It isn’t every day that you get to speak to a legend. Recently, we here at notinhalloffame.com had the opportunity to chat with Charles Connor, the original drummer for Little Richard. Our conversation with Charles allowed us to speak to a man who was not only a witness to the birth of Rock and Roll, but also the man who created its engine.
Charles Connor was born in the cradle of American Music, New Orleans, Louisiana, to a Creole mother and a Merchant Marine father from Santo Domingo. Connor jokes that when his mother would walk by a funeral procession, he would “be kicking in the womb along with the music.” Recognizing his talent at a young age (Connor earned money as a toddler tap dancing for white tourists), his parents bought him his first drum set. Even when he was not at his set, Connor would literally bang out beats on whatever was in front of him. This included school desks that drove teachers crazy, but Charles couldn’t resist the temptation as he “just loved the sound those hollow desks would make.”
Growing up in New Orleans, Connor was blessed to be around a multiple of music, and was determined to master them all. He began to get noticed and was drumming at house parties across the city. But remember this was New Orleans, and regardless of what decade it is, you can be assured that the Crescent City will be loaded with talented musicians, and sometimes you just have to be at the right place at the right time.
That first break for Charles came at the age of fifteen when the man scheduled to drum for Professor Longhair at The New Orleans Mardi Gras, cancelled due to illness. Even though he was still very young, Connor was exceptionally tall for his age, and his looks allowed him to play in venues that would be considered inappropriate for someone his age. At the time, Professor Longhair was already a legend in New Orleans, and his piano-based blues were the template that many Southern Blues artists would follow. Longhair would eventually be inducted into both the Blues and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And although in1950 he was not yet nationally known, he was still the most revered star among musicians in New Orleans.
So it can only be imagined how nerve-wracking it must have been for a fifteen year-old to have his first professional gig with a man of Professor Longhair’s status. Remember, there was no Rock and Roll at that time, and television had yet to unite the country into a common pop culture. To say that playing that gig was akin to catching your first professional pass from Brett Favre, or receiving a pass from Wayne Gretzky on your first shift on the ice, is really not that much of a stretch as Longhair was that type of icon at the time in Louisiana.
When asked if he was nervous playing that first time with Professor Longhair, Charles said “that his hands were shakin’” prior to playing the gig. As the event commenced, Connor did what he was born to do, and midway through the set Longhair turned back to the drummer and smiled and winked. At that moment, Charles Connor knew that he belonged.
With that endorsement, his confidence grew and he spent his teen years playing with the biggest stars of New Orleans. This who’s who included Guitar Slim, Smiley Lewis, Jack Dupree and Shirley & Lee, the latter in which he spent a large amount of time with. However, it was a night in 1953 in the musical hotbed of Nashville, Tennessee that would change Connor’s life forever.
The life of a musician is a tough one today, so it can only be imagined how hard it was for an African-American prior to Rock and Roll’s explosion. Although Charles Connor’s talent allowed him to constantly get gigs with numerous high profile talents, the pay was less than spectacular. While in Nashville, he was playing an extended period for Shirley & Lee, but found himself two weeks behind on his hotel rent, with holes in his shoes and his main drum set in the pawn shop. While performing one night, a man named Richard Penniman was in the venue to check out the set. If the name Richard Penniman doesn’t mean anything, his stage name of Little Richard likely does.
Little Richard hadn’t yet achieved national recognition, but he was already huge in Tennessee and Georgia. At the time, he was looking to not only create a new sound, but an event that worked the eyes as well as the ears. On that night in Memphis, Richard sent his guitarist, Thomas Harwell, to secure a meeting with Connor and another guitarist, Wilbur Smith (who would later be professionally known as Lee Diamond). At the very least, Connor figured “he would get a decent meal” out of the meeting and chat with a man who was setting Tennessee on fire. He had nothing to lose, but found out quickly in that meeting that he had everything to gain, as both he and Smith were recruited to join a new band that Little Richard was forming, to be called the Upsetters. Naturally the impoverished duo said, “Yes.”
That night in Tennessee began a symbiotic relationship between the two. Richard got Charles’ drums out of hock and covered his back rent. Soon, Charles found himself on a train (the first time he was ever on one) to Little Richard’s hometown of Macon, Georgia. While there, Richard took Connor back to the train station where he asked him to create a drumming pattern based on the sound that a train makes. It was here that Charles developed the rapid fire eight note “Choo Choo Train” style of drumming, which is still being copied today. Little Richard wasn’t just looking for a drummer who could keep up with him; he wanted a drummer that would create the engine that everyone else would have to keep up with, too. It can be argued that the same way in which the Delta Blues sound was created “at the Crossroads” in Mississippi, Rock and Roll drumming was born at a train station in Macon.
Little Richard was the consummate showman. And as powerful as his voice was, he sought to have a backing band that could showcase their individual talents, too. This allowed Charles to deliver blistering drum openings in songs like “Keep-A-Knockin’ ” and “Ooh, My Soul”, and set a pounding back beat that only the best musicians could keep up with. In fact, Connor’s drum opening on “Keep-A-Knockin’ ” was copied by John Bonham on Led Zeppelin’s 1972 hit “Rock and Roll.” Connor was flattered by the homage and thinks that Bonham was a great drummer, but adds that Bonham didn’t have the “red beans, rice, and gumbo” in the drum line that he had. Connor was the first drummer in any rock band to be featured in any capacity, and remember, these were the days before drum risers and songs that lasted beyond three minutes.
Little Richard’s band wasn’t put together just based on talent alone. Richard was also trying to create a certain look for his revolutionary sound. Connor talks how Richard had the band “straighten their hair, wear pancake makeup and act effeminate.” Any old black and white photo will show you that Little Richard was a very good- looking man, but was more “pretty than handsome”. His backing band was comprised of young, tall, macho-looking men, but outwardly appeared differently as Connor stated “to ensure that white men weren’t threatened”. This really shows the genius of Little Richard’s ability to promote and understand the new Rock and Roll medium. For he knew that the older white venue owners may not have seen through the façade, but that the young audience was charged by the sexuality that exuded from a Little Richard performance. And though fans may have been somewhat confused as to Richard’s sexual orientation, they certainly were not confused by the energy of the Upsetters.
When asked if it bothered him to work for someone such as Richard, who was so flamboyant and open about his bisexuality, Charles said it didn’t bother him in the least. “That’s our boss, and you don’t mess with the boss”, Connor stated, adding that this was the “man who put food on the table.” Laughing afterward, Connor quipped that this allowed him to have a decent share of women as Little Richard “wasn’t interested in many of them.” Ah, the life of a musician!
Sexuality was a big part of a Little Richard performance. Connor told the story of the original words to Richard’s biggest hit, “Tutti Frutti”, which was played at shows. The song is essentially about the posterior, because the original lyrics were “Tutti frutti, good booty”, and segued into “If it’s tight, it’s all right” and “If it’s greasy, make it easy.” Little Richard was the first to understand that Rock ‘n’ Roll could simultaneously gap generations, and bridge race relations.
Connor discussed his respect for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but mentions how Rock and Roll brought whites and blacks together. He recalls one specific concert in Amarillo, Texas, where the lines of segregation came tumbling down as“white kids came down from the balcony to dance with the black kids”. Rock and Roll was not just a medium for young people, but for all young people.
When he wasn’t touring with Little Richard, Connor’s talents saw him back other up and coming musicians. The biggest name of that esteemed group was a pre-Famous Flame, James Brown, who had yet to be crowned the “Godfather of Soul.” Connor recalled one time with Brown, when he was banging the drums, and Brown looked back and asked as only he could, “What are you doing?” Brown continued and said “Whatever it is, keep doing it”, and would later tell Connor that he was the one who “put the funk into the rhythm.” Considering the successful way that James Brown would use drums in his musical repertoire, it was clear that Charles Connor is among the rare artists who could say that they had a hand in creating the Godfather’s sound.
It was here in our conversation, that we really began to understand the kind of outlook that Charles Connor had on life. Often, Little Richard had called himself the true “King of Rock and Roll”, and that Elvis Presley was not the originator. History backs up that claim as Richard clearly predates Presley, but the average person on the street would not make that assumption. Connor himself had a huge respect for Elvis and talked of his high singing and dancing ability. He remembers when Presley called up Little Richard in Memphis, and told him that he was the real king of Rock and Roll. Richard, according to Charles, was flattered, and appreciative of the sentiments.
Despite that great relationship that Connor had with Richard, it was put to the ultimate test in 1957. This was the year that at the height of his popularity, Little Richard abruptly abandoned Rock and Roll and pronounced it the “devil’s music.” Connor remembers the plane trip where an engine caught on fire on an Australian tour that triggered the decision. Needless to say, the plane didn’t crash, but Richard had a religious revelation and denounced Rock and Roll. Charles remembered this moment as Richard threw out $30,000 worth of jewelry. He joked that he could have thrown some of that his way, but at the time it was no laughing matter. “I worried that I would lose the pot, the alcohol and the women”, and for the first time in the interview, Connor recalled a time when he was angry, and really who could blame him?
The Upsetters didn’t have to worry as three weeks later, they found themselves working with Sam Cooke, who was in his own right a legitimate entrant to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Cooke was a beautiful singer, and was the legitimate bridge between 50’s Doo Wop and modern Soul music. Connor enjoyed his time with Cooke, but it wasn’t the same. Cooke’s style didn’t lend it self to powerful drums, and though Connor could easily play the subtle back beat required, it lacked the energy and fire that he grew accustomed to.
Prior to this interview, we at notinhalloffame.com tried to think of someone who was a part of the birth of Rock, Soul and Funk. If there is anyone other than Charles Connor to make that claim, we can’t think of one. Connor may not have created Rock and Roll, but he drove the engine and has a legitimate claim as Rock and Roll’s first drummer. While we were thrilled to talk to a man who rubbed shoulders with legends for decades, we wish to remind him that he is a legend himself. Sidemen are making their way to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Charles Connor’s resume holds up to those already in. His drum sticks are already there?now how about the rest of him?
Visit Charles Connor at www.legendarydrummer.tv