He hooked up with Tab Smith four days after hitting town and went on to play with Billy Hick's Sizzling Six, the Roy Eldridge Orchestra, and a memorable six years with Lucky Millinder's Orchestra at the Savoy Ballroom. Panama often played with bands at the famed Savoy Ballroom in Harlem which was known as the "home of the happy feet." Panama recalls, "back then, jazz was something else!
The music and dance were one! I would look out on the dance floor and hundreds of people were all over the place... on the floor... swingin' and having a good time." The Savoy Sultans, according to Dizzy Gillespie, "were the swingingest band there ever was."
Panama spent five years with Cab Calloway and was featured on many Calloway recordings. He played a stint with Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, Ray Conniff and Sy Oliver before becoming one the most successful studio drummers ever.
Panama's exceptional competence and swing enabled him to record with artists as varied as John Lee Hooker, Eubie Blake, Ella Fitzgerald, Illinois Jacquet, Ray Charles, Mahalia Jackson and Big Joe Turner. During the onset of mainstream Rhythm & Blues and Rock-n-Roll, Panama became the busiest and most sought after studio drummer around. Panama was the drummer on the original demo of then, heart-throb... Elvis Presley. His identifiable drum beat enlivened the music of such Rock-n-Roll greats as Buddy Holly ("Peggy Sue"), Four Seasons ("Big Girls Don't Cry" and "Walk Like a Man"), Pretenders ("Only You," "The Great Pretender," "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" and "My Prayer"), Bobby Darren ("Splish Splash"), and Neil Sedaka ("Calendar Girl"). His Rhythm and Blues recordings include "Prisoner of Love" for James Brown, "What a Difference a Day Makes" for Dinah Washington, "Drown in My Own Tears" for Ray Charles, and "Jim Dandy" for Laverne Baker.
In 1979, Panama Francis reestablished the Savoy Sultans and achieved almost overnight success, receiving the 1980 New York Jazz Award for the Best New Group. Since then, the Savoy Sultans have been touring and recording six albums, two of which were nominated for Grammy Awards. From 1980 through 1985, the Sultans enjoyed a residence at New York's prestigious Rainbow Room.
Panama also appeared in several films with Cab Calloway, "Angel Heart" (with Mickey Rourke and Lisa Bonet), "Lady Sings the Blues" (with Diana Ross, Richard Pryor, Billy Dee Williams, and Gordon Parks), "The Learning Tree," and "Rock Around the Clock." More recently, Panama Francis can be seen in the MTV and VH-1 chart-busting Madonna playback, "Secrets."
Panama Francis became the first musician to be recognized by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in 1993 and was also inducted into the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Panama's drum sticks are on display at the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame to commemorate the musical artistry and lifelong contributions Panama has made to twentieth century American music. To date, Panama Francis and the Savoy Sultans are still actively touring, recording and performing with the same excitement and spirit that gave the original Savoy Sultans their legendary status.