David Albert "Panama" Francis (December 21, 1918 in Miami, Florida – November 13, 2001 in Orlando, Florida) was an American swing jazz drummer.
His distinctive "slowing down" swing style anticipated rock steady, and his drumming brought order and focus to interactions with jazz musicians and dancers. His philosophy of the drummer as boss worked brilliantly on stage - but made for stormy scenes elsewhere.
Born in Miami, Panama's father was Haitian, while his mother came from an English property-owning background in the Bahamas. Their clash of cultures and temperaments underpinned their son's responses to the iniquities of the American music scene. He progressed through local marching and jazz bands to touring the south with George Kelly's Cavaliers in the 1930s.
Having heard his idol, Chick Webb, broadcasting from the Savoy ballroom in Harlem, he moved to New York in 1938, making his mark in after-hours sessions. Early collaborations included Tab Smith and Billy Hick's Sizzling Six. An invitation to join Roy Eldridge - who provided the Panama nickname - followed, and within six months he had made it to the Savoy as a member of the Lucky Millinder Orchestra. This proved the six most enjoyable years of his life, stimulating dancers and driving the band. After the Second World War, however, a dispute with Lucky resulted in his departure.
Following an unsuccessful attempt to launch his own swing band at the Savoy in 1946, Panama spent five years touring with the Cab Calloway Orchestra; discipline was strict, but the pay was good. He then spent a month with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, whose elegant informality was a culture shock after Calloway.
Panama soon settled into studio work. As rhythm and blues and rock and roll went mainstream Francis became even more sought after. He drummed on the Elvis Presley demos, and he is featured on hits by the Four Seasons ("Big Girls Don't Cry" and "Walk Like a Man"), the Platters ("Only You", "The Great Pretender", "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" and "My Prayer"), Bobby Darin ("Splish Splash"), Neil Sedaka ("Calendar Girl"), and Dion ("The Wanderer").
Among the 1950s hits he played on were the Colonel Bogey march from the film The Bridge Over The River Kwai and Jackie Wilson's Reet Petite. His distinctive double beat featured at the start of the original Barbie Gaye version of My Boy Lollipop, replicated by Millie on her British hit version. In the 1960s, Panama's arrangement of Perez Prado's Patricia put it into the American charts for 15 weeks.
Here's " Panama The Drummer Boy" from above 1959 album.
Later gigs included a musician role in the Diana Ross biopic about Billie Holiday, Lady Sings The Blues, and an improbable recording date with Madonna.
Despite snide remarks by other musicians about becoming a rock 'n' roll drummer, he never gave up on jazz, playing festivals on the George Wein circuit and, in 1979, reforming the Savoy Sultans - the other major Savoy band of his time. Leading his own swing outfit, he toured the United States, Europe and Asia, including memorable residencies at Manhattan's Rainbow Rooms and Ronnie Scott's in London in the early 1980s. Neither did he forget the dancers; at Carnegie Hall, he brought former Savoy Lindy Hoppers on stage to demonstrate the music's real purpose.
Francis received a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in 1993 and was also inducted into the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. His drum sticks are on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Panama's wide interests included African-American history. The ups and downs of his private life, apart from an on-going relationship with his daughter Naomi, were resolved with his marriage to his last wife, Alyce, and reconciliations with children of previous relationships. Health problems curtailed his performing career,but he notably featured with the 1995 Golden Men of Jazz, led by Lionel Hampton.
(Info mainly edited from an article by Terry Monaghan @ The Guardian)
From the Munich Philharmonie, 1993
Junior Mance - piano
Benny Golson - tenor saxophone
Al Grey - trombone
Jimmy Woody - bass
Clark Terry - trumpet
"Sweets" Edison - trumpet
Lionel Hampton & Panama Francis - drums