The flap lures you in with a partial list of his recording credits: Little Richard, Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, Sam Cooke, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Neil Young. In the '50s and '60s, Earl Palmer was a top drummer-for-hire, first in New Orleans, where he grew up, and then in Los Angeles. He's generally credited with inventing rock 'n' roll drumming. But if you're looking for gossip about the rock pioneers or an insider's account of the creation of their music, you won't find it in "Backbeat: Earl Palmer's Story." Rock 'n' roll was a small part of Palmer's career, and it was merely a professional commitment, seldom a thrill. In Tony Scherman's short, unsatisfying portrait, the bulk of which is told in Palmer's own words, it's Palmer's raucous early years, on the prewar black vaudeville circuit and in the clubs and on the streets of New Orleans, that stand out.
Palmer was born in 1924 to a single mother who landed a featured spot singing and dancing in singer Ida Cox's "Darktown Scandals" revue. By age 5 he had started tap-dancing for money while serving as "mascot" to a local pimp. He danced where he could, including white clubs on Bourbon Street where "the emcee would say, 'And now for a special treat we're going to bring on some little nigger boys to dance for you all!'" Other kids went to school; Palmer joined his mother's traveling show and soaked up atmosphere:
[Ida Cox] was a mean drunk. When she had nothing to bitch about, she brought up stuff that was already resolved. If somebody made an entrance at the wrong time, about a week later Miss Ida would say to herself out of the blue clear sky, "I wonder how long the bitch has to be a dancer before she realizes when she supposed to come on the goddamn stage."
After many years of hectic touring, surrounded by assorted sharps and junkies, Palmer japed his way through a wartime stint in the Jim Crow Army in Europe. Back in New Orleans, prominent band leader Dave Bartholemew hired him, and soon Palmer was providing the shuffle behind Bartholemew's protigi Fats Domino and the more radical piano pounder Little Richard, whose pile-driving style forced Palmer to create an equally powerful backbeat. But Palmer bluntly tells Scherman how little the experience meant to him:
What was rock and roll to me? I lived in a jazz world. I was not interested in Little Richard or Fats Domino. That's difficult for you to understand, because you come from a generation that is. I don't. It's something we did that was not important to us musically.
So much for the flap copy. The remainder of the story concerns Palmer's career as an esteemed L.A. session drummer, playing on thousands of TV and film soundtracks and jazz, pop and rock records, about most of which he remembers nothing.
As a black man who was raised in the uniquely fuzzy racial mix of New Orleans and who married a white woman, Palmer is both wry and biting about racism:
My own theory why there wasn't a hell of a lot of lynching around New Orleans is that a sumbitch would never really know who he was lynching. Could be his own cousin! "Hey, who's that hanging from the tree? Aw, it's Cousin Louis! Why y'all did that?"
On other subjects, Palmer's genial anecdotes rarely pay off. There's probably a connection to be made between the suppression of personal style required by the studio musician's craft and the failure of Palmer's voice to come through more vividly, but the real culprit is Scherman: If he'd provided more context than the brief essays with which Palmer's cobbled-together monologue is interspersed, we might have been rewarded with far greater insight into Palmer's life and musical legacy.