Charles Connor: The Rock and Roll Original
Charles "Keep A-Knockin' " Connor was the drummer in Little Richard's first touring rock & roll band, The Upsetters. Upon their joining forces in 1953, Richard's frenzied performances and Connor's cataclysmic drumming changed - it's fair to say - everything.
Rock pioneer Little Richard was as shrewd as he was untamed, and he recognized New Orleans native Connor as a man who could reliably rouse the rabble. Connor describes an early encounter, when Richard took him to a train station in Macon, Ga. "I thought, 'What are we doing here?' This train was pulling out, Richard's waiting, listening, and as it got faster and faster, he said, 'Hear that, Charles? What kind of note is that?' And I said, 'That's an eighth note.' He says, 'Play that. That's what I want - that choo choo train rhythm.' "
Now 79, Connor has for decades worked a day job: manning the security booth at Los Angeles radio station KROQ's entrance. Tall, lean and clad in conservative business attire, on the job he's brimming with gesticulations and great good humor. His manner of speaking still struts and sashays with New Orleans' angular, syncopated rhythms.
To be sure, the entire radio staff is acutely aware of Connor's legacy and contributions. The fact that pals like James Brown used to drop by didn't hurt.
In fact, in mid-1950s Macon, Connor was performing three nights a week with Brown. Considering that he played the other four with Richard, he effectively birthed rock & roll and funk simultaneously. In a 1982 Rolling Stone interview, Brown proclaimed Connor as "the first to put the funk into the rhythm."
When Richard got religion and quit rock, Connor pressed on with top names in blues and soul - including Sam Cooke. But in 1970 he settled in Los Angeles, where he met his wife, Zeny, striking up a spontaneous flirtation at a Ralph's one day. Turns out they'd first met in 1958 when he was touring with Richard in the Philippines. He'd even signed an autograph for the then - 5-year-old, including the line "I hope you come to America someday." The couple reside in the Mid-Wilshire district, and their daughter, Queenie, manages Connor's musical career.
Connor continues to bang out his irresistible beat at rock & roll fantasy camps and also with Big Dick, the local female-fronted Richard tribute band. Says Connor: "Richard, he's 82 now, he had that hip surgery and has quit performing. So, he told me, 'I'm counting on you to keep my music alive. Don't let it die!' " That seems unlikely. After all, although studio jazz genius Earl Palmer played on most of Richard's records, Connor's groundbreaking drum intro on "Keep A-Knockin' " - the song from which he gets his nickname - should live forever.
But he never tires of spinning yarns about the Little Richard years. In addition to promising a tell-all about Richard's legendary orgies, among other subjects, he recalls how the superstar and his band won over the prejudiced Southern audiences of the day.
"Richard made us all go the beauty salon and get our hair curled, put on the pancake makeup and wear the crazy clothes like he did - so we wouldn't look threatening to the white folk. When we'd get to the club, they'd all say, 'Here comes Little Richard and his sisters!' "
He concludes: "So we're all swishing around but we're getting paid, and we were getting all the women!"
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