David 'Panama' Francis

Panama Francis, born David Francis on December 21, 1918 in Miami, Florida, was an American swing jazz and R&B drummer, best known for being one of the first rock drummers.

Panama began performing at the age of eight, and booked his first night club at the age of thirteen. His career took off after he moved to New York City in 1938. His early music collaborations included working with Tab Smith, Billy Hick's Sizzling Six, the Roy Eldridge Orchestra, and six years with Lucky Millinder's Orchestra at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom.

Panama Francis' recording career took off with Cab Calloway, whom he also toured with for five years. Francis also played with Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, Ray Conniff, and Sy Oliver. He recorded with John Lee Hooker, Eubie Blake, Ella Fitzgerald, Illinois Jacquet, Ray Charles, Mahalia Jackson and Big Joe Turner. As rhythm and blues and rock and roll went mainstream Francis became even more sought after. He drummed on the Elvis Presley demos, and he is featured on hits by 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"), Neil Sedaka ("Calendar Girl"), and Dion ("The Wanderer").

Francis also played drums on such hits as "Prisoner of Love" by James Brown, "What a Diff'rence a Day Makes" by Dinah Washington, "Drown in My Own Tears" by Ray Charles, "Patricia" for Perez Prado and "Jim Dandy" by LaVern Baker.

In 1979, Panama Francis reestablished the Savoy Sultans touring, recording several Grammy-nominated albums, and keeping residence at New York's prestigious Rainbow Room through the mid-1980s. He appeared in several films with Cab Calloway: Angel Heart, Lady Sings the Blues, and The Learning Tree.

In 1993, Francis received a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation and was inducted into the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has acknowledged his contributions, displaying a pair of his drumsticks at the museum.

David "Panama" Francis died from a stroke on Tuesday, November 13, 2001 in Orlando, Florida; he was 82.

David 'Panama' Francis