Charles Connor, Drummer for Little Richard in Rock’s Formative Years, Dies at 86

Charles Connor, best known as a drummer for Little Richard in his 1950s heyday, and decades later later a familiar sight to L.A. radio veterans as a security guard at KROQ, died Saturday at age 86.

His daughter, Queenie Connor Sonnefeld, told the Associated Press he died peacefully in his sleep while under hospice care for normal pressure hydrocephalus in Glendale, Calif.

Connor established the “choo choo” style of drumming heard throughout “Keep a Knockin’,” one of the most instrumentally influential songs in rock history. He was seen performing with Little Richard as a member of his backup band, the Upsetters, in the seminal rock ‘n’ roll movies “The Girl Can’t Help It,” “Mister Rock and Roll” and “Don’t Knock the Rock.”

After Little Richard quit rock ‘n’ roll — for the first of several times — to join the ministry in the early ’60s, Connor went to work for Sam Cooke and James Brown. Other artists he performed with included Jackie Wilson, the Coasters, Lloyd Price, “Big” Joe Turner, “Champion” Jack Dupree, Larry Williams, Don Covay, “Papa” George Lightfoot and Larry Birdsong.

Later in life, he went to work at the headquarters of KROQ. “Every day I went in the studio, I’d ask Charles for a story,” said longtime KROQ air personality Kat Corbett, about “growing up in New Orleans, what it was like for Black musicians playing for white audiences, the ladies… oh, he loved the ladies. He was truly one of a kind.”

Connor was also invited on the air at KROQ, coming on with DJs Stryker & Klein to discuss his experiences in 2020.

Last year Connor took to Twitter to post a video he’d come across of himself sitting in with Little Richard to play “The Girl Can’t Help It” at a gig in 1990, noting it was the first time they’d played together since the late ’50s.

He published the books “Don’t Give Up Your Dreams: You Can Be a Winner Too”! in 2008 and “Keep a Knockin’: The Story of a Legendary Drummer” in 2015.

Connor was happy to share lessons in how he accomplished those primal, seminal rock ‘n’ roll beats in person or on video, like this lengthy clip in which he described the origins of “Keep-a-Knockin.’”

He was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2010.

Connor was living in Nashville in the ’50s when Richard Penneman — aka Little Richard — took him and to Macon to form the Upsetters.

He recalled to Goldmine magazine in 2009 that, in Macon, “we went to the train station on 5th St., and I said, ‘Now, what do he want me to go to the train station on 5th Street for? Why?’ He said, ‘Charles, I want you to hear this train pull off.’ And so the train pulled off like [makes choo-choo sound] … he said, ‘That’s the kind of beat I want you to do.’” In Connor’s recollection they “followed the train for about a mile and a half. He said that’s the kind of beat I want you to play behind. I said, ‘Richard, that sounds like eighth notes.’ He said, ‘Well, if that’s eighth notes, that’s what I want you to play behind me on my fast tunes.’ And that’s how, in Richard’s tunes, you can hear the choo-choo train beat. I’m credited for creating the choo-choo train you can hear in Richard’s tunes like ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’ … And I created that beat behind Little Richard. And Richard said, ‘That’s what I really want ’cause that will fill in a lot of space.’”

Connor was born in 1935 to a merchant marine seaman from Santo-Domingo and a Louisiana-born mother in New Orleans and said he was” born to be a drummer… probably ’cause of that exotic Creole and Dominican blood coursing through my veins.”

He met a girl on a tour in the Philippines in 1955 and reconnected with her after his first two marriages ended in divorce, wedding Zenaida Connor in 1981. She survives him, along with his daughter, his son-in-law Joe Sonnefeld and his granddaughter, Viviana.

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