BACKBEAT by Tony Scherman


Earl Palmer's Story
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Music critic Scherman (editor, The Rock Musician, not reviewed, etc.) presents the story of drummer Earl Palmer, one of the foundational figures in rock, who witnessed the changes in race relations and the world of popular music from the vaudeville days to the present. Scherman provides the introduction to each chapter of this biography, and then presents transcriptions from his 125 hours of taped interviews with Palmer. This allows Palmer’s particular blend of New Orleans black dialect and vaudevillian wordplay to take center stage in the story of his life. Recounting everything from his very earliest memories of New Orleans’s Treme neighborhood in the 1920s and ’40s up through the rock scene of the 1980s, Palmer presents a very personal overview of the century. While his worthiness as a biographical figure rests largely on his work with such notables as Ritchie Valens, the Righteous Brothers, Tina Turner, the Beach Boys, and dozens of other rock musicians, he also worked with jazz luminaries like Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, and Dizzy Gillespie, and thus is able to offer a look at the intersection of these musical realms. Unfortunately, nearly half the book is spent on the minor details of his early life, prior to his arrival in the halls of fame. The oral style also doesn—t serve the book well: Palmer has a tendency to ramble (reading occasionally to a page containing two and three short, vaguely related anecdotes). Palmer’s speech is also far from G-rated; among many crudities are such recollections as “I got bombed off homemade vodka and fucked one of the only chicks that wasn—t big and fat.” Somehow, this fails to seem charming. The final sections detailing his work with major musicians are more engaging and funny, as when he says incredibly of a recording session with rock superstar Neil Young, “I—m telling you, man, I don—t remember it.” While the discussions of rock’s formative years make for interesting reading, Palmer’s personal story does not, and this book will probably appeal most to rock history completists. (32 b&w photos)

Pub Date: April 1st, 1999
ISBN: 1-56098-844-4
Page count: 240pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 1999