Drum legend Charles Connor keeps on knockin'

Little Richard performs in the film “The Girl Can’t Help It” in  1956. (Photo courtesy of Charles Connor)

Little Richard performs in the film “The Girl Can’t Help It” in 1956.
(Photo courtesy of Charles Connor)

No less an authority than James Brown once said of Charles Connor that he “was the first [drummer] to put funk into the rhythm.”

Remember that choo-choo train drumming style in Little Richard’s “Good Golly Miss Molly”? That was Connor’s stylistic innovation, and so was the four-bar intro he brought to “Keep A Knockin’” that’s purported to be the first ever on a rock ’n’ roll record.

When it comes to percussion, Connor, a native of New Orleans, is a pioneer. He played with Little Richard as part of Richard’s backing band, The Upsetters, and he moonlighted with James Brown. Over the years, he’s worked with Sam Cooke, the Original Coasters, Jackie Wilson and others, while also appearing in films like “The Girl Can’t Help It,” “Mr. Rock ’N’ Roll” and “Don’t Knock The Rock,” and he isn’t ready to call it a day just yet.

Connor has an inspirational new book out called “Don’t Give Up Your Dreams: You Can Be A Winner, Too,” and he recently appeared in a Nike soccer commercial, banging away on the drums.

Goldmine talked to Connor about his days with Little Richard and James Brown in this interview.

What do you remember about first joining Little Richard’s band?

Charles Connor: When I first joined Little Richard’s band, I was in Nashville, Tenn., and I was a starving, ornery, poor, broke musician in Nashville. And so Richard took me and another guy, named Lee Diamond, back to Macon, Ga., and that’s how he formed The Upsetters band.

Around Nashville, I was suffering for about a month and a half or two months … suffering, begging for money and stuff like that. My drums were in the pawn shop in order to buy food. And they kicked me out of the hotel, a small hotel, but they kicked me out of the hotel because I was a little behind in my rent.

And so when Richard talked to us about going back to Georgia to form The Upsetters, I told Richard, I said, “Yeah, man, I wouldn’t mind going back [with you], but I don’t have no drums. I have to get my drums out of the pawn shop.” And that’s a little embarrassing, you know? And then my shoes only got half soles and things like that. I had big holes in my shoes and everything. And it was really tough, but you know, I said, “The first thing before we hold this conversation — ’cause I didn’t know what Richard wanted from us, maybe it was just a conversation — I said, “Could you feed us, please?” ’Cause we hadn’t had a decent meal in about three weeks. And that’s true. We were paying our dues.

So he got my drums out of the pawn shop and everything like that, and he paid my back hotel rent and everything. So that’s how I went back to Macon, Ga., with Little Richard.

Was your experience being poor like that, was that the experience of a lot of musicians that you hung out with or came in contact with around those days?

CC: Yeah, you call that paying your dues. Now I could have went back home ’cause my father had a good job. My mother was a housewife and my father had a good job. He was a merchant seaman … I could have gone back home, and I could have been playing in the French Quarter. Guys stay playing in the French Quarter 15, 20 years, and they don’t travel. Some of those guys have day jobs. But I didn’t want that.

I always was curious, and the thing about that when the other guy released me to Richard, I was only 18 years old. And the guy had to get permission — I had to get signed to let me go to Macon, Ga., with Little Richard. And what happened was, I called my mother ’cause I’d seen Richard. I was about 16 years old at a club called the Club Tijuana in New Orleans, a popular neighborhood club. But he was playing with the Temple Toppers. And what happened was, I knew that guy had a lot of talent. So when the guy released me to Richard, I said, “Mother, please let me go.” She said, “That Little Richard, that’s that boy who looks like a girl with all that long hair?” (laughs) I said, “Yeah, that’s him.” I said, “Mamma, please let me go with him, let me go back to Georgia with him, because he’ll be famous some day. He’ll be famous.”

I didn’t know what I was talking about. [Richard] was the first guy I’d ever seen like that, with all that hair on his head and pancake makeup and all that stuff. And I knew something good was going to come out of it … So my mother said, “OK. Go give it a try, and after four or five months. If you don’t like it, I’ll send fare for you to come back home.” And then Richard brought us back to Macon, Ga., and a guy by the name of Clint Bradley would be a booking agent around Macon, Ga., and he also was booking James Brown, too.

… We went back to Macon, Ga., … let me tell you [an] interesting thing. [With] Richard, we didn’t have no rehearsals, didn’t have any rehearsal space. So we used to rehearse in Richards’ house in his front room. And he had 20, 30, 40, 50 people standing outside listening. After the first week we were there, Richard said, “We’re going to have to have rehearsal in my front room” in his house. And I said, “OK” “But,” he said, “the first thing I want you to do is … I want you to go with me, and we’re going to go to the train station on 5th St.”

So we went to the train station on 5th St., and I said, “Now, what do he want me to go to the train station on 5th Street for? Why?” He said, “Charles, I want you to hear this train pull off.” And so the train pulled off like [makes choo-choo sound] … he said, “That’s the kind of beat I want you to do.”

We followed the train for about a mile and a half. He said that’s the kind of beat I want you to play behind. I said, “Richard, that sounds like eighth notes.” He said, ‘Well, if that’s eighth notes, that’s what I want you to play behind me on my fast tunes.” And that’s how, in Richard’s tunes, you can hear the choo-choo train beat. I’m credited for creating the choo-choo train you can hear in Richard’s tunes like “Good Golly Miss Molly” … And I created that beat behind Little Richard. And Richard said, “That’s what I really want ’cause that will fill in a lot of space.”

You played with both James Brown and Little Richard, and they were such flamboyant frontmen. How were they alike as performers?

CC: Yeah, well … Richard was the first one to have that cape. Then James Brown came up with a cape. You’ve seen James Brown movies? And then he falls on the floor, acts like he’s passing out.

Richard never did fall on the floor. But Richard did have a roadie put the cape on him and then when he started sweating … Richard thought of that. And then James Brown copied that off of Richard.

Now James Brown was a better dancer than Richard. He could really dance. Richard didn’t dance that much, but Richard used to stand on top of the piano and Richard didn’t really have to do that much because Richard was Richard … He had a face like a woman, long hair, and he had that pancake makeup and all that stuff. And his hair was screwed up, and all those fancy clothes and everything like that.

… James Brown started dancing and you know, that’s one of his trademarks. In and around Macon, Ga., at the Douglass Theater on Broadway, James Brown would be out there in front of the theater, without music, doing that little dance, and he would stop traffic. He would stop traffic. That’s right. He would stop traffic.

What were the differences between The Upsetters and James Brown’s band?

CC: See, the difference between the Little Richard band, The Upsetters, and James Brown’s band, James Brown’s band had to wear tuxedos … [in Little Richard’s band] we’d wear loud clothes because we had to dress up like gay guys. We had to dress like gay guys in order to play the white clubs, so we wouldn’t be a threat to the white girls — so the white audience wouldn’t see all those colored boys digging ’em. But because we looked like a bunch of gay guys, we were harmless. We were no threat, or they thought we were no threat (laughs).

But we would dress like that and everything, and that’s the strategy Richard used to play the white clubs. Now, right there in the ’50s and ’60s, James Brown wasn’t playing for no white folks. His crowd was colored, black. But Richard had the black and white crowds, ’cause Richard’s thing literally was more comedy. (Sings “Uncle John”) … you know, silly stuff. It was different, too. You know “Long Tall Sally”?

What about “Long Tall Sally”?

CC: There is, or there was, a long, tall Sally up in Macon, Ga. Richard got those lyrics from these people. Long, tall Sally. There was an Uncle John, you know, “duck, duck, duck back down the alley.” There was a “Lucille,” and there was a “Miss Ann.”

Now, Miss Ann was a white lady who had a nightclub on Broadway, I think. The name of the club was the Anne’s Tic Toc. And we would play there on like a Monday or a Tuesday night, when they wasn’t busy. That’s the first club — and she loves Little Richard, too … that’s the first club — a white club — we played in Macon, Ga. where you didn’t have to go through the back door. You walk in through the front door, and you go up on the stage and you played. And then when you’re getting ready for intermission, you sit back down with the soda pops and all that in the back. There wasn’t no dressing room in those days … And she was pretty cool. And she really liked Richard.

But those days … they didn’t know rock ’n’ roll was going to last this long. And I’ll tell you, a lot of places we played down South, like Amarillo, Texas, they locked Richard up from shaking [his] hips on the bandstand.

They’d lock him up, stop the concert and then lock him up, throw him in jail … and Richard’s manager would have to pay a fine — $150, $200 … maybe it was $100. And they said, “You better not come back here shaking your hips like that, like a crazy man. And let me tell you something else before you leave, there’s another guy coming here. He shakes his hips and everything like you,” and they say, “His name is Elvis Presley, and if you see Elvis Presley, tell him he’d better not bring his redneck behind here shaking and acting the fool on the stage like colored people. We gonna lock him up, too.” They said that about Elvis Presley — 1957, in Amarillo, Texas. Can you imagine that?


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