Charles Connor

Charles Connor

Charles “Keep-A-Knockin” Connor, original drummer for Little Richard and 2010 Louisiana Hall of Famer, created the unique “Choo Choo Train” style of successive eighth notes with a loud backbeat used by nearly all subsequent Rock 'n' Roll drummers. In fact, his drumsticks are on display at the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland, Ohio. The son of a chief chef Merchant Marine seaman from Santo-Domingo and a Louisiana-born mother, Connor reveals, "I was born in New Orleans, in the heart of the French Quarter, the very hub of Cajun, Blues and down-island rhythms. My mother told me that whenever music was played, I kicked really hard in her womb.” He grins and exclaims, “I was born to be a drummer!” He winks and continues, “Probably 'cuz of that exotic Creole and Dominican blood coursing through my veins,” then laughs mischievously. As a toddler, Connor was drawn to marching parades and the “second-line funeral bands” playing Dixieland jazz through the streets of New Orleans and loved to hear his father, home on a three-month leave, sing Calypso songs around the house. Imitating the drums, Connor banged on pots and pans all-day and cried hard when his mother had to take them away to cook family meals. Although his parents had two other sons and a daughter and could not afford expensive gifts, they saved enough money to buy Connor his first drum set when he was five. When his drumming became “a loud nuisance” to the neighbors, he practiced with his drumsticks four to five hours a day on a practice pad. Inspired by such notables as Bob Alden, Art Blakey, Charles Otis, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich and Max Roach, Connor dreamed big and diligently spent all his spare time working towards his goal of becoming “a professional drummer.” His hard work paid off at age 12 when he began playing drums for local parties and wedding receptions, but his “professional” career began at 15 when Roy “Professor Longhair” Byrd hired him as a last-minute replacement for the 1950 Mardi Gras in New Orleans. With family blessings and his mother's sage advice, “never use your skin color as an excuse; never doubt yourself; if you believe in yourself, everybody else will, too,” Connor went on to drum for Smiley Lewis, Guitar Slim, Jack Dupree then Shirley and Lee. At 18, Connor joined flamboyant Little Richard's original road band, The Upsetters, his joy marred only by the deep racial intolerance the band had to endure. Connor says, “[Black] musicians back then didn't have Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to motivate them. We had to find inspiration from our faith and within our hearts.” Connor cocks his head and says, “Little Richard was an ingenious promoter. 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!” Connor pulls at his chin, and then smiles as he admits, “I really had fun. I worked with artists like Lloyd Price during vacations from Little Richard and, since Little Richard and James Brown shared the same booking agent, on "off-nights" I appeared with “The Godfather of Soul,” who coined the phrase, “Connor was the first to put the funk in the rhythm!” Connor continues: “I was 20 when Little Richard's band toured the United States in 1955. 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.” He says in awe, “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,” and chuckles aloud. While on a 1955 tour of Japan and the Philippines, a young girl approached Connor, and asked for an autograph, but he had no idea then that she would later influence his life. The years disappear as he grins and, in wonderment, says “[For some reason] I wrote: I hope you come to America someday. Keep Rock 'n' Roll in your life.” Gaining momentum in 1956, Little Richard's band appeared in such popular feature films as “The Girl Can't Help It” with actress Jayne Mansfield; “Don't Knock the Rock” and “Mr. Rock 'n' Roll.” Then, as Rock 'n' Roll exploded on the music scene, the band recorded several hit songs like “Keep-A-Knockin',” featuring Connor’s first four-bar drum intro on a Rock 'n' Roll record; “Ooh! My Soul,” also featuring Connor’s distinctive "Choo Choo Train" beat; and “She's Got It,” with a regular backbeat. Connor reminisces, “The Civil Rights Act may have been passed in 1964, but Rock 'n' Roll music brought young people and the world together a decade earlier.” He concludes proudly, “We got respect and power; our popularity cut across racial lines.” When Little Richard “retired” for the ministry in 1957, legendary performer Sam Cooke took over The Upsetters and Connor again toured the United States. During breaks between bookings, Connor toured with other talented artists like Jackie Wilson, the original Coasters, and “Big” Joe Turner. He recorded with “Champion” Jack Dupree, Larry Williams, Don Covay, “Papa” George Lightfoot, Christine Kitrell, Larry Birdsong, and Dee Clark. Connor married in 1959, and fathered two sons and two daughters, but life on the road took its toll and the marriage subsequently ended in divorce. A later marriage to Peggy Penneman, Little Richard's sister, culminated in divorce for the same reason. Then, as if sensing Connor’s loneliness, providence stepped in one day when Connor, shopping at the market, met a beautiful young lady who seemed vaguely familiar. As they talked, she suddenly remembered he was “the man with the Rock 'n' Roll band” who gave her such an unusual but prophetic autograph in the Philippines. “My heart skipped a beat, flip-flopped and I've been hooked on her ever since,” he says as his eyes light up. Then, grinning like a teenager, he reveals “Although I had moved to Los Angeles in 1970 and later formed the “The West Coast Upsetters,” I wanted this marriage to last, so I limited our bookings to local gigs!” He and wife Zenaida, now married for over 30 years, have a beautiful daughter named Queenie. To show more respect for his family, himself and enjoy a healthier, self-empowered lifestyle, Connor stopped using profanity and alcohol years ago. He now credits walking and jogging with his daughter as his way of “keeping slim, trim and still 29.” In October 1994, Connor received a Certificate of Special Recognition from Congresswomen Maxine Waters, “In grateful appreciation for outstanding contributions and efforts on behalf of our community and government as a musical pioneer in the early years of the 5-4 Ballroom in South Central Los Angeles.” Accordingly, Connor joined the esteemed ranks of other 5-4 Ballroom honorees such as Billy Eckstine, Dinah Washington, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. Connor appeared with Little Richard at Los Angeles' House of Blues, Greek Theater and in 2002, along with Chuck Berry, played to a sold-out audience at the Universal Amphitheater. His influence and distinctive four-bar drum intro can still be heard on such songs as Led Zeppelin's “Rock 'n' Roll” from the “Led Zeppelin IV” album. Media interest in Connor continues with interviews in the BBC [television] documentary, “American Money;” the E! Channel special, “Hollywood True Stories: The Little Richard Story;” “Kid's Talk” for cable television; Charles “Dr. Rock” White's BBC syndicated radio show; as a guest on KABC's high-profile “Talk Radio” show and press coverage in “The Chicago Tribune,” “Rock 'n Blues News,” “Blue Suede News,” “The Los Angeles Sentinel,” “Now Dig This Magazine” and “Not Born Yesterday.” Once a popular stellar performer, friends felt Connor was unfairly denied recognition for his body of work and contributions to Black musical heritage. Encouraged by a long-time friend and his family, a couple of years ago Connor realized he still had something special to offer but just needed to empower himself. Multi-talented Connor is now an Active Musician, Songwriter, Entrepreneur, does Voice-overs, gives Private Drum lessons and makes Personal Appearances. He's also a Motivational Public Speaker with several issues particularly close to his heart, like sharing his experience and anecdotes on the African and down-island origins of Black popular music to stimulate public awareness and appreciation of Rock 'n' Roll and Rhythm and Blues. Although interested in world affairs, the human condition and deep philosophical subjects, Connor’s primarily concerned for the youth of today who face an apparent bleak future. He believes it “imperative for adults to mentor youth, give them good values and hope for tomorrow especially to stem the tide of teen suicide.” Connor fervently continues, "I favor school literacy and after-school programs. I tell young people they don't need drugs, alcohol or cigarettes to live or perform. They just need to connect with God to “turn-on” their natural gifts, then live with honor and integrity." Connor pauses, and then declares, “I also encourage people of color to exercise their hard-won civil rights. There's no excuse now. Instead of complaining what they don't like about government, they need to say what they do want by voting in every election!” He chuckles, and then seriously reveals, “If I hadn't become a drummer, I would have been a preacher.” Musing in silence before he speaks, Connor tilts his head then humbly admits, “I'm very grateful for all my Blessings and the life I lead. A man's actions show others his character and I'd like to inspire others.” He plays his hands, leans closer and confides, “Answering audience questions has given me inspiration and new insight. Connecting with the Community of Man makes me feel so good right here,” and taps his heart. “Now I realize that age plays no role whatsoever in the overall scheme of things. One man can make a difference,” he exclaims jubilantly. The focal point of Connor’s book, “Don't Give Up Your Dreams: You Can Be a Winner Too!” is “Be a good person. Set your goals, aim high and achieve. Surround yourself with positive, encouraging people who will help you to achieve those goals. Empower yourself; then go out and do something special for yourself and others!”

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