Legends of Drumming


January 15, 2005

It's not popular to refer to artists as entertainers. Still, that's exactly how Meters drummer Zigaboo Modeliste described the way a drummer gives their talent to the audience. "...I'll show you what I can do," Modeliste said as he accepted his place on Tipitina's Walk of Fame Saturday afternoon.

Earlier, when Modeliste was set to play a song with selected music students on the Tipitina's stage, he said, "We'll play a song called 'Cissy Strut,' even though I never got paid for it.'" A mixture of "ohhhs" and laughter emanated from the audience. That was only one of many swipes and belly busters that came from the stage when Modeliste, Earl Palmer, and "Smokey" Johnson, three of the greatest drummers in the history of New Orleans music, offered their wisdom to an audience in the form of a workshop. The three joked with each other like life-long buddies. When Palmer talked about how he left New Orleans for Los Angeles and Johnson took his place in Fats Domino's band, Johnson interjected, "I was glad he was gone." I understand why Modeliste chose the word "entertainer." These guys were gregarious hosts.

The seats and the area around them were filled as Earl Palmer started the "Legends of Drumming" Master Seminar, which was presented by the Tipitina's Foundation.

"I believe I'm the oldest one, so I'm gonna bogart the privelege," Palmer said.

(Palmer's abbreviated resume: He's the famed session musician who was the primary drummer for many celebrated R&B songs recorded at Cosimo Matassa's studio in the '50's. He also played with Sinatra, Sam Cooke, The Righteous Brothers, Dizzy Gillespie, and Lou Rawls. He was on Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti," Smiley Lewis's "I Hear You Knockin'," Lloyd Price's "Lawdy Miss Clawdy," and Fats Domino's "The Fat Man.")

The eighty year-old drummer apologized in advance for not being able to play a drumkit for the crowd. He said drumming made him breathe in sharp, short breaths that, as a result of his emphysema, would make him feel faint. Before he handed the mic over to Johnson, Palmer said he was happy more New Orleans drummers were being formally trained.

"They think that if you come out of New Orleans you don't know music formally," he said.

Johnson was also unable to play because of a stroke that paralyzed his right arm.

"When I want to hear myself play, I put on a record," he said.

(Johnson's very abbreviated resume: He was a member of Fats Domino's band for 23 years. He played on Professor Longhair's "Big Chief" and Earl King's "Trick Bag." Johnson had his own hit in 1964 with "It Ain't My Fault.")

Johnson started by revealing how he got his nickname.

"One night I was playin' over at The Dew Drop. Earl King saw smoke comin' from my bass drum, and it stuck," he said.

All three drummers were born in New Orleans, and "Smokey" specifically grew up in the sixth ward. He started playing at twelve, when he jimmied makeshift drumsticks from his grandmother's chairs and then played on anything he set his eyes on. When Johnson began talking about recent years, he said, "I made more money in five days with Dr. John than in two years with Fats(Domino)," he said.

Modeliste got the mic next, and he asked what it was about the New Orleans water that produced so many drummers. He said he could think of 25 "blazin'" New Orleans drummers.

After recognizing the burgeoning number of women drummers, Modeliste explained his success.

"It wasn't that I was talented. It was that I was

Next, Modeliste expressed the educational significance of the day's workshop.

"We're bringing info about old drummers to young drummers. We(those from his time period) never had a chance to go to a seminar and see old performers. I hope it will get you in an awareness mode so you'll say, 'I want to be like Earl Palmer. I want to be like Smokey Johnson.' This is a beginning. I hope we can keep it going," Modeliste said.

Next, Modeliste recalled a time when he wasn't such a great drummer. Art Neville, The Meters pianist, wasn't shy to point this out.

"Smokey came to a few gigs because Art couldn't put up with my playing."

Johnson then spoke about how New Orleans drummers have an advantage over drummers from other cities.

"I got to Motown in the '60's. They used to use two drummers to make a record--one guy playin' the afterbeat and the other guy playin' the bass drum...New Orleans drummers have what no other drummers have--they play the bass drum," Johnson said.

Before the floor was opened to questions from the audience, Palmer was afforded the last word. He lauded the city's historical importance in music.

"New Orleans musicians are copied more than anywhere else in the world...American music started here...it's the only American city where all the white people can clap on 2 and 4," Palmer said. This comment got a huge laugh from the audience.

After the Q&A, four school musicians played "Cissy Strut" with Modeliste. He led the group through a rousing rendition of the song, a huge smile on his face all the way.

The seminar was a great mix of insight and anecdotes. I saw more than one person smiling as they left the building.

Ten minutes later, after each drummer individually accepted their place on Tipitina's Walk of Fame outside the building, he embraced the other two in joy.

They seemed like three soldiers who had been in battle together and were finally getting their medals.

Earlier in the afternoon, Modeliste had said, "It's the best feeling in the world to give."

Well, everybody was feelin' pretty good after Tipitina's gave recognition and the drummers in turn gave knowledge.

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