Early rock & roll drummer Charles Connor — who played with Little Richard, Sam Cooke, and James Brown in the Fifties — died in his home in Glendale, California, after a battle with the brain disorder normal pressure hydrocephalus. He was 86.
“He was one of those drummers that was a bricklayer of creating that rock & roll genre,” his daughter, Queenie Connor Sonnefeld, told the Associated Press. “He played behind so many legendary musicians in the Fifties. He was a loving grandfather and was very proud of his family and took a lot of pride in his contributions to rock & roll.”
Connor grew up in New Orleans and received his first drum set when he was just five years old. Drawing inspiration from jazz greats like Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, and Max Roach, he began playing gigs around town when he was 12. Three years later, Professor Longhair Byrd hired him for the 1950 Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
Connor’s life forever changed when Little Richard invited him to join his band the Upsetters in 1953. “Little Richard was an ingenious promoter,” Connor said on his official website bio. “To draw attention to his band and ensure they could perform on stage, he had to show bigots that the band wouldn’t threaten their way of life. Little Richard promoted the band and avoided racial prejudice by insisting the musicians wear thick pancake makeup and act effeminate!”
“I was 20 when Little Richard’s band toured the United States in 1955,” he continued. “We played all the major theaters, including such prestigious venues as the Turner Arena and Howard Theater in Washington, D.C.; the Royal Theater in Baltimore, Maryland; the Apollo Theater in Harlem and the Paramount Theater with Alan Freed in Brooklyn. In New York, the white teenagers saw blacks having so much fun that they would dance in the aisles with them! Man, those were heady times.”
During downtime from Little Richard shows, Connor also gigged with James Brown and Lloyd Price. And his profile grew considerably in 1956 when Little Richard broke through to mainstream success thanks to hits like “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” and “Rip It Up.” Connor didn’t play drums on those studio recordings, but he did appear alongside Little Richard in the movies The Girl Can’t Help It, Don’t Knock the Rock, and Mister Rock & Roll to help promote them. Connor then joined Little Richard in the studio to record the classics “Ooh! My Soul,” “She’s Got It,” and “Keep-A-Knockin.'” His iconic drum intro to the latter song was recreated by John Bonham on the Led Zeppelin classic “Rock & Roll.”
Little Richard stepped away from rock music later in 1957 to focus on his ministry work, but Connor remained busy since Sam Cooke took over as the leader of the Upsetters. He also had the chance to play with Jackie Wilson, the Coasters, Big Joe Turner, and Don Covay.
Connor’s career slowed down in the early Sixties so he could focus on his family, but he did gigs around Los Angeles in the Seventies with a new band he dubbed the West Coast Upsetters. In 1994, he received a Certificate of Special Recognition from Congresswoman Maxine Waters. He released his motivational book Don’t Give Up Your Dreams: You Can Be a Winner Too! in 2008. He was working on a documentary about his life at the time of his death.