In a career that has spanned half a century, Panama Francis has made his mark as both a big band and a rock ‘n’ roll drummer. During the swing era, he powered the bands of Roy Eldridge, Willie Bryant, Lucky Millinder, and Cab Calloway. In the 50s, he had a second career, becoming known as the rock ‘n’ roll drummer. He recorded with such artists as Buddy Holly, The Coasters, Delia Reese, Neil Sedaka, The Platters, Frankie Avalon, Big Joe Turner, Paul Anka, The Tokens, Bobby Freeman, Connie Francis, Jackie Wilson, Brook Benton, The Flamingoes, Sam “The Man” Taylor, Fabian, Bobby Darin, James Brown, and The Four Seasons. He also recorded with vocalists ranging from Wayne Newton and Johnny Mathis, to Ray Charles, Tony Bennett, and Sarah Vaughan.
Eventually, Francis came back to the sounds of his youth and to the music he loved most. Since the late ’70s, Francis has led his Savoy Sultans: nine musicians and a vocalist dedicated to straight-ahead swing music. They play standards, big band specialties, and occasional new jazz instrumental, written by Francis, Wild Bill Davis, and others. Half of the year, you’ll find Francis’ band at New York’s elegant Rainbow Room. But if you want to hear the band at its best, try to catch one of its appearances away from its base. The band often seems to tone things down at the Rainbow Room. It takes the wraps off, however, for jazz festival appearances and the like. The band also tours Europe periodically. One of Francis’ albums reached the number-one position in France and the number-three position in England in 1979. The band records on the Stash label. Francis is glad to be back playing the swing repertoire. Rock ‘n’ roll drumming paid the bills, he says, but it wasn’t always very demanding, and the music wasn’t particularly interesting to him.
Drummers aspiring to play in big bands are well-advised to check out Francis’ technique. His band rides on the solid foundation you rarely hear anymore. Francis formed his style well before the advent of bebop. His model was Chick Webb, and his numerous rock ‘n’ roll records notwithstanding he remains one of the great exponents of classic swing drumming.
“These bands you hear today are all top and no bottom,” Francis complains. “That’s because there’s no bass drum just a bass fiddle. And no bass fiddle has been able to give a jazz band bottom, like a bass drum can do. I still use my bass drum to keep time. I’m one of the few left. I never changed. The bass violin and the bass drum team up as one. You have to know how to control that bass drum, so you don’t overplay it. You should be able to feel it more than hear it. This takes control. And you still have to have a certain sense of rhythm to do that,” Francis says.
“It’s not easy to play a bass drum. When Max Roach and Kenny Clarke came along, dropping bombs and things, that was an escape. They couldn’t play time on the bass drum,” Francis believes. “Max had great hands, because he was one of the young black drummers who was schooled. What he couldn’t do with his foot, he did with his hands on snares and cymbals. He found a way out. Styles are often developed from shortcomings.
“It’s hard to play time on the bass drum, because you have to have control and you need stamina. That’s why anybody can play drums now. When I was coming up, not everyone could play drums. If you couldn’t play time on the bass drum, you weren’t considered a drummer.
“Take the average drummers today. Offer them a thousand dollars to sit there and play time, and see if they can do it. Playing time is an art within itself. It takes years and years of learning how to control that bass drum how to play four beats to a bar or two beats to a bar. That’s the reason why so many drummers will sit up and say, ‘Well, you don’t have to play time on the bass drum; you use the bass drum to accent.’ That’s a cop-out! It’s because they can’t play time.”
In big band drumming, Francis believes playing less can often get you more results. “Knowing what to catch and what not to catch is something you don’t learn in school. They write arrangements now, and the arranger will write in where you’re supposed to fill, but you can’t! If you’re going to be filling in every place, then the band ain’t gonna swing! You have to settle down, and know where to fill and where not to fill. You don’t learn that in school. The young arrangers today have ‘fill’ written all through. If there’s an open spot in the arrangement, they’ve got the drums filling it up. A lot of times, instead of playing a fill, you should just be playing straight rhythm through there to keep it swinging.
“That’s why the bands don’t swing today. The drummers are so busy showing off their rudimental training that they don’t have time to play ‘chi-chi-boom, chichi- boom, chi-chi-boom.’ They want you to know that they can do a paradiddle. So the bands don’t swing.
“I could go on any band right now, and you would tell the difference. If I were to play in that band, it’d sound like a different band,” Francis says. “In the first place, the drummers are supposed to take charge; they’re the quarterbacks. They can carry the band. They can pick up the tempo; they can drop the tempo. They can overshadow the band. They can play louder than anybody in the band. That’s another thing that doesn’t happen today. The drummers don’t take charge. The drummers are supposed to take charge; they’re the bosses. They used to say, during the big band days, that a band was no better than its drummer. The drummer makes the band swing, and the drummer is a very important person in a big band.
“Drummers like Sid Catlett and Jo Jones took pride in how they made the band swing and how they made the soloist sound good. When I was coming up, we didn’t take pride in the drum solo. The solo was secondary. Drummers’ solos are just like tap dancers’. Once drummers get out there and do their seven or eight minutes, they’ve done everything they’re going to do. Back in the old days, drummers took pride in the way they made the band swing. Solos were secondary.”
When Francis was a youth, the drummer he most admired and emulated was Chick Webb. He occasionally plays arrangements from Chick Webb’s old book today, as a way of honoring that jazz pioneer. He also holds Big Sid Catlett in high esteem. Francis still treasures a memory of Catlett talking with him, when Panama was a teenager and Catlett was touring with Don Redman’s band.
Francis’ drumming was a bit different in his early years, if only because the equipment was different. On his first dance gig, in 1931, he used a 28″ bass drum. “When I first started, I was playing mostly two beats, and the snare drum with press rolls. The only time I used a cymbal was behind the solos and on the going-out choruses. The first hi-hat I played was a floor model. Hi-hats weren’t up high like today. They were made with two pieces of two-by-four, with a spring in the middle and two cymbals on the ends. Those cymbals were so thick that you could hear them two blocks away.
“Kaiser Marshall, the drummer with Fletcher Henderson, was the father of the hi-hat cymbal the one we use today. He had the idea for it, but I started before we had hi-hats.”
Francis notes that he’s used Ludwig drums for more than 50 years. He mentions, as an aside, that he’s probably made more hit records with Ludwig drums than any other drummer, going back to the early hits of Lucky Millinder. Yet, he’s never been asked to so much as endorse a drumstick.
“I use a Ludwig snare, 24″ bass, and the regular snare drum with the metal shell. I use a 16 x16 tom-tom and a 9x 13 tom tom. I use two 18″ cymbals and one 14″ Then I’ve got two 12” hi-hat cymbals. My cymbals are all Zildjians.
“My drums are over 25 years old. I look at drums like I look at any other wood instrument. I feel that the older the wood, the better the sound. I have a bass drum that’s got the most beautiful sound in the world. And I’ve got the same drumheads on it that I’ve had for the last 27 years! I haven’t put a hole in a bass drum in quite a long time, so I have the same heads. They’re calf heads. I mean, if you have a synthetic thing, you’ll get a synthetic sound, right? The plastic heads these are synthetic. You can’t get a sound out of a synthetic head that you can get out of a cow’s skin. When I tour, I take my trap case. I’m used to the sound of my cymbals and the sound of my snare drum. The bass and tom-tom are secondary,” Francis says.
Cab Calloway had given up his band, and Francis was working at Birdland in New York when he began doing free-lance R&B sessions. He got into rock ‘n’ roll on the ground floor. The drumming wasn’t particularly demanding. Later, he notes, other drummers would study the way he played backbeats during recording sessions, and would write down what he was doing, so they could master the new technique of rock ‘n’ roll. Francis says that a small cadre of musicians played on almost all of the early rock ‘n’ roll sides. He adds that, on many sides, he simply played rhythms he knew from Gospel music. He worked up ways of creating different sounds. He made some records with his wallet on the snare drum to produce a deader sound. There were records he made using drumsticks on a phone book rather than drums to get a certain effect. To give an example, he puts on the original demo of “Don’t Be Cruel,” with him backing songwriter Otis Blackwell, which Elvis Presley later copied to make his smash RCA recording. “I’m playing a phone book on that one,” Francis notes. And on the hit recording of “Colonel Bogey’s March” (the theme from the film, Bridge On The River Kwai), Francis recalls, “I put my snare drum on top of a 25″ timpani. That’s how I got that field drum sound heard on the record.”
To Francis, much of the studio work was unchallenging. “I’d come home and my wife would say, ‘Well, what did you record today?’ And I’d say, ‘I don’t know,’ And I didn’t, because it was you know a job. Some days I’d do as many as four or five recording sessions.
Francis enjoyed the financial success from the rock and pop studio sessions. It was a situation many musicians dreamed of. But he considered it something of a mixed blessing. He found himself getting slotted and was unhappy with that.
“You see, all of a sudden, I became the rock ‘n’ roll drummer.’ I was very embarrassed by it, because it was like a putdown. Some musicians would say, ‘Oh here comes that rock ‘n’ roll drummer,’ The label they put on me kept me out of a lot of other work. I was hurt and frustrated from it. I felt it was an injustice, because I could also play big band. What was I doing in Lucky Millinder’s Band? What was I doing in Cab Galloway’s Band that, all of a sudden, I couldn’t play big band jazz anymore? All I got called for was rock ‘n’ roll. I knew as soon as the phone rang that it wasn’t going to be for a big band date. I knew what it was going to be. The only time I got called for a big band date was when they wanted a backbeat on the record.”
Francis was glad to take Dixieland gigs in New York. “At least I was close to playing like a big band.” He was glad, too, for occasional dates with Ray Conniff (his big band and singers). He has the highest regard for Conniff, as a person and a professional. Eventually, things changed. In the ’60s, Bernard Purdie and Gary Chester replaced him as New York’s busiest session drummers. For five years, Francis played for Dinah Shore. “Working with her was one of the greatest jobs I’ve ever had. She’s a beautiful human being,” he adds.
He’s come full circle now. Playing alongside him nightly, in his Savoy Sultans, is guitarist John Smith who sat next to him in Cab Galloway’s big band 40 years ago. Francis is glad to be kicking along his own band on old tunes like “Air Mail Special” and “Stompin’ At The Savoy,” and new things such as Wild Bill Davis’ “Stolen Sweets” and his own “Funky Willie.” Since there’s a limited market for this kind of music today, he can’t expect recordings with this band to enjoy great commercial success, though one of his albums received a Grammy nomination. And there’s a certain satisfaction in playing the music you want to play, just the way you want to play it.
Francis notes one big difference in the music scene since he started out in the early ’30s. “Young musicians are all schooled now,” he notes. “None of the early great jazz drummers were schooled. They learned by trial and error, on the job and in jam sessions.”
Francis is also skeptical about how much jazz musicians can learn in school. “Trying to teach somebody how to play jazz is like trying to teach somebody to perform sex. You can’t teach people. You can give them an idea, but you can’t teach jazz. You have to have the potential and learn by experience, because after you get the fundamentals down, you still have to know what to do with what you’ve got. That’s why we’ve got so many mediocre musicians today in jazz. Nine out of ten of them never had any experience. They think they know, because they went to school and got a degree in music. But there’s more to it than that.”