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Panama Francis: 1918-2001
Panama Francis
Drummer, bandleader

Born: December 21, 1918 in Maimi, Flordia
Died: November 13, 2001 in Orlando, Florida



Drummer Resurrected the Savoy Sultans

Copyright © 2001 

The Scotsman


Panama Francis experienced at first hand the glory days of swing jazz in Harlem in the late 1930s and early 1940s, working with Lucky Millinder's big band at the famous Savoy Ballroom. Millinder often alternated with Al Cooper's Savoy Sultans, famously described by Dizzy Gillespie as "the swingingest band there ever was", and Francis resurrected both the name and the style of the Savoy Sultans for his own very successful band four decades later.

In between, the drummer not only played consistently swinging jazz in a huge variety of settings, but also became one of the most prolific of all studio drummers. His playing is heard on a range of famous pop hits, including Buddy Holly's "Peggy Sue", Ray Charles's "Drown in My Own Tears", Bobby Darin's "Splish Splash", James Brown's "Prisoner of Love", Dinah Washington's "What a Difference a Day Makes", and a series of hits for vocal groups like The Platters, The Coasters and The Four Seasons.

He was born David Albert Francis in Miami, where he began performing in nightclubs at the age of 13 (he has recalled how his mother would wait backstage to take him home after the gig). He worked throughout his teens in bands in Miami, including a spell with saxophonist George Kelly, who subsequently joined the original Savoy Sultans.

His parents separated when he was a teenager, and his Haitian father moved to New York. Francis joined him there at the age of 19 in 1938, and was soon playing with saxophonist Tab Smith. Not long after, he acquired his familiar nickname when he turned up to play with Roy Eldridge. The trumpeter forgot his new drummer's name, and since he was wearing a Panama hat, introduced him as Panama Francis, and the name stuck.

He joined Lucky Millinder's well-established band in 1940, at a time when the swing dance craze was at its height, and always argued that jazz and dance were inextricably related. He remained with Millinder until 1947, then joined Cab Calloway, an association which lasted until 1952. After leaving Calloway, he worked briefly with Slim Gaillard and also led his own band in a short residency in Montevideo in 1953, but in the next decade he devoted most of his time to his career as a studio drummer.

His credits in the recording studio included working with John Lee Hooker, Eubie Blake, Ella Fitzgerald, Illinois Jacquet, Mahalia Jackson and Big Joe Turner, as well as countless pop and rhythm and blues sessions.

He had continued to perform occasionally during the decade of his major studio activity, but returned to more regular touring work when he joined the band of Dinah Shore in 1963. He worked with the singer for the next five years, then moved to California for a time, where he played with pianist Teddy Wilson in 1972.

He returned to New York in 1973, and worked with a nine-piece band led by Sy Oliver for two years. He became involved in a number of projects intended to evoke the ethos of the great Harlem days, including a recreation of the band led by drummer Chick Webb at the Apollo Theatre. He put together a band under the name Savoy Sultans in 1974 as a one-off, but returned to that concept in 1979.

He established the Savoy Sultans as a very successful touring and recording group, playing the repertoire of the era in authentic style. The band were resident at New York's Rainbow Lounge from 1980-85, and were twice nominated for Grammy Awards for their recordings.

He played with Lionel Hampton in the vibraphonist's 50th anniversary concert at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1978, and performed in the reunited Benny Goodman Quartet in 1982, where he occupied the drum chair originally filled by Gene Krupa, alongside the other two original members of that famous band, Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton. He was a member of the New York Jazz Repertory Company in the 1970s, and The Statesman of Jazz in 1994.

Francis also appeared in a number of films, including three shorts with the Cab Calloway band in 1950, feature films like Rock Around the Clock, Lady Sings the Blues and Angel Heart, and a video for Madonna's Secrets. He was honoured by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in 1993, and was inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, where his drum sticks are on display.

He continued to lead his own bands until he suffered kidney failure as a result of diabetes in 1996. An autobiography, David Gets His Drum, was published in 1999.

Francis died following a stroke. He is survived by his wife, Alyce; sons James and Melvin; daughters Naomi, Eilene, Michelle, and Denise; seven grandchildren; and ten great-grandchildren.

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The Funeral in Harlem

by Carla Rupp
Copyright © 2001 Carla Rupp

"What a Wonderful World" and "My Way" were the songs of the night as scores of us turned out to honor Panama Francis, laid out with his Back Beat sticks in hand at the front of the packed room at the funeral parlor at 137th and Adam Clayton Powell Blvd., NYC (11/20/01). Words of love and celebrations in music poured out in the great drummer's honor in the standing-room-only, reverent, yet joyful room.

The jazzman's love of movement came out in many of the tributes. He was said to his use his instrument to dance. But many anecdotes also came to light about Panama dancing away from his instrument! "Panama was a good dancer -- very rare for a jazz musician," noted Phil Schaap, who reminisced about a certain dance contest being rigged. Check with Phil on that!

George "Turk" Gomez, a dancer, verified that statement about Panama's dancing expertise. Dance historian Terry Monaghan (working on a book about Panama) remarked that Panama seemed to know what dancers were going to do before they actually hit it. Also among the many sharing memories were pianist Brooks Kerr, impressario Jack Kleinsinger, and James Shaw, who called Panama a very "colorful fellow." Gospel ("The Battle is Over; Jesus is Lord," "Precious Lord") and jazz standard songs intermingled in the inspiring service, with Frank Owens at the organ.

A string of instrumentalists came up to volunteer their talents, including the great Jimmy Owens, getting his trumpet to sing "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" -- and several other selections obviously favored by the appreciative audience.

The elegantly-dressed Mabel Lee described her long-time connecton with Panama, and in honor of that friendship sang "My Buddy" in a special kind of way, with one-of-a-kind, decorative tenor sax flourishes coming from "Bubba" Brooks.

There were Florida stories. And there were stories coming from those in the Caribbean. The family of Panama from the Bahamas lined the first several rows. A niece shared her faith and that of her uncle ("I joined the New Covenant Baptist Church. I called you to say, 'I met the Lord.") We heard about how proud Panama was of his different family members. He urged each of them to reach their own personal goals, as he had strived.

As the niece said about Panama, he was "vibrant. He was enthusiastic." You could see in the faces of those listening that they agreed when she went on: "You could feel the adrenaline flowing in him. He would tell me, 'The music in my bones keeps me young.' He was debonair. He was always smartly dressed...On behalf of all of us in the family 'We love our uncle. (She looked at him in the casket) 'We miss you.'

Jazz lovers and jazz greats shared more stories and love after the service. They greet his widow. A handful posed for individual photos with the still beautifully-dressed musician, decked in black bow-tie. "He looks like he's smiling," someone remarked.

Carla Rupp
Carla Rupp is a musician (violin and woodwinds), Jazz Journalists Association member, and a New York City freelance journalist.

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With 3 reader comments, latest December 11, 2006