"Flintstones" theme drummer Earl Palmer dead at 84
Hugely prolific New Orleans drummer Earl Palmer, whose powerful backbeat was heard on the fast, percussion-heavy theme song of "The Flintstones," died Friday in Los Angeles after a long illness. He was 84. Possibly the most recorded drummer in the history of popular music, Palmer helped create the beat of rock 'n roll. He was heard on thousands of recordings, starting in the late 1940s. "He was my right hand," Dave Bartholomew, the producer and co-writer of Fat Domino's catalog, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "He was a professor of music. [With Palmer's death,] it's like I died myself." "If any single musician can be credited with defining rock & roll as a rhythmic idiom distinct from the jump, R&B, and all else that preceded it, that musician is surely Earl Palmer," wrote Robert Palmer (no relation) in Rolling Stone.
Born Earl C. Palmer in New Orleans on October 25, 1924, he grew up in the city's Treme neighborhood. As a young boy, he entered show business as a tap dancer with his mother and aunt on the black vaudeville circuit. Later, he moved to Los Angeles, impacting the music scenes in both cities as a first-call session drummer. From 1950 to 1957, Palmer's powerful backbeat and mastery of second-line shuffle rhythms made him a much in-demand percussionist in his hometown. He was hired by bandleader Dave Bartholomew in 1947 after a stint in the army and recorded extensively with Bartholomew protege Domino, Lloyd Price, Smiley Lewis and other New Orleans artists at Cosimo Matassa's legendary J&M Studios. He also played on the seminal rock and roll recordings of Little Richard, who wrote in his autobiography that Palmer "is probably the greatest session drummer of all time." In 1949, Palmer played drums on Domino's debut hit "The Fat Man," a reported million-seller that reached #2 on the R&B chart early the following year.
Lured to California to work for Aladdin Records in 1957, he played on literally thousands of rock, jazz, R&B and soundtrack sessions over the years. From his home base in Los Angeles, Palmer drummed for producer Phil Spector and for Motown. His list of session credits included artists as diverse as Ritchie Valens, Eddie Cochran, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Duane Eddy, Frank Sinatra, the Monkees, Bonnie Raitt, Johnny Otis, Neil Young and Elvis Costello. Though Palmer's first love was jazz -- "I lived in a jazz world," he allowed in his biography Backbeat: Earl Palmer's Story -- he laid the foundation for rock and roll drumming with his solid stickwork and feverish backbeat. He was heard on such classics as Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" and The Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin.'"
In 1961, he recorded the solo album Drumsville for the Liberty label, followed a year later by "Percolator Twist." Among other projects in 1968, he played on albums by the Monkees, Taj Mahal, Roy Brown and Van Dyke Parks. The year 1972 was typically prolific and varied. He played on albums by B.B. King, Randy Newman and Professor Longhair. Backbeat: Earl Palmer's Story, by music journalist and historian Tony Scherman, was published by the Smithsonian Institution Press in 1999. A companion CD, Backbeat: The World's Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Drummer (Ace Records), collected 30 of the strongest tracks that he played on. On March 6, 2000, Palmer was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the fifteenth annual induction dinner. Mike Leiber and Jerry Stoller were his presenters.
Palmer could be heard on scores of Fats Domino singles, including his hits "I'm In Love Again," "I'm Walkin" and "My Blue Heaven." He backed Little Richard on "Long Tall Sally," Lewis on "I Hear You Knocking," Price on "Lawdy Miss Clawdy," Shirley & Lee on "Let the Good Times Roll," and Ritchie Valens on "La Bamba." "Earl was a complete musician, a complete drummer," Bartholomew said. "In the studio, I didn't have to tell him (anything). He would tell me. If it was a sweet song, he knew how to approach it. If it was rock 'n roll, he knew how to approach that." He contributed to the soundtracks of dozens of 1960s and 1970s movie classics. These included It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Cool Hand Luke, In the Heat of the Night, Valley of the Dolls, Rosemary's Baby, Kelly's Heroes, Harold and Maude, Lady Sings the Blues, What's Up, Doc?, Walking Tall, The Longest Yard and The Rose. Movie work in the 1980s included Gremlins, Top Gun, Predator, Cocktail and The Fabulous Baker Boys. Palmer played the theme song or incidental music on such TV series as I Dream of Jeannie, Green Acres, Ironside, The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, The Odd Couple and M.A.S.H. He continued working even through the 1990s. His influence was recognized by drummers ranging from the Rolling Stones' Charlie Watts to the E Street Band's Max Weinberg. Earl Palmer was married four times. His survivors include seven children, 18 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are incomplete.