SAMMY PENN: Born Morgan City Louisiana September 15 1902. Died Florida September 18 1969.
Let’s start off a little differently this time: to me, the greatest New Orleans drummers for my pleasure were Baby Dodds, Sammy Penn and Cie Frazier. But Sammy had a wonderful second string to his bow. He sang with the same phrasing as the legendary Fats Domino, and with his big cigar and huge smile was a master entertainer.
Sammy’s first job was in 1921 with Jake Johnson’s band, then with Chris Kelly’s Brass Band, Kid Rena’s Brass Band and the legendary Eureka Brass Band. He was the mainstay of the Kid Thomas band for a quarter of a century.
You must understand that entertainment was the name of the game. With Sammy Penn and Joe “Twat” Butler, Kid Thomas Valentine had a showband. Singers, personalities and Thomas with his famous “bag of tricks” No wonder this band survived in New Orleans and then toured the world to represent the birthplace of jazz.
In a long interview with my friend Tom Stagg in his wonderful record shop “Good Rockin'” he describes Sammy Penn’s drum kit as “ultra basic” A bass drum, a snare drum, a tom-tom and a cymbal attached to the bass drum. As Tom remembers, he drove the band relentlessly and with an amazing complexity of rhythmic sounds. This kit was simple but the rhythm was anything but!
This is Tom’s recollection of the last weeks of his life. “Sammy returned from a doctor’s appointment with the news that he had very high blood pressure and heart murmurs. Sammy played at Preservation Hall that night and after another session with the Kid Thomas Band loaded their gear on to a bus outside the Hall on St. Peters Street and set off with Sammy for a tour through Georgia to Florida. After only one concert, the bus returned to the Hall with only the driver, the road manager and the body of Sammy Penn.
Talking to Barry Martyn, he rates Sammy Penn highly in great drummers from New Orleans. Sammy played 4/4 on the bass drum and not the more familiar cut time of New Orleans drummers. George Lewis preferred that 4/4 sound and Joe Watkins played that way, but without the explosive accents and complex rhythms of Sammy Penn. Barry had the good fortune to sit in with the Kid Thomas Band and found that he could not hear himself and had to adjust his volume and style to suit the band.
So Sammy Penn was the drummer for Kid Thomas and his Algiers Stompers and spent the major part of his playing life with that band. As Barry Martyn said “When Joe James and Sammy died the band would never be quite the same again”
To hear him at his best, you should listen to “Kid Thomas Valentine Creole Jazz Band on American Music AMCD 49 and “Kid Thomas and his Algiers Stompers” on Riverside OJCCD 1833-2. My great joy is actually seeing the man in action on a DVD of the December Band produced by Big Bill Bissonnette (possibly still available by contacting him on his Jazz Crusade website – jazzcrusade.com).
Sammy Penn was a one-off and we are lucky to have records to listen to. In Australia, the late great Peter Clohesy was influenced by him and in Europe both Keith Minter, Emile Martyn and Chris Marchant show signs of having listened to this “original”.
My next opus will be an interview with Les Muscutt -a superb banjo player from the U.K. who made a huge impression on the New Orleans jazz scene. Due to ill health, he retired recently and I am sure you will find his story interesting! P.S. A last minute call from Barry Martyn to say that his latest video on American Music AMVD4 will feature Kid Thomas with Sammy Penn, plus the Kid Howard band and many other good things!