The obituaries for drummer Earl Palmer are flocking in - I've linked to a few interesting ones here - but most simply recount his resume, rhyming off the number of hits and hitmakers her was connected with. Backbeat, his memoir, addresses the central question in Palmer's life for music fans: Why leave New Orleans where he was making groundbreaking records to become a session drummer in Los Angeles, where he was faceless? Having a white girlfriend certainly played a part, but Palmer's takes on playing provides some insight:
Palmer on Ornette Coleman: "Ornette was a drag to play with, man, he sounded terrible. Whether he knew the right changes or not, he didn't play them. Played the bridge in the wrong places; sometimes he didn't eve play the bridge."
Palmer on Ray Charles: "We avoided Ray Charles too. There was a time when Ray and Big Joe Turner and Al Hibbler was all hanging around the Dew Drop doing nothing. ... When we come in after a gig, Ray would be waiting to jam with us. I thought he was good and played a hell of a lot of piano; it's just that all he wanted to do was his Nat Cole imitation and we'd played Nat Cole all night long. Came to the Drop, we were ready to play some bebop."
Palmer on Lee Allen: "Lee Allen ... was a honking tenor player. Lee was from Denver, he came to New Orleans to play football and basketball at Xavier. He played the shit out of the blues; any other tunes, he had trouble with the chords. He didn't have the knowledge of the chords to be a first-rate bebop player. He didn't read music very good."
Palmer on Shirley and Lee: "When Shirley sang, you felt around to see if you was cut - that girl sang sharp! Lee always sounded like he was trying to compensate by singing flat."
Palmer on Fats Domino and rock 'n' roll: "What was rock 'n' roll to me? I lived in a jazz world. ... It's something that we did that was not important to us musically."
Palmer on cartoons: "When it dawned on me that I could do this was when I had to play cartoon music, the hardest music I ever had to play. ... Tom and Jerry fucking cartoons. I'd think to myself, 'Here I am playing music I used to be scared to listen to, let along play!' At one time I was doing damn near all the cartoons Warners made. That music looked like fly shit, notes all over. ... I took pride in trying to do it as fast and good as I could."
The common thread in all of that is the level of challenge from a musical perspective - what's hard, what isn't. It's a way we're not used to valuing music, but it was more important to Palmer than anyone would imagine.