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Drummer David 'Panama' Francis, 82; Career Spanned Seven Decades

November 17, 2001|From Times Wire Services

ORLANDO, Fla. — David "Panama" Francis, whose drumming was featured both in top Harlem nightclubs and legendary rock songs, has died. He was 82.

Francis died Tuesday in Miami after a stroke.

His career spanned seven decades. He first achieved fame in the late 1930s playing with the Savoy Sultans--once described by Dizzy Gillespie as "the swingingest band there ever was"--at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem.

The Sultans reemerged four decades later under Francis' leadership and drumming prowess. The group was named the best big band by the New York Jazz Society in 1980 and received Grammy nominations for two of its six albums.

When pop music became a viable genre in the 1950s, Francis' services were in demand, and he became one of the top studio drummers of the era.

Los Angeles Times Thursday November 22, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Francis obituary--The obituary of drummer David "Panama" Francis that appeared Saturday in the California section incorrectly reported that he played on Buddy Holly's recording of "Peggy Sue." Actually, Jerry Allison played the drums on that recording.

His stickwork can be heard accompanying Buddy Holly ("Peggy Sue"), 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") and Neil Sedaka ("Calendar Girl").

Francis' rhythm & blues recordings include "Prisoner of Love" for James Brown, "What a Difference a Day Makes" for Dinah Washington, "Drown in My Own Tears" for Ray Charles and "Jim Dandy" for Laverne Baker.

Born in Miami, Francis had begun playing in drum and bugle corps around the area by the time he was 8. As a teenager in Miami, he performed with several leading bands, including George Kelly's Cavaliers, before moving to New York City.

Trumpeter Roy Eldridge gave Francis his nickname, a reference to the Panama hat that Francis wore to a gig.

"It was summertime and that's what we used to wear down in Miami," Francis told the Orlando Sentinel some years ago.

While making a name for himself as a pop drummer, he continued to play with leading jazz performers including Benny Goodman and Joe Williams.

In an interview with the Sentinel, Francis called Washington probably the most talented performer he had worked with.

"She was very brash," Francis said. "But Dinah Washington was the only artist I ever worked with who never did more than two takes of a song. 'What a Difference a Day Makes' she did in one take."

Francis appeared in several films, including "The Learning Tree," "Lady Sings the Blues," and "Angel Heart."

His autobiography, "David Gets His Drum," was published in 1999.

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