Francis, David “Panama”
David “Panama” Francis
With the death of David “Panama” Francis in November of 2001, the music world lost one of its most accomplished members. Not only was his career remarkable for its longevity—dating from Harlem jazz spots of the 1930s to Hollywood movie sets of the 1990s—but for its sheer scope as well. Who else could have claimed to have worked with Cab Calloway, Frankie Valli, Dinah Shore, Bobby Darin, and LaVerne Baker, to name just a few of his colleagues? Indeed, while he might not be remembered beyond the jazz world, Francis contributed to so many pop and R&B standards that his work is still heard on the radio every day in songs such as Dinah Washington’s “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes,” the Four Seasons’ “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” and Neil Sedaka’s “Calendar Girl.” Francis also appeared in two memorable motion pictures—Lady Sings the Blues, a biography of jazz great Billie Holiday, and Malcolm X, a biography of the slain Black Power leader—in addition to the films Angel Heart and The Learning Tree. For his work on stage, in the recording studio, and in the movies, Francis ranked as one of the most diversely talented performers of his generation.
David Albert Francis was born on December 21, 1918, in Miami, Florida. He played drums at a young age and gained most of his early experience on the instrument at church meetings around his hometown. He also began playing in a local drum and bugle corps at the age of eight. While still a teenager, Francis joined his first band, the Cavaliers, under the direction of saxophonist George Kelly. In 1938, not quite 20 years old, Francis traveled to New York City in search of his big break. After impressing trumpeter Roy Eldridge at an informal jam session with Billy Hicks and the Sizzling Six, the bandleader offered Francis a position with his band, which headlined at the Arcadia Ballroom. The next day at rehearsals, however, the young drummer almost lost his job. As he recalled in Bill Crow’s Jazz Anecdotes, “Joe Glaser, who was Roy’s manager, came in and saw me sitting up there and he said, ‘Where’s Sid Catlett?’ So Roy said, ‘Well, this is my drummer here.’… Joe Glaser said, ‘Well, look, I want Big Sid in this band.’ So Roy takes his horn and puts it on the stand, and says to Joe Glaser, ‘Well, I tell you what to do. You play this god damned trumpet, then, if you want to run my band.’ And he left and went upstairs. And that’s how I stayed with Roy.”
Joining Eldridge’s band proved fortuitous, since he was acknowledged to be one of the best jazz musicians of his day. Francis gained not only a great mentor, he earned a lasting nickname as well. When Glaser had first asked Eldridge who the new drummer was, Eldridge could not remember Francis’ name. Looking at the Panama hat, Francis regularly sported, Eldridge replied that the new drummer was named “Panama.” The other band members assumed that the moniker was the new addition’s real name, and it stuck throughout his career. From then on, the drummer almost always appeared wearing his trademark Panama hat.
Born David Albert Francis on December 21, 1918, in Miami, FL; died on November 11, 2001, in Miami, FL.
Played with Roy Eldridge’s jazz band in Harlem, New York City, 1930s; joined Cab Calloway band, 1940s; played on numerous pop and R&B hits of the 1950s and 1960s; formed Savoy Sultans, 1970s; made several movie appearances.
Awards: New York Jazz Award, Best New Group (with the Savoy Sultans), 1980; Induction, Rhythm and Blues Foundation, 1993.
From Eldridge’s band, Francis went on to join the Lucky Millinder Band. He stayed with Millinder through World War II, often playing at Harlem’s legendary Savoy Ballroom, and recorded a few big-band jazz songs with the group. Francis honed his showmanship skills in these gigs, as he recalled in a profile on the Delmars website: “We used to walk off the bandstand at the Savoy and stick our chest [sic] out because we swung the band and made them people dance. Even to this day, I look out in the audience for one person tapping their feet or nodding their head—I’m playing for that cat the rest of the night. That’s who I’m playing for because I know they’re getting the message.”
Francis then earned a spot with Cab Calloway’s big-band jazz group, one of the most famous of the era. During his five years with Calloway he sat in with almost all of the leading orchestras of the day, including groups led by Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, and Ray Conniff. In 1953, having secured a reputation as one of the era’s great jazz drummers, Francis started to work regularly as a session drummer in various recording studios; it was this work that would make Francis a permanent part of pop music history.
With R&B making inroads into the pop music mainstream in the 1950s, one of the leading labels was Atlantic Records, where Francis became a regular studio musician. Among his earliest contributions was his work with Ruth Brown, a leading R&B star who eventually earned an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. “Jim Dandy,” a track that featured Francis’ drum work, went to number one on the R&B chart in January of 1957 while peaking at number 22 on the pop chart. Brown, who became a lifelong friend, often requested that Panama Francis share the bill when she headlined at various clubs in New York City in the 1990s.
In the 1950s, Francis also played on a string of hits by the Platters, including the now-classic “Only You,” “The Great Pretender,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” and “My Prayer”; he drummed on “Splish Splash,” Bobby Darin’s first hit in 1958. The following year Francis sat in on a recording session that produced another classic track, Dinah Washington’s “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes,” which hit number eight on the pop charts in the summer of 1959. While Francis deemed Washington one of the greatest singers he ever heard, however, the recording session produced some creative tension. “She was very brash,” he was quoted in his Los Angeles Times obituary. “But Dinah Washington was the only artist I ever worked with who never did more than two takes of a song. ‘What a Diff’rence a Day Makes’ she did in one take.”
In contrast, Francis’ experience recording 1961’s “Calendar Girl,” was far different. As singer Neil Sedaka recalled in his autobiography Laughter in the Rain: My Own Story, “When I played [the song] on the piano, I knew we were home free. It was an obvious hit. All I had to do was to capture the magic in the recording. Unfortunately, this was easier said than done. It was a tough song to record, balancing the rocking drumbeat section with the lyrical chorus lines. We did twenty-six takes over a three-hour period. The mixing was frustrating. But at last, ‘Calendar Girl’ took shape.” With Francis’ distinctive drum roll opening the song, “Calendar Girl” went to number four on the pop chart.
In the 1960s Francis continued to play with a wide range of musicians, including Ray Charles, Perez Prado, Dinah Shore, and Sy Oliver. He also had a series of small parts in movies such as The Learning Tree, a 1969 film directed by Gordon Parks, and Lady Sings the Blues, a 1972 film biography of Billie Holiday. He later made appearances in Angel Heart and Malcolm X, and also showed up in the video for Madonna’s “Secret” in 1994.
After 40 years in the music business, Francis finally gained a place as the headliner of his own band, the Savoy Sultans, for a concert special in 1974. Francis, who had admired the original Sultans lineup when they played at the Savoy Ballroom, included his very first mentor, George Kelly of the Cavaliers, in the group. The band reformed in 1979 and the following year was named the Best New Group by the New York Jazz Society. From 1980 to 1985, they played regularly at the Rainbow Room, one of the leading cabaret venues in New York City. Francis also took the band on the road, opening the summer concert series at New York City’s Lincoln Center each year.
Although the Savoy Sultans remained active as he reached his eighties, Francis went into semiretirement in Florida. He published his autobiography, David Gets His Drum, for young readers, and was honored with a proclamation declaring July 26, 1999, “David ‘Panama’ Francis Day” in Orlando, Florida. On November 11, 2001, Francis died of a stroke in a Miami, Florida, hospital.
Contributor; on drums
(With James Brown and His Famous Flames) Please, Please, Please, A&M, 1959.
(With Dinah Washington) What a Diff’rence a Day Makes, Verve, 1959.
(With Savoy Sultans) Gettin’ in the Grove, Black & Blue, 1979.
(With Savoy Sultans) Savoy Sultans, Classic Jazz, 1979.
(With Savoy Sultans) Panama Francis and His Savoy Sultans, Black & Blue, 1979.
(With Savoy Sultans) Jimmy Witherspoon Sings the Blues with Panama Francis and the Savoy Sultans, Muse, 1980.
(With Savoy Sultans) Panama Francis and His Savoy Sultans, Vol. 1, Classic Jazz, 1982.
(With Savoy Sultans) Panama Francis and His Savoy Sultans, Vol. 2, Classic Jazz, 1982.
(With Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons) Anthology, Rhino, 1988.
All-Stars 1949 (reissue), Collectables, 1991.
(With Savoy Sultans) Everything Swings, Viper’s Nest, 1996.
(With The Platters) The Best of the Platters, Universal, 1999.
(With Neil Sedaka) The Very Best of Neil Sedaka, RCA, 2001.
Crow, Bill, Jazz Anecdotes, Oxford University Press, 1990.
Deffaa, Chip, Blue Rhythms: Six Lives in Rhythm and Blues, University of Illinois Press, 1996.
Deffaa, Chip, Nancy Miller Elliott, and John and Andreas Johnsen, Jazz Veterans: A Portrait Gallery, Cypress House, 1996.
Haskins, Jim, Queen of the Blues: A Biography of Dinah Washington, William Morrow & Company, 1987.
Sedaka, Neil, Laughter in the Rain: My Own Story, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1982.
Ward, Bruce, Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness, and Race Relations, University of California Press, 1998.
Whitburn, Joel, The Billboard Book of Top Forty Hits, sixth edition, Billboard Publications, 1996.
Los Angeles Times, November 17, 2001.
City of Orlando Council Minutes, http://www.ci.orlando.fl.us/departments/administrative_offices/city_clerk/city…/990726min.htm (February 13, 2002).
“Panama Francis,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (May 17, 2002).
“Panama Francis,” Delmars, http://www.delmars.com/pfrancis.htm (February 13, 2002).
“‘Panama’ Francis,” Internet Movie Database, http://us.imdb.com/Name?Francis,+%27Panama%27 (February 18, 2002).
"Francis, David “Panama”." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 18, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/francis-david-panama
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