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, United States
GenresJazz, swing, rhythm and blues
Years active1930s–1980s

David Albert "Panama" Francis (December 21, 1918 in Miami, Florida – November 13, 2001 in Orlando, Florida) was an American swing jazz drummer.[1][2]


He 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. Early collaborations included Tab Smith, the Roy Eldridge Orchestra, and six years with Lucky Millinder's Orchestra at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom.

Panama Francis spent five years recording and touring with Cab Calloway. He also played with Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, Ray Conniff, and Sy Oliver, becoming a highly successful studio drummer. 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 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"), Dion ("The Wanderer"), and The Chevrons ("The Chevrons Song)/ Lullabye").

He drummed on "Prisoner of Love" for James Brown, "What a Diff'rence a Day Makes" for Dinah Washington, "Drown in My Own Tears" for Ray Charles, "Patricia" for Perez Prado and "Jim Dandy" for LaVern Baker. Many music reference books indicate that he also played drums on Bill Haley & His Comets' 1954 version of "Shake, Rattle and Roll", but producer Milt Gabler denied this; Francis is also believed to have played drums for at least one other Haley recording session in the mid-1960s.

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, The Learning Tree.


Francis received a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in 1993 and was also inducted into the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. His drum sticks are on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.[citation needed]


Panama Francis died on November 13, 2001 following a stroke, at the age of 82.[3]


With Ray Bryant

With Arnett Cobb

With Ray Conniff

With Dizzy Gillespie

With Earl Hines

Selected singles[edit]

Year Song title Artist Date US
Producer Miscellaneous
1955 Only You (And You Alone) The Platters April 26 5 1 18 song writer Buck Ram
plays piano on the track
The Great Pretender The Platters 1 1 5 Buck Ram
1956 I Put a Spell On You[4] Screaming Jay Hawkins September 12
My Prayer The Platters 1 1 28 & 22 Buck Ram
1958 Splish Splash Bobby Darin May 19 3 1 28 rowspan="2" / 1960
Lullabye (song) /Lullabye                                                                            
The Chevrons
July 20
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes The Platters 1 3 1 Buck Ram
1959 What a Diff'rence a Day Made[5] Dinah Washington February 19 8 4 with the Belford Hendricks Orchestra
I Cried a Tear[6] LaVern Baker 6 2 Ahmet Ertegun &
Jerry Wexler
1961 Runaround Sue[7] Dion summer 1 4 11 Gene Schwartz & Dion back-up vocals by the Del-Satins
1962 Big Girls Don't Cry The Four Seasons October 1 1 13 Bob Crewe
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. ^ Monaghan, Terry (27 November 2001). "Obituary: 'Panama' Francis". Retrieved 25 January 2019.
  4. ^ "Screamin' Jay Hawkins - I Put A Spell On You The Singles 1954 - 1957". Retrieved 5 December 2017.
  5. ^ Project, Jazz Discography. "Mercury Records Discography: 1959". Retrieved 5 December 2017.
  6. ^ Baker, LaVern, Soul On Fire: The Best of Lavern Baker, CD, Atlantic Recording Corporation, 1991
  7. ^ 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]