Panama Francis

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Panama Francis
Birth nameDavid Albert Francis
Born(1918-12-21)December 21, 1918
Miami, Florida, United States
DiedNovember 13, 2001(2001-11-13) (aged 82)
Orlando, Florida
GenresJazz, swing, rhythm and blues
Years active1930s–1980s

David Albert "Panama" Francis (December 21, 1918 – November 13, 2001) was an American swing jazz drummer[1][2] who played on numerous hit recordings in the 1950s.

Early life[edit]

Francis was born in Miami, Florida, on December 21, 1918.[3] His father was Haitian, and "his mother came from an English property-owning background in the Bahamas".[4] His father collected records. The young David was enthusiastic about music and playing the drums even before attending school.[3] He initially played in marching bands and local drum and bugle corps.[3]


Francis first played professionally in the 1930s.[3] He was part of George Kelly's band from 1934 to 1938, and was then with the Florida Collegians in 1938.[3] After moving to New York that year, he worked with Tab Smith, Billy Hicks, and Roy Eldridge before the 1940s.[3] Francis acquired his nickname from Eldridge "at a moment when [Francis] was wearing a panama hat and Eldridge could not remember his new drummer's name".[3]

Francis joined Lucky Millinder's big band in 1940, so often played at the Savoy Ballroom.[3] After leaving Millinder he was with Willie Bryant's band (1946), and then Cab Calloway (1947–52); he was in three short films alongside the latter.[3]

For much of the 1950s, Francis was a studio musician in New York, accompanying rhythm-and-blues and rock-and-roll groups and singers.[3] The hits he played on included: Bobby Darin ("Splish Splash"); the Four Seasons ("Big Girls Don't Cry", "Walk Like a Man"); the Platters ("The Great Pretender", "My Prayer", "Only You", "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes"), Dion DiMucci "Runaround Sue", Neil Sedaka ("Calendar Girl");[5] and Jackie Wilson ("Reet Petite").[4]

From 1963 Francis toured with singer Dinah Shore for five years.[3] He then resided in California but struggled to find work.[3] He toured Japan with saxophonist Sam "the Man" Taylor in 1970–71, and appeared on film again in 1972, in Lady Sings the Blues.[3] Back in New York, Francis was part of Sy Oliver's nonet from 1973 to 1975, during which time he also appeared at jazz festivals and toured internationally with other bands.[3] He revived the Savoy Sultans jazz and dance band in 1979, and he appeared regularly at the Rainbow Room in New York City for eight years from 1980.[3] Francis became drummer in the Benny Goodman Quartet for concerts in 1982.[3] He appeared in the 1994 film The Statesmen of Jazz as a member of the Statesmen of Jazz.[3]

Personal life and final years[edit]

David Francis died on November 13, 2001, following a stroke, at age 82.[4]


As leader[edit]

  • Latin American Dixieland (MGM, 1954)
  • Exploding Drums (Epic, 1959)
  • The Beat Behind the Million Sellers (ABC-Paramount, 1960)
  • Gettin' in the Groove (Black and Blue, 1979)
  • Panama Francis and the Savoy Sultans (Classic Jazz, 1980)

As sideman[edit]

With Eddie Barefield

  • Eddie Barefield (RCA, 1974)
  • The Indestructible E. B. (Famous Door, 1977)

With Ray Bryant

With Milt Buckner

  • Green Onions (Black and Blue, 1975)
  • Midnight Slows Vol 6 (Black and Blue, 1977)

With Solomon Burke

  • If You Need Me (Atlantic, 1963)
  • King Solomon (Atlantic, 1968)

With Cab Calloway

  • Hi De Ho Man (Columbia, 1974)
  • Jumpin' Jive (CBS, 1984)

With Arnett Cobb

  • Jumpin' at the Woodside (Black and Blue, 1974)
  • The Wild Man from Texas (Black and Blue, 1977)
  • Keep On Pushin' (Bee Hive, 1984)

With Ray Conniff

  • 'S Awful Nice (Columbia, 1958)
  • Ray Conniff's Concert in Stereo (CBS, 1970)
  • Live in Japan (CBS, 1975)

With Sam Cooke

With Dion DiMucci

With Earl Hines

With John Lee Hooker

With Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry

With Wilson Pickett

  • In the Midnight Hour (Atlantic Records, 1965)

With Big Joe Turner

  • Singing the Blues (BluesWay, 1967)
  • Joe's Back in Town (Black and Blue, 1974)
  • Effervescent (Classic Jazz, 1979)

With others


Year Title Artist Date U.S. chart R&B chart UK chart Producer Notes
1955 Only You (And You Alone) The Platters April 26 5 1 18 Buck Ram plays piano
1955 The Great Pretender The Platters 1 1 5 Buck Ram
1956 I Put a Spell On You Screaming Jay Hawkins September 12
1956 My Prayer The Platters 1 1 28, 22 Buck Ram
1958 Splish Splash Bobby Darin May 19 3 1 28
1958 Smoke Gets in Your Eyes The Platters 1 3 1 Buck Ram
1960 Lullabye The Chevrons July 20
1959 What a Diff'rence a Day Made[6] Dinah Washington February 19 8 4 with the Belford Hendricks Orchestra
1959 I Cried a Tear[7] LaVern Baker 6 2 Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler
1961 Runaround Sue[8] Dion 1 4 11 Example Gene Schwartz, Dion backing vocals by the Del Satins
1962 Big Girls Don't Cry The Four Seasons October 1 1 13 Bob Crewe
1962 Prisoner of Love James Brown December 17 18 6 James Brown, Hal Neely
1963 Walk Like a Man The Four Seasons January 1962 1 3 12 Bob Crewe


  1. ^ Ratliff, Ben (2001-11-17). "Panama Francis, 82, Jazz Drummer of Swing Era". The New York Times. Retrieved 2019-01-25.
  2. ^ "Drummer David 'Panama' Francis, 82; Career Spanned Seven Decades". Los Angeles Times. 2001-11-17. Retrieved 2019-01-25.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Brown, T. Dennis; Kernfeld, Barry (2003). "Francis, Panama [Dave, David Albert]". Grove Music Online. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.J156300.
  4. ^ a b c Monaghan, Terry (27 November 2001). "Obituary: 'Panama' Francis". Retrieved 25 January 2019.
  5. ^ Prato, Greg. "Panama Francis". AllMusic. Retrieved February 5, 2020.
  6. ^ Project, Jazz Discography. "Mercury Records Discography: 1959". Retrieved 5 December 2017.
  7. ^ Baker, LaVern, Soul On Fire: The Best of Lavern Baker CD, Atlantic Recording Corporation, 1991
  8. ^ Myers, Marc, Anatomy of a Song:The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B and Pop, Grove Press, New York, 2016 p. 38

External links[edit]