Panama Francis Biography

21 December 1918, Miami, Florida, USA, d. 12 November 2001, Orlando, Florida, USA. Francis began to play drums at the age of eight, and made his first professional club appearance when he was 13 years old. Twelve months later he was on tour and in 1934 became a member of George Kelly’s band. By the time he was in his late teens he was resident in New York, where he quickly found work with Tab Smith and Roy Eldridge. In 1940 he joined Lucky Millinder’s big band, remaining there until 1945. Millinder’s band was very popular at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom and Francis was a significant factor in that popularity. He then briefly led his own band which toured the south but met with only limited success. In 1947 he was hired by Cab Calloway for a five-year stint. Subsequently Francis worked in radio and was regularly on call as a recording session musician, backing artists such as John Lee Hooker, Eubie Blake, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles and Mahalia Jackson.

Francis’ long absence from the jazz scene ended in the late 70s, when he returned to play with Lionel Hampton’s all-star big band and, most importantly, to lead his own nine-piece band, the Savoy Sultans (named after Al Cooper’s Savoy Sultans he had played opposite three decades earlier). The new Sultans included Francis Williams, Norris Turney and Francis’ old boss, George Kelly. A highly-accomplished drummer with an exemplary technique, Francis played with a loosely-flowing swing that benefited any band of which he was a member.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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