Charles “Keep-A-Knockin’” Connor was born on January 14, 1935. He was the son of a Merchant Marine from Santo-Domingo who listened to many Cajun, Blues, and other island beats. His mother was born in New Orleans, like Connor. He also loved the style of music from the Big Easy, like Dixieland jazz. His mother often said he was born a drummer, even kicking her while pregnant when songs his father played came on the radio. Additionally, Connor started playing the drums when he was a toddler, using pots and pans as a drum set. His parents noticed his skill, and despite being low income, they saved to buy him a drum set when he was five. He spent so much time playing that he often needed practice pads because his neighbors complained so much. He was inspired by artists like Bob Alden, Art Blakely, Charles Otis, Gene Kruppa, Buddy Rick, and Max Roach during his early days. Since Connor’s only dream was to become a professional drummer, he practiced day and night. By the time he was twelve, he was already performing at local weddings. One lucky break happened in 1950 when he was hired at the last minute to play drums in the Mardi Gras Parade.
Then, at age eighteen, he joined Little Richard’s first band, The Upsetters. He was the first drummer for Little Richard. According to Gold Mine magazine, during an interview, Connor said, “I was a starving, ornery, poor musician in Nashville, Tennessee.” Before Connor joined Little Richard in Macon, Georgia, he was homeless. His drum set was at the pawnshop so he could buy food and had been kicked out of the hotel for failure to pay. He was almost ready to ready to leave Nashville before meeting Richard. He was thinking about going home to New Orleans where he could play the French Quarter, a gig he knew many people kept for decades without having to travel. Instead, Little Richard took him under his wing and got his drum set out of the pawnshop. Then, the two sat down over a meal and talked about the next steps in Connor’s career.
The group when on tour two years later, in 1955. Even though it was a racially divided time, they still played in well-known venues like Turner Arena and Howard Theater in Washington D.C. and the Paramount Theater in Brooklyn. When he wasn’t touring with Little Richard, he was on the road with Jackie Wilson, the Coasters, and “Big” Joe Turner. Additionally, he recorded songs with “Champion” Jack Dupree, Larry Williams, Don Covay, and “Pappa” George Lightfoot. According to Ultimate Classic Rock, during a 1990 performance in Malmo, Sweden, Little Richard asked Connor to come on stage. When he did, Connor said, “this is the man who started in the business with me. I was 18 years old” Near the end of his life, Conor worked as a security guard at KROQ in Los Angeles and loved telling stories like this. In 2008 he wrote. Don’t Give Up Your Dreams: You Can Be a Winner Too!
Two years, later he was inducted into the Louisana Music Hall of Fame. His last completed project was the EP Still Knockin’, released in 2013. At the time of his death, he was working on a documentary about his life. His drumming style was so influential; his drumsticks are on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. Even John Bonham from Led Zeppelin used one of Conor’s drum licks from Keep-A-Knockin on the song Rock & Roll. Some of Conor’s licks inspired “a-wop-bop-a-mop, a lop bam-boom” in Tutti Frutti. Charles Connor was the first to play the Choo Choo train style, a style of successive eighth notes with a loud backbeat. Almost every drummer after him used the same technique.
In 1959 and 1960, Connor was married and divorced twice. He had four children, but his touring schedule was too intense, so both marriages ended in divorce. However, ten years later, a serendipitous event happened. He met a woman named Zenaida. They talked for a little while at a supermarket before she remembered something. During Connor’s 1955 tour, he was the one who’d signed an autograph with the words “I hope you come to America someday. Keep Rock ‘n’ Roll in your life. From that moment on, the two were inseparable. Although he was touring with a new group, The West Coast Upsetters, he knew he wanted the marriage to work. Connor slowed down his music career and focused on his family. The couple remained married for almost forty years and had a daughter named Queenie.
A legend dies
On July 31, 2021, Charles Conor passed away. His daughter Queenie shared the news that he died in his sleep while under hospice care in Glendale, California. He had been diagnosed with normal pressure hydrocephalus, a brain disorder that causes fluid buildup. According to Billboard, Queenie wrote, “he was one of those drummers that was a bricklayer of creating that rock ‘n’ roll genre.”
Charles Connor was one of the most influential musicians. His style crossed genres and remains part of rock and roll history. He also worked with many other causes throughout his career, which helped promote equal rights because he always remembered what it was like playing during segregation in the early days of his career. Additionally, he had a long-lasting love story with a twist typically seen in movies. When a musician like Conor made a tremendous impact in and out of the studio, it’s a true tragedy when they pass away. John Lennon once said, “yeah, we all shine on, like the moon, and the stars, and the sun.” When a musician leaves a body of work like Conor’s, he may be gone, but fans will never forget him.