To list Earl Palmer’s contribution to music, records, film and T.V. would take up an exorbitant amount of space. Perhaps he is best known for playing on nearly all of the Fats Domino and Little Richard records, as well as a great portion of the Motown records, including such artists as Diana Ross, the Four Tops, the Temptations, and Smokey Robinson. But this is one player who cannot be pigeonholed.
Since his arrival in California in 1957, Earl Palmer has been the consummate musician who has mastered the art of versatility. As far as sessions, his ledger contains such other artists as Bobby Darin, Jan & Dean, Sonny & Cher, Johnny Mathis, Ray Charles, Gary Lewis, the Young Americans, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughn, James Darren, Tiny Tim, Frankie Avalon, Neil Young, the Everly Brothers, the Righteous Brothers, Joni Mitchell and a countless list of other names. He has played on such T. V. shows as 77 Sunset Strip, Hawaiian Eye, The Bold Ones, films such as Madigan, In Cold Blood, Finian’s Rainbow, Valley of the Dolls, Barefoot in the Park, and In the Heat of the Night.
It is unfortunate that his ledger contains only names of artists, films and shows. There are no song titles and I teased him mercilessly about the fact that those details escape him. With his multitude of accomplishments, it is understandable that some of the details blur.
He is a man who could easily choose to rest on his laurels, but that is not Earl Palmer. He is vital, energetic, enthusiastic, and last, but not least, concerned; concerned about the state of the art and the state of the industry.
This last year he has begun to activate those concerns even more fully by assuming the position of Secretary/Treasurer of AFM Local 47. It is the first time both those offices have been combined into one major responsibility, but if anyone can handle it, Earl can. His duties include disbursements to members as well as monies involving the Union. He is in charge of the bookkeeping and edits Overture, the Union’s newspaper. He is in charge of all correspondence, is a member of the board of directors and keeper of the minutes. With this commitment comes a sacrifice, for he is no longer allowed to receive money for playing, as that would be a conflict of interests. His dedication to the office, however, is prompted by his need to help. “I felt as a player, I was someone who keeps aware and concerned about the plight of the working musician. I feel they needed someone who they felt had ideas consistent with their own. I hope to get musicians interested in the Union and to participate in its functions, which in turn will strengthen the Union as a bargaining agent and protective association for those musicians.
If that isn’t enough, Earl is a grandfather five times over, with six children from two previous marriages and a baby daughter, the apple of his eye, Penny, age four, with his current beautiful Japanese wife Yumiko. “Of course I started having kids when I was 10, “he jokes, and you almost believe him since he looks at least 10 years younger than his 58 years. Recently, however, he has accomplished the most awesome task of learning to relax, which perhaps accounts for his youth. Or, perhaps it is that he has spent his life doing what he loves most. Maybe it’s a combination of both.
Warm, open, opinionated, sincere, with a sense of humor and an abundance of energy, to say that it is a pleasure speaking with Earl Palmer is an understatement.
RF: You started off in vaudeville. How did that come about?
EP: My mother and aunt were in vaudeville and from the time I was four years old, I travelled around with them.
RF: When did drums enter into the picture?
EP: I always played drums somewhat, even as a kid at Craig Elementary School in New Orleans. I was in a school band they had there and that was my first formal playing. But I had always hopped up on the drums during the vaudeville era like any kid would do. My grandfather bought me my first set at about six.
RF: Did you take lessons?
EP: Yeah, in school, with the school band and teachers. It was just enough to play little marches. My formal training didn’t come until I took some lessons from a guy named Bill Phillips, who was a very good Dixieland drummer in New Orleans. That was when I was about 10 or 11. On and off, I was always travelling with my mother until I was 17 and went into the service. There were times we were on what was called a good vaudeville circuit in those days and I had a tutor. When we were on the cheaper circuits, my mother would send me back to New Orleans or out here to California to my uncle. In fact, most of my formal schooling was in California, although technically, I lived in New Orleans until ’57.
RF: You told Scott Fish that no matter what you played, you brought a little New Orleans to it. What does that mean exactly?
EP: There’s a little bit different approach to the feel of the music and the rhythm, particularly for rhythm players, in New Orleans. There’s always something somewhere in their playing that has that old New Orleans parade meter feeling. You could always tell a New Orleans drummer the minute he sat down to play. First thing you could tell is how he played his bass drum. He was influenced by the parade drummer. The parade drummers were pretty much the beat and pulse and influence of the parade bands because they set the pace. For example, going to a funeral, they would play the dirges and they would set it off with three or four beats on the bass drum. On the way back, after what we used to call “the planting,” the band would set the meter for the second line. The people would form a “second line” behind the band and dance back to town or wherever they went.
RF: Is that where you got your unique bass drum technique?
EP: I never really concentrated on it. The main reason I was used when I moved out here, was that I had that feel. It was natural.
RF: So you weren’t really aware that your bass drum technique was somewhat different?
EP: No, I was aware it was different, but it wasn’t a unique thing to those of us who were doing it. I know other guys like Vernell Fournier and Ed Blackwell who were doing it, but I always said there were drummers in New Orleans who were doing the same thing to varying degrees.
RF: I know it’s a difficult question, but is there any way you can attempt to pinpoint what that is exactly?
EP: That’s a very difficult question. I’ve never been able to pinpoint it exactly other than to say that to be from New Orleans, you just have it. And many of the younger drummers I’ve heard from New Orleans still have it; integrating it with the new teachings that they’ve learned. For example, getting away from the drums for a minute, a young trumpet player named Wynton Marsalis is said to sound like Miles Davis despite his own unique style. But I still hear a lot of old New Orleans trumpet players in him, and he will tell you that himself. He was largely influenced by New Orleans trumpet players.
RF: Who were some of your influences?
EP: First of all, Bob Barbarin who was my first teacher in music school when I first started studying formally. He is the brother of a very famous old Dixieland drummer who played with Louis Arm strong years ago, Paul Barbarin. But Bob was, in my estimation, a better musician, although he isn’t as well known. Another influence was Sid Catlett, who in my estimation was underrated because nobody gave him credit for what I consider his greatest aspect: he was an all-around drummer. You could hear him on all kinds of records. He was on bebop records, and at the same time he was playing the Dixieland and the Chicago swing of that era. He was an all-around drummer and this is what I admired about him. When I met him in New Orleans a few years ago and asked him what young drummers should do, he said to keep the time, that’s the most important thing your instrument is made for. How well you play everything else doesn’t mean anything if it’s not in time. Consequently, I found that to be very true, and any time I have the occasion to do any kind of clinic or seminar, that is the first thing I stress to the young drummers. If you are not playing that instrument in time, you are not playing that instrument.
I’ve also had some influences from guys like Chick Webb, and many other drummers that your readers may not know about. As far as the ones they do know about, there was Louie Bellson, who was a later influence. He is an all-time great drummer and one of the all-time great people. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like Louie Bellson. In 1976, I was in Tehran with Benny Carter on a State Department tour. Some kids came up to my room and they had drum sticks and a couple of old tattered books. They had no drums, but they were from the university there. I wanted to see how well they could play, so I had them play on a pillow. You wouldn’t believe the technique they had from constant practice with no drums. Now, I didn’t have the same influence with drum companies as Louie had, so I told them I would speak to a friend of mine to see if I could get them some drums, which I did when I came back. Louie was about to leave town, and when he got back, he was ready to leave again. When I didn’t hear from him, I thought he was too busy and I didn’t want to bug him about it. Three or four months later I got a letter from the kids thanking me for the drums. Louie didn’t even tell me that he had sent them. That’s the kind of guy he is.
Buddy Rich is also a great influence. Performance wise, you put Buddy way over here and then you start evaluating other drummers. With all of the bad press that Buddy has gotten about his attitude, he is a very sweet man to people he knows and respects. He’s not vindictive, he’s just straight forward. One time he was playing at Dantes and he took me to his trailer next to the dressing room and showed me this scar he has on his back from an operation he had on his spine. I said, “Buddy, my God, how do you do it? How do you sit at those drums?” He said, “I just forget about it, man. If I’m going to drop dead, I’ll drop dead there.” What a great man!
Another guy who was an idol of mine in music school before I moved out here is Shelly Manne. It’s been so good to meet him and get to know him and find out he is as sweet as he appeared to be. One of my children is named after him. This is where my influences come from, guys like them. Of course, in the bebop era, we all liked Max [Roach] and [Art] Blakey. Blakey is a phenomenal man. He is as strong as an ox. He’s older than I am. I’m 58 and Art is stronger than three or four of us put together. It’s stamina. In fact, I got out of the service December 10,1945 and the following week I went to a concert where Billy Eckstine’s band was playing and the local band that played before them was Dooky Chase. Vernell Fournier was playing drums in Dooky’s band and Blakey was with Billy Eckstine’s band. I heard both those drummers that night and said, “That’s it. I’m going to play drums.”
RF: Did you know how to read music at this point?
EP: No. When I got out of the service, I went back to playing. Then Red Tyler, a very good friend of mine, convinced me to go to school on the G.I. Bill. I said, “Why do I need to go to music school? I’m already playing drums. I’ve got one of the best jobs in the Quarter.” And he said, “Do you read?” “No.” “Well, then you don’t know what you’re doing.” And I said, “Hey, you’re right.” I majored in piano so I could take all the accompanying courses for piano and I minored in drums since I was already playing drums. To minor in drums would give me what I needed as far as the reading. We didn’t have anyone on the faculty to teach percussion, unfortunately, so I never learned to play percussion instruments, but on my own and with the help of guys in the studio here, I learned some. I was called a lot of times on the date because there would be a few contemporary things in the picture and rather than hire another guy, they said, “Well, he can play those few things.” I didn’t even know the name of half of those instruments, but everyone was very patient.
RF: You mentioned that you had the best gig in New Orleans.
EP: At that time, the best gigs there were on Bourbon Street because they paid the best money and you made more tips. I was playing at the most popular club at the time which was the Opera House Bar.
RF: Was that your first professional drum gig?
EP: No. I played a couple around New Orleans before I got that job, but only briefly. After Harold, I joined Dave Bartholomew’s band. He had asked me a long time before that to join his band, but the guy who was the drummer in that band was a guy named Dave who was like an uncle to me. So I said, “No, I won’t take my ‘Uncle Dave’s’ job, man.” Finally Dave Bartholomew and Dave had a falling out and I joined.
RF: Were the recordings with Dave Bartholomew the first recordings you worked on?
EP: Yes, the very first. My first session with Dave, he said, “Man, you’d better get some new cymbals because those you have are kind of old.” So I went to a music shop to get new cymbals and didn’t know the difference between a Zildjian and anything else. I bought the newest, shiniest cymbals there were. I don’t even remember what brand they were, but they were the worst sounding things you’ve ever heard. Dave said, “Get those old cymbals back up there.” That was my first record date. I can’t recall who it was for. Then, of course, came the Fats Domino days.
RF: How did that come about?
EP: We used to play a place in New Orleans called Al’s Starlight Inn on London Avenue and there was another place we played called Club Desire on Desire Street, which, by the way, is the same street the play Streetcar Named Desire was taken from. There used to be a streetcar on Desire Street. So we’d go down and play these clubs and Fats would come in. He played boogie-woogie piano around there all the time. When Dave would get off the stand to go around and fraternize with the people, hustling more work for the band and so forth, he would have me take charge of the band. Sometimes the people in the audience would leave when the band would take an intermission. So when I was running the band, I’d let Fats play during the intermission so we could keep the people in the place.
Then there was a club called the Chrystal Club and we’d congregate in there after Sunday evening football games. After a while, everybody would leave to go home and the owner said, “I’ve got to get some entertainment to keep the people in here,” so I recommended Fats to play there on Sunday evenings. From that, Fats got some terrific musicians, including Cornelius Robinson, whose nickname was “Toonoo.” He was a tremendous drummer, a left-handed guy, and we used to kid him all the time about playing with “the wrong hand.”
RF: When did you start playing with Fats?
EP: Well, I never played with him live, only on his records. Fats was on the tour we went out on with Dave’s band, but it wasn’t Fats’ band. It was Fats Domino, Dave Bartholomew and Professor Longhair, but it was Dave’s band.
RF: Why did he use you on records then?
EP: Because Dave’s band was the nucleus of the recording musicians in New Orleans and we were doing all the recording.
RF: Why do so many of the Fats Domino credits say that Cornelius Coleman played the drums?
EP: That’s perhaps because he was in Fats’ band when they were travelling. After the records we did in New Orleans, I don’t know of any records that Fats did except for one out here that I played on.
RF: As far as recording techniques, on some of the very early recordings of 1949 you can hardly hear the drums.
EP: Well, the majority of Fats’ records were done in a little one-room studio. Most of the time there were only three microphones involved. The engineer did a tremendous job getting sound out of that little room with three microphones; guys doubling up on mic’s and not getting leakage of the drums. That’s why it’s so amazing now that the newer engineers need so much help. I think it may be a mixture of knowing how to direct the sound of the instruments and what microphones to use that would eliminate the need, or most of the need, for baffles and so forth. Then also, music has changed to the extent that people are playing louder, particularly the rock groups, and it’s highly probable that you would need more separation in that case. But it’s run over into where you’re even doing the nice soft sessions and you find yourself leaking into the strings’ mic’ and you’re hardly touching the drums. Something is wrong. It’s got to be something wrong with the mic’s or they’re the wrong kind of mic’, but I can’t say I know their job.
RF: Have you felt that people today are more interested in technology as opposed to the feel of the player?
EP: Very much so, which has always been a pet peeve of mine. I’ve never yet heard of a record that made the charts because it had great separation! It’s always music or the lyric, one or the other. Nowadays, there’s a tendency where the music has to subjugate itself to the technical aspect of the recording, where it didn’t used to be that way. They used to want to capture the sound they originally heard that made them want to record that particular material. Now, you go in the studio and you have to try to reproduce that same sound, but within the limits of the technical capabilities of the studio or the engineering or the equipment or whatever, and in many ways, this is unfair. Of course, it’s another part of the industry now that you have to adjust to, but to me, it’s always been a very unfair situation. They’re saying that musicians are going to be able to mail their parts into the studio after a while, or sit at home and play the part over a telephone or some kind of electronic hook-up that will plug you right into the studio, because you don’t see the people you’re playing with anymore. You seldom do a date anymore where everybody is in the studio at once. You’re doing sections. Where drummers used to punctuate everything the brass section did, now the drummer just plays straight-ahead rhythm. The brass is playing all of these beautiful, good-sounding riffs, but the drummer is not playing any of them with them. That came about because arrangers have to go in with the rhythm section and lay a rhythm track, and how can the drummer punctuate what the horn is going to play when the arranger hasn’t written it yet? The best the drummer can do then is lay down a good strong beat and hope they dance. But drummers can’t play any of the music anymore. That takes away from your creative ability. You can’t play with the rest of the band; all you can do is lay down the click track for them, in a sense.
RF: When they changed, technically, as far as more mic’s, etc., did you find that you had to adjust your style somewhat to be perhaps less loud and more defined?
EP: Whenever you don’t have total freedom of the approach to your instrument because you have to conform to the job, it’s hampering your creative ability. “I won’t try this because it’s going to be too loud.” It might be something that ordinarily you might want to do that would help, but it’s, “this won’t match,” so it hampers your creative ability because it hampers your thinking. When they added more mic’s is when it changed, in my estimation. A situation has to be somewhat unique where, let’s say, the drummer can get away from the continuous thud in the bass drum figure and be a little more creative. On most of the records you hear now, the drummer starts, and when the record is over, he’s still playing the same thing.
RF: When did you get involved with Little Richard?
EP: During the time we were doing the recordings in New Orleans. Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Etta James and artists like that were brought to New Orleans to record with Dave’s band, much like groups later started going to Muscle Shoals and Nashville. Little Richard was brought by Specialty Records. As a matter of fact, I was on about 95% of Little Richard’s things. We did a whole bunch of those same things over again on an album a few years back. I did all of Lou Rawls’ records until he went back east to Philadelphia. I was doing all the contracting at Capitol for Dave Axlerod who had Lou Rawls and, at one time, Linda Ronstadt. In fact, I did her first record at Capitol because Dave Axlerod was the A&R man and I was the contractor.
RF: Were you given total artistic and creative reign?
EP: Pretty much. In those days, Hal Blaine and I were given pretty much a free reign. We were told to stay within the arrangement, but only as a guide to tell us when to start and stop. We played what felt best and what we thought would fit.
RF: Has that changed?
EP: Yes, it’s changed quite a bit for the simple reason that there is such a sameness in music now. I think it’s totally turned around. You don’t have the total creative ability, although there are some exceptions, like drummers who are in demand now because they are terribly good players. They have a little more creative ability and a little more creative freedom, like Steve Gadd. An in demand player will always have more creative freedom. Harvey Mason is another person, but they don’t get that much of a chance to be creative because the idea is so rigid. To get creative, you have to get completely away from the concept. For example, Steve Gadd did some very beautiful things on Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” I don’t know if that was totally Steve’s idea, but it sounds like something he would do because he is very creative.
RF: How did your association with Professor Longhair begin?
EP: My first meeting with Professor Longhair was at a place called the Caldonia Inn that was torn down and replaced by the Louis Armstrong Park. It was not your nicest place, but the Professor used to hang around there all the time and just play the piano for the fun of it. When Fats Domino went on his first tour after having his first hit record, “Detroit City” on one side and “Fat Man Blues” on the other, there was this girl in New Orleans named Jewel King who had a bigger record out than Fats, called “Three Times Seven.” She refused to go on the tour because her husband’s band wasn’t going. That was a mistake because you haven’t heard from her since. In place of Jewel King on that tour was Professor Longhair. The tour was a flop, but anyhow, the Professor was a hit everywhere we went. He was a bigger hit than Fats. The Professor had just had a record out which we did, “Stagger Lee.” We went to Kansas City, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, but that’s all I remember because they were the highlights of the tour, since it did so badly.
RF: So you enjoyed live playing as well during those years?
EP: Oh yeah, very much. Live playing is the one thing you seldom get on a recording because recording is a stop and go situation. There is no feeling to match playing live with a good band when everything is right. It’s called magic. There is one other feeling like that, when you totally create something, either a song or an arrangement you write, and you hear a band play it back. That happened to me the first time in music school. We had to write an arrangement and the ensemble class would play it back. To hear something that you totally created come back is incredible, and it always sounds better. It’s the greatest feeling, and that is the feeling of total creation right there.
RF: Have you done any live playing in recent years?
EP: In recent years there were some concerts with Lalo Schifrin. We went to Israel last year with the Israeli Philharmonic. There’s a segment in his program also, where he plays some jazz, which is his early roots. There were some great moments there. We also did some concerts as a trio, and what I liked about that was that it gave me a full range of playing with the symphony and then down to a trio. When you get a good feel out of both of those aspects, it’s quite gratifying. Record wise, you don’t get much chance to do that because they don’t last long enough. The record has got to be two or three minutes and then it’s over, and you still have to be concerned with the fact that you are recording. With the digital recording, you’re concentrating on not making mistakes. Nobody wants to be the one to make the mistake so you’ve got to do it all over again. It’s not like the other records where you can stop and start again and splice in from there. With the digital, it’s going right on the disc while you’re playing it.
RF: Coming from your background, when you started playing with people like Fats Domino and Little Richard, what was your feeling about playing that kind of music?
EP: It was very exciting. If I ever had a forte in this business, it’s been to be able to play all kinds of music, so that was a new thing for me. At that time, when we started doing this, I wasn’t playing rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm & blues, I was playing jazz in a club with Earl Williams or with Dave’s band. We weren’t playing bebop, although we played some bebop arrangements with Dave for the sake of variety, but we played contemporary ballads, Billy Eckstine tunes—the popular things of the day. So to do these rock things was a refreshing change.
RF: Out here in L.A., when musicians were first exposed to rock ‘n’ roll, the general consensus was that it was deplorable.
EP: Well, what did get me pissed off sometimes was that out here you get so categorized. I always felt that just because this is what I did that attracted the attention of people, that didn’t mean I was limited to doing that. I don’t want to be limited. I didn’t go to music school for four years to just play rock ‘n’ roll. But fortunately, I got the opportunity for people to know that I did play other things by doing the films and the television.
RF: Why did you come out here and when?
EP: That was 1957. I came out here because my first wife and I separated, and I was then with my second wife, Susan, who was white. We didn’t want to hide around New Orleans any longer. Before my first wife and I separated, I had been asked a number of times by these people when they’d come to New Orleans to record, to come to California; that I was badly needed out here in the studio. Before I came, they were using two guys on many sessions to do what I was doing. They would use one guy to play a shuffle rhythm and the other guy would play the backbeat. So they were saying, “Why don’t you come out to California? You’ll make a mint.” My first wife didn’t want to come, but then I came out with Susan, who died in 1972. We didn’t want to stay in New Orleans any longer and that was my main reason for coming out.
RF: That was very early to have a racial intermarriage.
EP: Very much so.
RF: Was it markedly different out here?
EP: Well, it was different in the sense that we were not restricted as to where we could go and be together. We still evoked stares from people and got snide comments as we’d pass by. With my temper, that didn’t go over too well, but it was an enlightening part of my life. I learned a lot from Susan, who taught me an awful lot about people. You see, in all my travels in those days, it didn’t matter how far north you were, there was still some segregation, so you were still pretty much kept to your own people. From Susan, I learned an awful lot about the white world, if we put it in blunt terms. I learned a lot from her, which I am grateful for, and it enabled me to take the chip off my shoulder, meet a lot of people and understand people and realize that there’s good and bad people everywhere. There’s good and bad blacks and there’s good and bad whites and I found that out very early, largely thanks to her.
RF: Did you feel the music industry was any more liberal?
EP: Yes, it always has been because you’re thrown together a lot more, but there’s always been some problems in the music industry. There are right now, as a matter of fact. You wouldn’t think so, but there are. I’m a member of an organization called MUSE (Musicians United to Stop Exclusion) whose main objective is to try to eliminate some of those things that are happening. Like the situation in the Hollywood studios right now—unless the children of black musicians are able to get into that field like the children of the white musicians, what can we tell our black kids in school? When they say, “How can I get in the studio and make the money that is being made out there?” How can you tell them they aren’t hiring? I can understand if they’re not hiring me now. I’ve been there; I’ve made some money. Youth has to be served, but there aren’t many younger black guys coming along out there. This is the problem that is being confronted now and the blame is being pitched back and forth between contractors and leaders. The leaders say the contractor didn’t hire any blacks and the contractor says, “I hire who the leaders say to hire.” So they’re hiding behind each other.
All of it isn’t racial. A lot of it is social. A contractor hires the guys he came up with or who he lives near and who he associates with. But at the same time, the young black musician is entitled to a little too. Just because he doesn’t live near you, play golf with you or go to school with you, he’s still got to make a living. His talent shouldn’t be relegated to playing the black clubs and socials and stuff like that. He’s got the talent, he just isn’t getting the opportunity. I think one of the reasons is that there are no black hiring agents out there. All the contractors are primarily white. Recently, I did some contracting, and what I did was successful. I think I proved that I could have an integrated band and have quality music. I made sure that I hired not only whites and blacks, but also women, Orientals, and Latinos. You know, everybody you have in the band doesn’t have to be the very best. What is happening with the minority is that when the minority is hired, they have to be the very best, and that is where it’s not fair.
The same thing has to happen with employment in that walk of life that we’ve been striving to get in employment everywhere else. It’s a huge industry out there and all these people should be part of it too. We have figures at the Union that would appall you; files of contracts to show the numbers. It used to be that contractors were far more powerful than they are now and they had the say when the leader would say, “Get me a band,” if he didn’t say “Get me this person or that person.” I can’t throw all the blame on them because I wouldn’t have made the decent living I made if it weren’t for the contractors hiring me. Of course, I realize also that I was in demand, but contractors can circumvent that sometimes, like I’ve seen it circumvented in my case sometimes. Nowadays, I’m inclined to blame the leaders primarily because if they don’t want to look prejudiced, they’ve got to not act prejudiced. When they have an all-white band in the studio of 35 and 40 musicians, then they have to understand that anybody who would walk in is going to naturally think, “Well, he doesn’t like these people.” What else are they going to think when they don’t see any blacks or women there? The line you get is, “I just didn’t think of it.” So that means, “You don’t have to eat.” He thought about those guys having to eat, but he didn’t think about me, and I’ve got to eat too. I’ve got to go to that same supermarket and pay those same prices, so if you don’t think about me, you don’t care for me. That’s all I can say. But like I said, it isn’t a racial situation in every case, it’s social too. And I’ve seen people try to rectify the situation also. Right after the strike, when we got some legislation on the table, there was a little bit of an upsurge of black hiring, but it’s gone again. Some years ago, we had another movement along those lines. We got a couple of musicians in the Academy Awards band, where there had never been any before. I don’t know if there are any now, but with those things, whenever you make a little noise about it, it happens and then it dies down.
RF: It’s nice to see that you’re so concerned. You have had a tremendous amount of success and you are still concerned about those who haven’t. That’s not always the case.
EP: That’s one of the real problems of the blacks. Many of those who have had the success are not interested in the other blacks’ problem anymore. That is one of the problems the blacks have with the blacks. The main thing a black should want is to be in the mainstream of everyday life and have the opportunities, that’s all. But you find a lot of blacks, when they get into the mainstream, tend to forget sometimes that they’re black, and their responsibility. We have a lot of blacks too who are “professionally” black because it’s advantageous for them to be black. We have a lot of stars who have their own production companies and such, and the bulk of their staff is white. They are what I call “professional” blacks. They are now being very, very vociferous about being black, but when you go to their production company offices, you won’t see any blacks in the high echelon—the policy making of the company. You may see some secretaries, but that’s it. There are a lot of whites who are not hiring equally, but there are an awful lot of blacks who do the same.
RF: So what happened when you came out to California?
EP: Well, on the strength of being on all those Fats Domino records, I did work for a lot of different companies. I got so busy working for them that I didn’t stay with Aladdin Records but for about a year as A&R man for them. I got so busy that I couldn’t do that work, and they weren’t doing that much as it was. So I left them after a year and sorry to say, they went out of business about a year later. And once the other companies for whom I had worked in New Orleans knew I was here, they began calling. In addition to which, I started being recommended by other musicians I had hired and played with who were the best, like Benny Carter, Buddy Collette, and Red Callender. Then they began recommending me to the people they had been working for. Especially after I started working with Buddy’s group and everybody knew, “Hey, he plays jazz too!” That’s what I was playing before I was playing rhythm & blues. So I started branching out to other companies and then into the films. I used to turn down record dates to take film calls. Record dates paid more, but I had to make an inroad into the film area because you last longer in films. Records are a more evolutionary thing and there’s more of a turnover all the time.
RF: Tell me about the Motown situation.
EP: My first association with Motown was through two guys, one who is still producing for them now, Hal David. We used to do an awful lot of Motown stuff, and at the time, we didn’t know it. We knew it was Motown, but we didn’t know who the artist was going to be on it. We heard these records and tapes come back and knew it sounded familiar, but we knew we hadn’t recorded with the Temptations or with Diana Ross. We were doing a lot of tracks out here and two girls by the name of the Lewis Sisters were singing on them. They must have done a thousand albums, yet I never remembered their having a record out.
RF: Why did Motown do it that way?
EP: At that time, many companies were doing it. There was a rule in the Union where you could not do tracking because tracking did not allow musicians to make the proper amount of money that they should make. You were only supposed to record with the artist there. If you tracked, you had to pay a penalty for tracking. So rather than pay a penalty for tracking and not having the artist there who was back in Chicago doing a concert or something, they had the Lewis Sisters, and we recorded the Lewis Sisters almost every day. Finally the Union found out about that. To this day I don’t know how. Honest to God, I didn’t report it, although I should have. But somebody did and they cracked down on it. They sent us retroactive checks from way back. So my first association with Motown was with Hal David and Fred Wilson who were the only two producers they had out here I think. We used to do all these things in an old ramshackled house behind Sunset Boulevard. Carol Kaye, Arthur Wright, and Red Callender did some. In fact, Carol played guitar on some of those early Motown things. I helped introduce her to the business when she was playing guitar. I still worked a lot for them when they first built their studios on Romaine.
RF: So what changed?
EP: Ben Barrett was their contractor then and he used to do the payroll for them also. I used to work a lot for Ben on other gigs. Being black and Motown being a black company, automatically threw me into the Motown situation, which from then on, gave me the opportunity to do all of the Motown stuff. I was also able to help get another guy started in this town, a tremendous drummer by the name of Paul Humphry. I sent Paul on a date in my place for Motown and guaranteed Ben that he’d do a good job, and he did. I was also instrumental in helping Harvey Mason. They needed a young black drummer for a part in Mod Squad and I recommended him for it. My son was out of town or I probably would have recommended him. These guys were very good players and they were also guys who had attitudes that you didn’t have to worry about in the studio—about being on time, appearances, attitude. But a fall-out with Ben Barrett was more or less the end of that situation. That was about eight years ago. My association had begun to deteriorate a little bit earlier than that because I began to feel that Motown was a company that was supposed to be a very black company and they prided themselves on the Motown sound, the black sound and all of that. I don’t know what it’s like now—I haven’t been around there—but for a time there, the operation was more white run than it was black, which smacked of hypocrisy to me. I think I voiced that a couple of times and that was the end of my association with them. But that was alright because that’s the way I felt about it. The highest paid position was Ben Barrett, and he sure as hell wasn’t colored. So I made mention of that a couple of times and I guess it didn’t go over too well. But I had a lot of fun.
Now, that is the one alteration in my playing where I don’t feel there was a New Orleans flavor in the music because even then, Motown had a distinct sound. To get that sound, it changed my whole hearing concept for a while. What they meant by sound wasn’t so much sound as it was a motion—an action from the drums. They didn’t like cymbal sounds. They liked the bass drum and they liked the snare drum. I played a lot of bass drum, it’s true, but in a different aspect, so it changed my thinking a little in order to get the sound they wanted. I had creative freedom, but I still had to maintain that sound and alter my playing. I think that changed the New Orleans feeling totally for the while I worked with them. I don’t think you could have told my playing from anybody else’s on those records, except for maybe fills. I had guys who said they knew it was me by certain fills I played, but rhythmically it was strictly the Motown sound. So other than the guy in Detroit who really started it, the original Motown drummer whose name was Benny Benjamin, I think I did a lot of the early hits.
RF: How did the film opportunities come along for you?
EP: Like I said, I wanted to show that I could do other things. I wanted the opportunity, so whenever I got a chance to do a film call, if I had to turn down a record date, which paid more money, I would, in order to do the other. The longevity is greater in films than it is in records. I think the first film call I ever played on was a thing with Little Richard in The Girl Can’t Help It, the main title. Somebody didn’t show up or something like that on the drums and I got the opportunity to play the serious part of the score. Then I made other contacts and met other people by having to go on the call and do one part rock ‘n’ roll and getting the chance to do the other things until I got the recognition for being able to do the serious music.
RF: When did you find that the record dates began to get less in quantity?
EP: About five years ago, records began to diminish for me. At first I didn’t know whether it was just new faces coming on the scene or the business just getting to be less. Now I’m sure it’s the business, but I’m also sure it’s new faces—younger talent—which is inevitable. When I came here, somebody else was doing the work too.
RF: Are there any new, young drummers you admire?
EP: Steve Gadd, Harvey Mason, John Guerin, Peter Donald and Peter Erskine are very good, all-around young men and that’s always been what I admired; somebody who can play everything.
RF: How does somebody learn to be versatile and be able to play all styles?
EP: First of all, I think you have to have the incentive to want to play all areas of music because if you’re pushed into it, you’re not going to want to do it. Having that desire to play all kinds of things and enlarging on it by listening to all kinds of music and finding enjoyment in all kinds of music is the key. Then luckily being thrown into situations in the film industry where you don’t know what you’re going to have to do when you go there in the morning most of the time is how it happened for me. With films in recent years beginning to play all kinds of music, you get a chance to put that in operation.
RF: What other advice could you give to drummers?
EP: Keep the time. Play that instrument with time, read everything you can find to read, and not just drum parts. Drum parts are pretty much the same. They differ with different tunes, but the parts themselves are written pretty much the same. In saxophone, trumpet, clarinet and violin parts, the syncopation will change more than the average drum part, so to sharpen the eye, read those parts. Mainly, have humility with that instrument. If you don’t, it’s going to be in bad taste. You can play in great time, you can read your tail off, but if you’re playing too loud, then it’s the worst sounding instrument in the band. Make the rest of the guys know that you’re responsible for the time. You’re going to catch hell for it when it’s bad and you seldom get the glory when it’s good. Somehow establish a rapport with them that if they all play the time you’re playing, if it’s good and consistent, then you’ll all be in time. You have to have a little bit of a takeover attitude without being overbearing, for the good of the time feel. You can’t all be an individual leader and in that particular instance, you’re the leader, in that section.
RF: Is there a particular kind of music you prefer to play?
EP: I have to say jazz for the simple reason that all the music we play stems from jazz. Every few years, periodically, it goes back to jazz. And it has to. When you get to a certain kind of music that is so far away from the roots, you have to come back. When it comes back, it comes back to some form of jazz. This country doesn’t appreciate that this is the only art form that it has. Everything else started somewhere else. That’s appreciated around the world more than it is here. Jazz started in this country, and I’m very proud to say that it started in New Orleans. Jazz is the most creative of musics to me, because when you’re playing jazz, you’re improvising so much more than other music. So it gives you more room for the creative aspect of music and this is what keeps music going—people creating. When you stop jazz, you almost stop creating. You start creating trends, but not music.
RF: What about equipment through the years? Did you change your equipment much?
EP: I haven’t changed that much. I think I was one of the first to use two toms up on the bass drum, and then Hal [Blaine] started using eight. That got such a good effect that we all had to do it. It was very good.
RF: What were you most recently using?
EP: I had four or five sets and used different ones at different times. I used Yamaha some of the time and a Rogers about 50% of the time. Some drums will tune a certain way and the other set won’t. The Yamaha set I have needs less adjustment to change the sound of it. If you go on a film call, there may be one tune that’s jazz and if you’re going to get the proper sound for that tune, the drums can’t be tuned to play the next cue which is hard rock, maybe. You have to find a common denominator that will keep you from having to make too much of a change in between. I find the way I have the Yamaha set tuned already is more versatile along those lines. Then I have a Camco set that I used for casuals, which is more mobile since it’s a smaller set and it can get into my car easily. Then I have a Rogers set which was given to me by Louie Bellson that I used because it’s more adaptable to the rock sound. On the Rogers set I had eight toms like Hal had, but on the Yamaha, I used two on the top and two on the bottom. On the Camco, I used two on the top and one on the bottom.
RF: You’re also quite involved with NARAS (National Assoc. of Recording Arts and Sciences).
EP: I’ve been involved with them for twenty years now. I just completed a term of vice president for the second time and I’m serving my third term as national trustee. It’s a good organization and everyone in the industry should belong to it. They should know what is going on in it. It’s an organization that can give praise to various artists in various fields, and regardless of what anyone thinks, nobody can deny that it is a totally democratic process. The one thing you can ask from an organization is that the voting is totally democratic. If you don’t vote, then you can’t complain about what record wins. It’s a matter of the voting people’s choice.
RF: I wonder if you could tax your memory to think of any records that you are particularly proud of.
EP: I’m proud of an album I did with Sinatra with Neal Hefti one time. It was built around Sinatra’s vocals, but it was also almost an instrumental album with him singing on top of it. Neal has the knack for doing just the right thing on arrangements. There’s kind of a saying in the business about his arrangements: “All you have to do is play; you don’t have to make them swing. The way they’re written, they swing themselves.” It was a great feeling doing that album with Sinatra, who to me, is a fantastic man.
There have been many other albums. I remember some rock albums that were fantastic. Another highlight was that Hal Blaine and I used to do some things with Jan & Dean where they used two drummers. The parts were identical and we had to hit the same tom-tom at the same time, the same snare drum at the same time. Everything was identical. They wanted it to sound like one drummer, but with the body of two, and that was pretty gratifying because we had to strive to make it sound like one drummer. I think we did a fantastic job. Hal’s great. A lot of people thought Hal and I would be enemies because we were direct competitors for a long time, but that wasn’t so. We used to communicate quite a bit.
RF: Do I dare ask you the highlights of your career?
EP: Like I said earlier, the first time writing an arrangement in music school and feeling that sense of having totally created it and hearing it being played back. That was the first euphoria I felt. Another was doing a film call—some cartoon music which is very, very difficult music because it is all written, and because of the changes of tempos and changes of instruments. Doing one of those the first time and doing it exactly right was another feeling of great accomplishment because it was something I hadn’t done before. It gave me a chance to prove myself to a number of people who were on that date and who I had never worked with.
Also, record-wise, there was an album some years ago called The Explosive Side of Sarah Vaughn. There were some wonderful arrangements in that by a great arranger, Benny Carter. I don’t think the album was a great seller, but musically, to me, it was a great album. I had a great feeling of accomplishment because the music was difficult and it was very physical be cause practically everything started in a ballad and wound up real up-tempo. I felt I did a good job on that and that was another highlight. Also, on the Delia Reese Show, that was one of the best bands I’ve ever played with. Every day was a feeling of accomplishment. We had a number of very good arrangers and Delia would never change anything. They used to outdo themselves trying to outdo the other ones. We did that show every day for eight or nine months. That was a wonderful experience.
I did a casual once with Benny Carter at the Paladium which didn’t have promise of being anything, but turned out to be in credible. We weren’t supposed to play any dance music, but as it turned out, something happened and we had to play dance music. We didn’t have any book, but Bob Yeager usually kept Louie Bellson’s arrangements to be shipped to him wherever he needed, so he got out Louie’s book. That was a pretty good feeling to play that thing sight unseen because it’s all built around Louie. It was fun too because it was a drummer’s book. We didn’t play the long solos—we’d condense it to maybe four or eight bars because it had to be dance music—but Benny Carter said it was one of the best displays of sight reading he had ever seen from a drummer. From his many years of playing with drummers, I felt pretty good about that. So those are some of the highlights, and there have been many others. Buddy Collette’s group was great after coming here and not playing any jazz and just doing records. Buddy started his group and we opened at a club one night and that was one of those magical situations where everything was right, everybody sounded great, you could do no wrong, and everything you tried worked. That was another highlight of my career, as far as with a small group thing. We had some fun days there and a lot of magic nights. That’s what the whole thing is, being able to play and enjoy it. I always considered myself very lucky to make a decent living at doing something I enjoy doing more than anything else. That doesn’t mean it’s not work and you don’t want to be paid for it, but I always considered myself so fortunate. Besides the time and study you put in, the hard knocks and the hamburgers, it’s pretty gratifying to wind up making a good living at what you want to do more than anything else in the world.