David "Panama" Francis, legendary drummer noted for a career remarkable for its longevitydating from Harlem jazz spots of the 1930s to Hollywood movie sets of the 1990sbut for its sheer scope as well. Who else could have claimed to have worked with Cab Calloway, Frankie Valli, Dinah Shore,The Platters and LaVerne Baker, to name just a few of his colleagues.He then established himself as a dynamic leader of the revived Savoy Sultans.
David Albert Francis was born on December 21, 1918, in Miami, Florida. He played drums at a young age and gained most of his early experience on the instrument at church meetings around his hometown. He also began playing in a local drum and bugle corps at the age of eight. While still a teenager, Francis joined his first band, the Cavaliers, under the direction of saxophonist George Kelly. In 1938, not quite 20 years old, Francis traveled to New York City in search of his big break. After impressing trumpeter Roy Eldridge at an informal jam session with Billy Hicks and the Sizzling Six, the bandleader offered Francis a position with his band, which headlined at the Arcadia Ballroom.
Joining Eldridge's band proved fortuitous, since he was acknowledged to be one of the best jazz musicians of his day. Francis gained not only a great mentor, he earned a lasting nickname as well. When Glaser had first asked Eldridge who the new drummer was, Eldridge could not remember Francis' name. Looking at the Panama hat, Francis regularly sported, Eldridge replied that the new drummer was named "Panama." The other band members assumed that the moniker was the new addition's real name, and it stuck throughout his career. From then on, the drummer almost always appeared wearing his trademark Panama hat.
From Eldridge's band, Francis went on to join the Lucky Millinder Band. He stayed with Millinder through World War II, often playing at Harlem's legendary Savoy Ballroom, and recorded a few big-band jazz songs with the group.
Francis then earned a spot with Cab Calloway's big-band jazz group, one of the most famous of the era. During his five years with Calloway he sat in with almost all of the leading orchestras of the day, including groups led by Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, and Ray Conniff. In 1953, having secured a reputation as one of the era's great jazz drummers, Francis started to work regularly as a session drummer in various recording studios; it was this work that would make Francis a permanent part of pop music history.