David Gets His Drum : Panama Francis©2003JCMarion


David Francis was born on December 21, 1918 in Miami, Florida. At an early age he became a performer, and made drumming his lifelong vocation. By the time he reached his teenaged years he was pulling down gigs in and around his hometown in Southern Florida. His life's voyage to find fame and fortune in his chosen profession took him to the "Big Apple", New York City in the late thirties. At the age of twenty he hooked up with the combo of Tab Smith (who had just left the band of Lucky Millinder) for a time, and then with the little remembered combo of Billy Hicks (The Sizzling Six), with trumpeter Roy Eldridge, a small combo called The Savoy Sultans, and then in 1940 joined the band of Lucky Millinder (where for a short time he was with his later fifties band mate Sam (The Man) Taylor) for most of the nineteen forties. After many gigs at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom during the war years, Francis met up with Sam Taylor again in the band of Cab Calloway. It was about this time that David Francis acquired his lifelong nickname of "Panama" because of his likeness for the panama hats which he wore always at a jaunty angle.

By 1950 he had the opportunity to record under his own name in a jazz / R & B combination that was always swinging. The small independent label Gotham released "The Crackerjack" and "Peach Tree Shuffle" on #225 during the summer of that year. Francis continued with Cab Calloway and a small combo that featured Jonah Jones on trumpet, Dave Rivera on piano, Milt Hinton on bass, and Panama on drums. They continued to tour the West Coast and across Canada. After leaving Calloway in the early fifties, Francis recorded with many of the post war bands such as Tommy Dorsey, Ray Conniff, Duke Ellington, and once again ran into Sam Taylor in the band of Sy Oliver. By 1952 Panama Francis had become the drummer to see when any one was looking for a side man or a recording session. He did much work for the R & B labels in and around New York such as Atlantic, Herald, Apollo, Savoy, and Groove (RCA Victor). With old friend Sam (The Man) Taylor, Francis became a mainstay of the Alan Freed band appearing at all the stage shows, radio broadcasts, and recording for the Coral label under Freed's name.

In 1955, Panama recorded for Apollo Records under his own name on the tunes "Bessie's Blues" (written for Bess Berman the president of Apollo Records), and "12 O'Clock High" on #824. All through the nineteen fifties Francis played with almost everybody who passed through New York. Some of those singers included Joe Turner, Ray Charles, Faye Adams, Lloyd Price, LaVern Baker, Ruth Brown, The Platters, The Cellos, Buddy Holly, Bobby Darin, and Dinah Washington. He continued to make appearances with Alan Freed's band on tour across the country and in the New York and New England area. When the first golden age of rock 'n roll ended in the late fifties, Panama did not miss a beat. He continued his various session work providing percussion for singers into the sixties such as Neil Sedaka, The Four Seasons, James Brown, and Chuck Jackson.

In the late nineteen seventies, Panama Francis reformed a small group called The Savoy Sultans that played swinging mainstream jazz and had a stay at New York's Rainbow Room and also toured the country with this combo. Six albums and two Grammy nomonations resulted from their work in the recording studio. Francis also had some screen appearances during these years in the motion pictures "The Learning Tree", "Lady Sings The Blues" and "Angel Heart". He also did music videos with Madonna, and other new age rockers. With all of these musical pursuits, Panama Francis also helped write a book for young children called "David Gets His Drum" which is based on the life of David "Panama" Francis.

On November 15, 2001, in Orlando, Florida, the life of drumming legend Panama Francis ended with his death at the age of 82. For sixty five years he had provided the world with the heartbeat of American music. He was the first musician inducted into the Rhythm & Blues Foundation Hall Of Fame, is entered into the Smithsonian Museum, and a pair of his famous drumsticks sit in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in Cleveland as a testament to his longevity as a foremost practitioner of the big beat. His musical legacy remains in a number of recordings with Alan Freed, all of his session recordings behind the most well remembered singers of the last half century, The Savoy Sultan recordings from the 80s (especially "Grooving") and a handful of other recordings such as :

The 1949 All Stars - many of his combo recordings from the late forties such as "Panama's Jump", "Peachtree Shuffle", "Honey Blues", "Out Of Nowhere" and "Jitterbug Jump".

The Lionel Hampton 50th Anniversary Concert at Carnegie Hall (1979)

Everything Swings (Viper's Nest label) 1996

David "Panama" Francis had his thumb on the pulse of America and its music and became one of its finest artists. He will be missed.

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