CHARLES Keep-A-Knockin CONNOR, original drummer
for Little Richard, created the unique Choo Choo Train style of
successive eighth notes with a loud backbeat used by nearly all subsequent
Rock 'n' Roll drummers and, 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 and father 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
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
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 20 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
Although interested in world affairs,
the human condition and deep
philosophical stuff, 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 splays his hands, leans closer and confides, Answering
audience questions has given me inspiration and new insight. Connecting
with the Community of Man makes me fell 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
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! Well, CONNOR, you're Rockin' and
Rollin' again; Keep on Shakin' and Keep-A-Knockin'!