RADIO INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPTION
WCPN, 90.3 FM - Cleveland, OH
Around Noon with Dee Perry
Earl Palmer, Dr. John, Warren Zanes
February 11, 2004
Musical Intro: "Goin' Back To New Orleans" (Dr. John)
DEE PERRY: The City of New Orleans has long been acknowledged as the Cradle of Jazz, mixing the rattle of African rhythms on Congo Square with immigrant-influenced folk and popular melodies of early America. The Crescent City though is just as fertile in influence when it comes to later forms of American music such as rock and R&B. Going on this week at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is a series of celebrations of New Orleans contributions to the gumbo that is rock and roll. Joining me now to talk about that celebration is the Vice President of Education for the Rock Hall, Warren Zanes. With him is Rock Hall Inductee Earl Palmer and joining us by phone is Dr. John, the wonderful singer and songwriter and performer and all around great guy (chuckles). Wonderful to have you all in the studio and you by phone, Dr. John, thank you for being with us.
DR. JOHN: (barely audible groan)
DP: Let's start with you, Earl. What are your earliest memories of growing up in New Orleans?
EARL PALMER: When I was tap dancing up and down Bourbon Street for tips at four years old. That's the earliest memory I can remember. But a very pleasant memory, because at the same time I learned dance from my mother and my aunt who I later traveled with in vaudeville shows, Ida Cox, the Dark Town Scandals, the Rabbit Town Minstrels, those things, and I also learned the music from listening to all the various bands we had to dance to outside on the street while they were playing on the inside. But uh, there's all kinds of wonderful memories of New Orleans, just being in New Orleans, the people are the most wonderful memory because they will feed you before anything else, you will not starve in New Orleans.
DP: I like that
EP: Hence, it's called "The Big Easy."
DP: Dr. John, what does the sound of New Orleans mean to you? How would you describe that sound?
DJ: Well, you know, the music is pretty like, uh, wide open. It's like, uh, it's a little bit of a lot of things. It's, it's, it's, it's…. music make you kinda get loose people, no matter what kind of music you hear come out of New Orleans whether it's from a funeral or it's from a parade or whether it's a church it definitely make you dance. You never gonna see too many people hangin' round some New Orleans music that ain't getting into dancin.'
DP: Yes. That's something I recognize from listening to your music and Earl's music, because he has played on some albums and single records that a lot of people are familiar with. And Warren I wanted to have you identify how far back the New Orleans connection to rock music goes.
WARREN ZANES: Well, it would almost be an arbitrary choice. I think different people would say different things. But one of the other people who's going to be here tonight is Cosimo Matassa and he started the first key recording studio in New Orleans and pretty soon on people like Bumps Blackwell from Specialty Records and Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun from Atlantic Records were coming down to New Orleans and this was in the early 50s. So a lot of people who think about the birth of rock and roll being in 1953 or '4 … it was happening in New Orleans years before that. But if you wanted to trace it back further still you could.
EP: Yeah, as early as the mid 40s
DP: Earl you had a chance to perform with lots of folks as I mentioned. Fats Domino was one of those people. How did your becoming a drummer …how did that evolve from tap dancing on the street to getting to play with folks like Fats?
EP: If I may first say, Mac, I love you.
DJ: Hey, same here Earl.
EP: That's my man. He's one of the nicest people in the world to everybody, I wanted to get that off then I'll get back to you again Mac and tell you how much more I love you. Jillene says 'hi,' Mac.
DJ: Hey, give my love.
EP: How music came to me from the tap dancing … and being a drummer I always thought I had somewhat of an advantage over most drummers 'cause being a tap dancer I had built in… what you cannot teach a drummer is syncopation and the songs, you know, knowing the songs, know the bridge, know if there's a tag or a couple of extra bars to a phrase and so forth. If you know the song, when you're playing the instrument you got that built in. People say, "Well, why you playin' that F?' Because that's the melody, that belongs to the song, and it helps playing drums, you know when to change color, you know that you don't…for example, one thing I tell young drummers, you see a lot of young drummers with a whole mass of cymbals all around him and he's playing behind a trumpet soloist. And after the trumpet solo is finished he's playing on one cymbal to get a level and a sound, for him. Then the next soloist is a saxophone player. It seemed to me a waste of cymbals and a waste of thought to not change cymbals for that other instrumentalist. Because what you're saying is 'Now he's finished, here he is' and you change a little sound by playing another cymbal and you also, you lay back a little to get under him and then you goose him on to the rest of his solo, you know what I mean? And that's part of the color and the shading that a drummer should know. Because he's not playing a melodic instrument he's playing an instrument really, the drums is an accompanying instrument, really, and if you don't know how to accompany then you're not a good drummer, you're just a soloist. That's all you know how to do. It's a team instrument, really.
DP: Well, let's hear a little bit of how Earl Palmer has done it. We'll play some music he recorded with Fats Domino.
MUSIC: I'm Walkin' (Fats Domino)
DP: The music of legendary New Orleans drummer and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Earl Palmer who joins me here in Studio B along with the Rock Hall's VP of Education Warren Zanes and with us by phone is New Orleans piano man extraordinaire, Dr. John. This week these New Orleans master musicians will perform at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for Black History Month. Dr. John, another important musician from New Orleans is one of your heroes, Professor Longhair. What can you tell us about him?
DJ: Well, uh, Professor Longhair just had his own old thing about music. It's like uh, I remember I was working a gig with Roy Brown, a great trumpet player guy and uh, we all quit to go do one gig with Professor Longhair that never even happened but in that little time I got to produce some records on him and stuff and work with him under some different circumstances. And he would be like 'Listen, look you gotta frolic behind a solo.' And he really meant to kick the soloists really hard and 'Don't shift the tempo, don't move nothin' but it's just gotta frolic.' That's just how he said it. But he had a million things like that that was just his way of, of, of expressin' hisself that made it something special.
DP: I like that idea of frolicking behind the music, because that's what it makes you feel like. It always feels like there's a party going on when you're playing some music that is authentically New Orleans. And Warren, Dr. John will be paired with Deacon John Moore tomorrow night at the Rock Hall. Who is Deacon John?
WZ: Well these guys could tell you better but I'll just give you a snapshot. He's been on the New Orleans scene for about 40 years and he's been in every corner of that scene. But not too many people know him. He had a life as a side man, he had a life as a solo performer but I think only very recently has he been pushed from the shadows. And that was one reason why I wanted to bring him in and one reason I wanted to bring Earl in. If you could put together a concert with all the bands whose singles Earl has played on, you'd have a concert much bigger than Woodstock, you'd have an incredible concert. Everybody knows stuff that Earl has played on but not that many people know Earl. Fewer still know Deacon John Moore. This is an opportunity to not only celebrate New Orleans music, to explore it a little bit, but to see some of the crucial figures who we might not otherwise know. We know Fats Domino. There's a much bigger story to tell.
DP: Earl, who were some of your favorite people to work with? What were some of your favorite circumstances?
EP: Mac Rebennack, that's Dr. John. Most people know that's his name. And if you're from New Orleans you know a nickname for everyone and mine for Mac was always 'Mac Rabbit Neck.' (laughter) I'm probably the only one who could tell him that, he'd hurt somebody, but I love him, I love the man. As a matter of fact the very last thing I recorded, in fact they just sent me a copy of it, it's not been released yet… Mac and his producer Stu Levine, who is like a younger father to all of us, he loves Mac and they love me, they've been so good, he's been so good to Jillene and I and I'll never forget it…and it's not the final copy, it's got everything that was on that thing and it's got people like Willie Nelson, BB King, Staples Singers, everybody that you can think of that loves Mac is on that thing and it is unbelievable, I mean really unbelievable. You've got to hear it Warren, before I leave town
DP: That sounds like something to look forward to. And I'm still going to go back to Dr. John, because I guess I haven't made that connection yet to call you Mac, but Dr., going back to the roots of New Orleans, Earl mentioned earlier never starving in that city, and it seems like food is a distinct part of New Orleans culture. Do you see any connections between the musical tastes and the culinary tastes?
DJ: Well, I think everything was pretty much connected, I know Earl can tell you this. When I first worked a session they used to send me out to go get a muffuletta sandwich like for the band. And even before a work session I was the designated muffuletta sandwich guy for the band.
DP: Now you've got to explain what that is.
DJ: It's like a huge Italian samitch with a lot of kinds of meats and cheeses and olive salad and olive oil. And it was huge, the whole band could cut one up and still have some left over.
EP: The original Subway (laughs)
DP: So you were the sandwich guy…
DJ: And they used to send me. But they was always a thing, you know like there's just a thing, everybody talk about food, we live food. I mean me and Red Tyler used to talk for hours on the road about how we like….like, something else you don't know about is that we like stuffed mirlitons, how we like them prepared. It's just the things that we love, we talk about 'em like somebody might talk about something else. But that's just 'cause that's how much we love that.
DP: And it has that extra spice and flavor that I think the music has too. Speaking of that, let's hear some Dr. John music. We're going to listen to "Tipitina," as we continue here on 90.3.
MUSIC: TIPITINA (Dr. John recording, solo piano version)
DP: The music of Dr. John who joins us by phone today Around Noon and also here with us in Studio B is legendary New Orleans drummer Earl Palmer and the Vice President of Education at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, Warren Zanes. This week Earl Palmer and Dr. John are taking part in the Rock Hall's Black History Month celebrations, celebrating New Orleans connections with rock and roll. And I gotta say Dr. John, I hear the "frolic" in that music and in pretty much everything you do. I love the way you play and sing, too.
DJ: Thank ya.
DP: I wanted to ask Earl how you think the sounds of New Orleans are continuing in today's musicians…do you hear the authenticity still?
EP: Well, for one thing you hear the authenticity of the New Orleans musicians, you hear that old New Orleans in them and there's a new New Orleans music coming out and music basically, today's music is basically… the drum is a very important instrument, more so than since we started this rhythm and blues and rock and roll in New Orleans. The drum became very important and now it's still very important…you play it a lot less than you did then as far as solo-wise and movement around the instrument. But the drummers are very important because they're more studied now than we were and they are very much concerned with the time. So you hear songs now that are musically simple note-wise but the rhythm is consistent. The drummer can play nothing but just that after beat on two and four but you can set your watch by it. And there were times when… I had the reputation my name being Palmer, there's a metronome called Palmer and they used to say, they used to call me to set the metronome. (laughter) And I don't mind mentioning… But you find this now in the younger drummers they're not very interested in playing solos because they don't play fills like we used to, every eight bars we had a fill to play, or every 16 bars, or to change a feel. Now they don't have much of that but the time is very, very consistent. Which tells me one thing that in the early days of their learning they understand what that instrument is made for. It's not made to be a solo instrument. Of course some of the great soloists are the drum soloists because they play with the band - and then the band plays with them. The young kids, some young drummers like David, Steve Gad, Steve Dweck, guys like that, they, well Steve's not too young now anyhow but Steve, my God he's awesome. And many other young drummers, I've found so many of them, being one of the early endorsers of Yamaha, we go to this thing where they gave me a gold drum - I said 'Are you sure this is gold? I'll sell it!' (laughter) Anyway, there's terrific young drummers, just awesome.
DP: I wanted to ask Dr. John what are you working on these days that gives you pleasure? Is it something that's got that New Orleans sound …or you've branched out in other directions from time to time too.
DJ: Well I don't know, I just play music and I feel very blessed that I did this last record with Earl playing on it. You know I did my very first recordin' session I ever played on Earl was playin' on it. The very last recordin' session I ever played on, Earl was playin' on it.
DP: That's great!
DJ: And Earl has always been the guy on the session, the first guy that ever said "Let's play a little more fonky" you know, Earl was always the guy that kinda pulled our coattail on how to play the song a little better. And I'm goin' back, I don't want to go back how far but it's a pretty little ways.
DP: He was always the guy who, as you said who was the metronome, who kept everything on track.
DJ: Oh, he had his ways of doin' some stuff that was totally different and he started a thing that, like playing two different kinds of rhythms against each and other. Like he'd be playing a shuffle and play a fill against an eighth note type pattern or vice versa. No body had did anything like that, for one thing nobody had played eighth note patterns that kinda came up around that Little Richard stuff but he'd play fills against that, just different ways that was just a whole new direction for drummers to think about.
DP: And that explains a lot of why Earl is an Inductee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Warren we're just about out of time but quickly give us a preview of what else is going on at the Rock Hall this month for Black History Month.
WZ: Well, this week you talked about and that's really the high point. Next week we're talking about the dialogue between the visual arts and the musical arts and African American culture. And we're starting on Wednesday with Craig Werner from the University of Wisconsin, Thursday Johnny Coleman from Oberlin and Friday David Driscoll who is the preeminent African American art historian so come on down.
DP: Yes, lots to look forward to. Thank you all, this has been such a pleasure and I'd love to do it for longer.
EP: Thank you so much Dee
DP: Dr. John, thank you, Earl, thank you, Warren…I've been talking with Earl Palmer, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and VP at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Warren Zanes, and by phone legendary New Orleans musician Dr. John. Tonight at the Rock Hall Earl will be on the stage at the Rock Hall with a performance that starts at 7:30. Tomorrow night Dr. John performs at the Rock Hall at 7:30, along with special guest Deacon John Moore. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is located on Cleveland's North Coast at One Key Plaza . Call for information 216/515-8426. For more on Dr. John, Earl Palmer and any of the Rock Hall's events log on to our Around Noon program schedule online log on to WCPN.org. I'm Dee Perry, good afternoon.
MUSIC - Right Place Wrong Time (Dr. John)
New Orleans' Role in Rock:
Hall of Fame Embraces Crescent City in Black History Month Series