out of the second verse there are some nice two-bar breaks. Triplets are unison snare, cymbal and bass, and on the second measure, the rolling of two triplets into the last two beats and then into a sax break.

 

Ain't That A Shame

“I’m Walkin’,” recorded in 1957, has a great intro with bass drum and handclaps.

 

I'm Walkin

It’s a four-bar intro. Earl is playing with a straight eighth-note feel and accenting the two and four with both sticks always on the snare drum. Very fast. Great bass drum. Overall, the drumming on these records is extremely inventive and creative. This is much more assured playing than anything heard before and certainly busier than most of the drummers playing rock at this time. Earl’s bass drum is amazing. On “I’m Ready,” recorded in 1959 (which might not have been Earl), it’s the only Fats song where the drummer is using a definite straight-eighth feel, one and three on bass drum and snare on two and four. A basic rock beat, accompanied by handclaps in unison with the snare drum.

I'm Ready

“The musicians in Fats’ band were all interested in bebop,” said Palmer. “We used to do jazz concerts during the time that we was playing with Dave Bartholomew, and all being in music school together, we’d write the arrangements and we’d more or less play bebop. We’d play jazz. Not with Dave, because he had a very commercial band. We had some good charts, some jazz things too, but he was mostly a commercial player.”

It’s not uncommon to find musicians in either the rock or jazz schools who snub the idea of playing in the other camp. Often heard quotes like, “Jazz drummers can’t play authentic sounding rock,” or “The only good rock drummer is a dead one,” are comments made by players who are afraid of change, growth, and diversification. In New Orleans, the musicians have one of the healthiest attitudes I’ve ever encountered. When asked if he felt playing with Fats Domino was a step down from playing jazz, Earl emphatically said: “Well, it was very exciting. Coming from New Orleans, I find that most of the guys in those days didn’t put down any kind of music. We played all kinds of music and enjoyed it all just as well. Maybe it’s because those of us who were playing it in those days, whatever kind of music it was, still had a little bit of New Orleans in it, perhaps. Maybe that had a lot to do with it. I’m pretty sure it did, because guys from New Orleans never really put down any kind of music in those days. There, like everywhere else nowadays, the younger guys don’t wanna play one kind of music.”

Specialty Records also came from Los Angeles to New Orleans to find musicians to back up Little Richard, a piano player from Macon, Georgia who first recorded for Specialty in 1955. Langdon Winner, in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, wrote: “Along with Elvis Presley’s early sides for Sun Records, Little Richard’s first day with Specialty gives us the chance to say ‘Rock ‘n’ roll begins right here.’ Little Richard himself said, ‘I came from a family where my people didn’t like rhythm and blues. Bing Crosby’s “Pennies From Heaven,” Ella Fitzgerald, was all I heard. And I knew there was something that could be louder than that, but I didn’t know where to find it. And I found it was me.'”

Among the classic rock records of Little Richard were “TuttiFrutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” “Rip It Up,” “Ready Teddy,” “The Girl Can’t Help It,” “Send Me Some Lovin’,” “Sure Fine, Mama,” “Ooh! My Soul,” “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” “Keep A Knockin’,” “Jenny, Jenny,” and “Miss Ann.” Earl Palmer was the drummer.

“The Little Richard situation came about by Bumps Blackwell who was A&R man for Specialty Records, I think, out here. He discovered Little Richard and brought him down to record with us. So, consequently, we did all of his records there. And I did a few after we moved out to L.A. This was during one of the times where he had become a preacher. Then he stopped and came back, and stopped and came back. But, I never travelled with him.”

I’ve chosen two cuts from Little Richard, one a hit and one lesser known, to illustrate the imagination of Earl Palmer’s drumming with Little Richard. “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” has a straight-eighth feel, but there are almost no cymbals. Again, Earl sounds like he’s playing with both sticks on the snare drum, and switching one hand to the tom-tom for part of the tune.

Good Golly Miss Molly

“All Around The World” is extremely fast with nice independence of hands and feet. “We had a little one room studio behind J&M record shop where we did all those things,” said Palmer. “I think he used maybe three mic’s in a room about twelve-foot square. You’d have drums, bass, guitar, horns. He had one mic’ on Fats, one on the horns, and one on the bass and guitar. He didn’t use any on the drums. We didn’t know much about muffling. If it sounded bad—we muffled it. If it didn’t— we just played it. The engineer didn’t know a hell of a lot about isolation either.”

To further illustrate the advanced rock drumming Earl Palmer was playing, I’ve chosen two tracks from an album by Professor Longhair, a New Orleans pianist who was very popular, fell out of fashion, and then in the early ’70s, his popularity rose again. “Tipitina,” recorded in ’53, is a Latinish beat. Very little cymbals. The hi-hat is unusual for this era played on the ands of all the beats, with the foot, and “Who’s Been Fooling You” (’53); used 16th-note triplets, and hi-hat on ands of beats.

Interesting rhythmic accents with the horns, Earl was an extremely clean drummer, obviously had great technique, was extremely musical, and blended in with the rest of the band.

Drummer Al Duncan said something of the Chicago blues drummers that could apply to all the drummers in the Fifties who laid the foundation for the next generation of drummers. “Back in those days, everything was just left up to the drummer. It was all total creation. Most of them cats didn’t read (use charts). Most of that stuff was just left to their own creativity. And the cats had great big ears, man. And they had the blues feeling so they could hear something, and just about adapt to what it should be—total creation—right on the spot.”

And on the drummers’ contribution to the music, Willie Dixon had this to offer: “The drummers have a lot to do with any parts of the changes of music, because it’s various “times,” syncopations, moods, and ways that they play these different patterns that changes the patterns of the music altogether.”

True to form, perhaps Fred Below said it best: “If you notice today, the music that we cut back in the Fifties is still here, and the people are still playing it. And every once in a while, I hear little rock and roll tunes going on out there—those are the beats that we did way back in the ’50s. And it’s the 1980s! So, there must’ve been something to what we was doing, because they’re playing it now.”

In Part III—The Sixties, we’ll trace rock drumming through the many great drummers and the monumental changes that grew out of this fantastic decade.