Charles Connor – The Legendary Drummer.
Charles Connor was born on the 14th of January 1935 at Charity Hospital, New Orleans, Louisiana – just off the neighborhood of Treme, the musical epicentre of the city.
Son to a Merchant Marine from Santo Domingo and to a Louisiana native mother, both of whom had always been keen to nourish on their child’s talents. His mother would often joke at how he would “start kickin’ her stomach every time a parade came by” their home – that overlooked Dauphine Street – when she was pregnant with him. Later, Connor’s would claim this to be evidence that he was born to be drummer.
From an early age, Connor had a deep love of beats and rhythm. At the age of four, he earned money tap dancing on the streets of New Orleans for white tourists. Sometimes he would make up to 90cents on a busy weekend – which is worth u to $9 in today’s currency.
Seeing how much heart his son put into the simplest of routines, and how much he enjoyed banging on his mother’s pots and pans with spoons, his father bought Connor’s his first drum set at the age of five. Even though the three-piece kit (snare, kick, and a ride cymbal) was a simple one – as the family could not afford anything more at the time, as Charles now had two other brothers and a sister – it beat the hell out of hitting the cookery with kitchen utensils.
Though neighbors would complain about the racket of a learners’ first steps into knowing their instruments, Connor’s father kept them at bay and supported his son to follow the rhythm, but did soon accommodate to the quieting of the practice, by having Charles play four to five hours a day with his sticks on a pad. As Connor improved alone on his three-piece kit, he soon wanted to see what it is was like to play with others. He would play along to records that his parents owned, as well as playing along to the radio; providing the beats to the greats of the time, like Count Basie and Louis Armstrong.
It was at the age of nine, Connor attended third grade at McDonald 37 Elementary, where he encountered his first road block in his dream of becoming a drummer. After a session of banging on any desk in front of him to listen to the sounds they made, his teacher brought Connor to the front of the class and struck his knuckles with a ruler by way of discipline, telling him how disruptive he was to the rest of the class. Claiming that he could never be a drummer, regardless of how much he spoke of it being his dream, as he was left handed.
Greeting their son with comfort as he came home in tears, explaining through the cracks in his voice that a teacher had outright said that his dream of becoming a drummer was an unlikely reality. Connor’s parents did not let this thought live long.
Together they comforted the child by reassuring him that his “..teacher may know about teaching, but she knows nothing about music”, and that “if you believe in yourself, then others will believe in you”. Words that Connor has not since forgotten. Especially those of his father’s, telling him that “music takes patience and practice and prayer. Those drums could be your passport to the world one day”.
How right he was.
In 1951, when he was at the age of sixteen, Connor played his first professional gig; as the drummer for Professor ‘Fess’ Longhair at a Mardi Gras celebration. Up until ‘51, there had been many opportunities to show off his chops. From the Clark High School band where he played the field drum at ballgames and parades, to playing at Sunday night jam sessions held at The Club Tijuana.
Connor would frequent the Club Tijuana with band friend and neighbour, Nathaniel Perrilliat, a talented tenor and alto saxophone player who went on to play for jazz heavy weights such as Fats Domino and Roy Brown. Before that, he was part of the group ‘Charles and Nat’. A duo created to collect weekend bookings from all around Louisiana and to merely find a name for themselves in the music crowd.
It all paid off, as on the morning of the Mardi Gras celebrations Charles and Nat got a call from a local booking agent, asking them if they could help fill in for some of Professor Longhair’s bandmates. The drummer had fell ill the night before the performance at the Hi-Hat Club, and ‘Fess’ needed a rhythm section.
The performance was an opportunity for his family to see him perform with real local celebrities, and solidify the fact that Connor’s drumming could really be his passport to the world. Though Charles was shaking, having to play for one of New Orleans’ favorite local heroes at the time, would make anyone shake. But he was determined to keep it loose yet keep it tight.
Connor’s only knew that he was doing right during the set, half way through it in fact. When Professor Longhair turned in his seat, and gave Connor a wink and a smile. With that, the doors to new opportunities were opened.
Over the course of his teen years, Charles played with many of the New Orleanian heavy weights of the time. Smiley Lewis, Guitar Slim, Shirley & Lee, and Jack Dupree, just to name a few of the musicians in need of his services.
It was in this spree of performances and long running tours that led Charles Connor to the drumming icon that he is today. As in 1953, Little Richard came to watch this eighteen year old New Orleanian drummer kick it.
On a long stretch tour with Shirley & Lee that took him to Nashville, Tennessee., Charles found himself broke, behind on rent, and running out of things to pawn, just to keep the dream of drumming alive and kicking. One of the shows that Shirley & Lee played had the honour of Richard Penniman, Little Richard, being in attendance of the audience.
Richard at the time had yet to receive mass popularity, but had large followings in Tennessee and Georgia. He felt that he needed to find a new sound to help catapult him to greatness and to nationwide audiences.
That is where Charles Connor came in.
Little Richard took a night off from his shows at the Club New Era to go and watch the Shirley & Lee show down the street at the Club Ravelot, hearing that there was some kid there who could really play. As there was no one else to see that night, the Shirley & Lee gig was packed. Regardless of the room, Charles played the way he always did – with heart and precision to keep the people dancing.
Richard asked his guitarist, Thomas Hardwell, the next day to set up a meeting with the drummer at the Shirley & Lee show, as well as a guitarist called Wilbur Smith that caught Richard’s eye. Charles was found at the Club Ravelot’s bar, drinking away at his paycheque. Hardwell offered Charles the opportunity to join The Upsetters, Little Richards road band. Without so much as an ounce of hesitation, Charles jumped at the chance.
Since that day, Charles never had to worry about his place at the drum sets throne again. He began touring with the architect of rock’n’roll, influencing artists such as The Beatles, and Elvis Presley. The man who pathed the way for black artists in the music industry. Those who include him as an influence reign the charts of pop music today, like those of Prince and Michael Jackson.
Charles Connor’s passport to the world had been issued, and was in need of some stamps. He toured with Little Richard around the states, and in 1955, a vast amount the east. Whilst touring most of and the Philippines with The Upsetters, Connor was approached after one of their gigs by a young girl, asking for his autograph.
Not entirely sure what to write for the girl, he complied with a smile and a flourish, he wrote “I hope you come to America someday. Keep Rock ‘n’ Roll in your life”. That autograph played a much bigger part than most Connor’s signed, it just took a while to act itself out.
In 1956, Little Richard and the Upsetters had picked up the mass popularity that they so rightly deserved for so long. Appearing in popular feature films like, ‘Don’t Knock the Rock’, ‘Mr. Rock ‘n’ Roll’, and the Jayne Mansfield and Tom Ewell led musical comedy ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’. Charles would often jump in and play for James Brown as well, which was simple to do as Richard and James were represented by the same booking agent. James has spoke highly of Charles, saying that he ‘was the first to put the funk in the rhythm’, which is high praise coming from the Godfather of Soul himself.
Finally, Rock ‘n’ Roll had broken into the world’s collective music scene – after years of Little Richard preaching its words – and had taken the band by storm. During this time of immense popularity, the band released several singles; one of which being the infamous ‘Keep-A-Knockin’, which featured Connor’s first recorded four-bar choo-choo train drum beat. A style that incorporates a heavy backbeat underneath a string of eighth notes on the top. This style is synonymous with Charles Connor, and many rock drummers since have played this in homage to the man who created it.
When 1957 came round, Little Richard took a step away from the Rock ‘n’ Roll lifestyle to pursue a life in the ministry. This was a major loss for The Upsetters, but it did not mean the end, by any means. Sam Cooke, legendary singer often referred to as the King of Soul, took up the mantle Richard left behind, and commenced a tour of the United States.
Charles stayed with the Upsetters, and constantly found work with other artists who were also in need of his heavy back-beat and charming persona behind the kit. He performed with groups like the Coasters, Jackie Wilson, and “Big” Joe Turner; as well as recording for Jack Dupree, George Lightfoot, and Dee Clark to merely name a few.
At the age of twenty four, Charles had married fathered four children, and toured the states countless times with countless performers. Due to the restrictions that all of that touring put on his time and his ability to stay stationary, his first marriage ended in divorce. Later, Charles married Peggy Penneman, the sister of Little Richard, which unfortunately fell into the same holes as his first marriage and also ended in divorce.
In the years that past, Charles kept himself occupied through his work by touring and recording with various artists who wanted the legendary Choo-Choo beat drummer’s style incorporated in their music. Whilst at the market one day, he met a beautiful and familiar young woman.
She too felt a familiarity for the charming fellow shopper. After conversing in collaborative investigation, the memory synced. Zenaida suddenly recalled that the man she was talking to in the middle of a market aisle in the United States, was “the man with the Rock ‘n’ Roll band” who played her hometown in the Philippines all those years ago, who wished to meet her again someday. Since that day, they have been inseparable.
Charles learnt from the pitfalls of his previous marriages and vowed to make this one last. Keeping the bookings of his 1970’s group ‘the West Coast Upsetters’ to local LA gigs. The pair have been married for over thirty years now, and have a daughter called Queenie.
In October of 1994, Charles was present with a Certificate of Special Recognition from the Congresswomen Maxine Waters, “in grateful appreciation for outstanding contributions and efforts on behalf of our community and government as a musical pioneer in the early years of the 5-4 Ballroom in South Central Los Angeles.”, placing him in the presence of other Ballroom honourees, such as the likes of Miles Davis and Dinah Washington.
Charles Connor has since continued to play, perform, and has written books; both autobiographica (Keep-A-Knockin’)l and inspirational publications (Don’t give Up On Your Dreams). He has spent little time away from the eyes of the media and pop-culture. He remains to be one of Rock ‘n’ Roll best drummers, with a passport full of achievements.