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Panama Francis

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With a long and winding career that stretched throughout a total of seven decades, drummer David "Panama" Francis has been featured both in top Harlem nightclubs and legendary rock songs over the years. Born in Miami, Francis began playing his instrument with the drum and bugle corps around the area by the age of eight. This led to a full-time gig with George Kelly's Cavaliers as a teenager, before relocating to New York City (Francis was given his nickname by trumpeter Roy Eldridge, due to his fondness for a certain Panama hat). Francis first rose to prominence in the late '30s, when he was a member of the Savoy Sultans, a Harlem-based group that was once crowned the Best Big Band by the New York Jazz Society, received a pair of Grammy nominations and was praised by Dizzy Gillespie as "the swingingest band there ever was." By the 1950s, Francis focused on studio work, as he quickly became one of the top studio drummers of the entire era, playing on early rock & roll classics by such artists as Buddy Holly ("Peggy Sue"), 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"), and Neil Sedaka ("Calendar Girl"). But Francis' true background lay in jazz (he backed such leading jazz artists as Benny Goodman and Joe Williams) and R&B, as he revisited his roots on such recordings as "Prisoner of Love" by James Brown, "What a Difference a Day Makes" by Dinah Washington, "Drown in My Own Tears" by Ray Charles, and "Jim Dandy" by Laverne Baker. Over the years, Francis landed several bit parts in motion pictures, including such films as The Learning Tree, Lady Sings the Blues, and Angel Heart, and in 1999, published his autobiography, David Gets His Drum, before succumbing to a stroke on November 11, 2001 at the age of 82. ~ Greg Prato

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21 December 1918 in Miami, FL

Years Active:

'40s, '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s