One of Houlton’s finest men of music turned ninety on August 22, 2009, and we celebrate, we honor, his talent and his life.
Rodney Palmer was born into a musical family in Island Falls, Maine. His father, Kenneth, played the cornet and his mother, Pearl, played the piano. Rodney and his siblings, all good musicians, grew up on family evenings of singing and playing together.
When Rodney was 12 or 13, he began to play cornet with father in the Island Falls town band; many was the afternoon he rushed home after school to practice up in the attic. He joined Ronald Martin’s Island Falls dance band at age 14, a gig that lasted through high school and took him to all the local dance halls, including Birch Point and Nickerson Lake Pavilions. In 1937, the summer after Rodney’s graduation, Floyd Cropley out of Danforth was putting together a dance band made up of mostly Boston musicians. He heard about the young trumpet player and invited him to audition – so his father gave him a tuxedo and put him on a bus to Newport, Maine to try out. Rod spent that summer traveling the state in an 8-passenger Buick, instruments strapped to the top, playing such venues as Skowhegan, Dover-Foxcroft, and Long Lake, near Portage. The pay was minimal and the work was hard – but it was great music and Rodney learned much from the other band members.
By the time he entered Rick Junior College that fall, Rodney had started arranging music. College band director Harold Inman put that gift to use, paying him $50 to arrange at Ricker, playing for school dances and balls. Rodney Continued playing, arranging, and band leading after graduation. He worked for Paul Jackins Potato Brokers in Houlton, but his weekends and evenings were filled with music, playing with various individuals and groups – and he took a week’s vacation to tour New Hampshire with the Paul Wallace Band out of Boston.
Rodney also formed his own dance band that played through out the 1940s and often included students, such as Carl Young, Bob Hogan, Charlie Wood and Gordon Bither, as well as adults; sometimes his wife Janice sang with the band. From the dance hall at Knowles Corner to Ginns Pavillion near Fort Fairfield to University of Maine faternities, The Rodney Palmer Band entertained with jazz and swing tunes arranged by their leader. He also played, through the ’40s and ’50s, with other musicians of Houlton, including pianist Coretta Ingraham, Mose Wise, Buck Morris, Paul Davenport, Chick Currie, and Oscar Grant, and with Houlton’s town band directed by Bert Wetmore, Emmons Robinson and Joe Robinson. Later, he teamed up at various times with Paul LaPointe, Scott Emack and Tim Humphry, playing wedding receptions and special events. He has been a member of McGill’s Community Band for over 20 years.
While the music of Rodney’s childhood home surrounded him, and an early teacher introduced him to the scale, Rod is largely self-taught. His own reading, the attention he paid to other musicians with whom he worked, and his personal experience playing and arranging all supplemented his enormous gift for music.
Included in the instruments he has played are trumpet, piano, flute and trombone. Much of the tiny apartment in which he and Janice started out was occupied by an enormous piano and string bass; a Hammond B Organ, along with various music equipment, have also filled their homes. Rod plays – and transposes – by ear as well as by reading music, and he has a talent for hearing a tune, such as an old radio Hit Parade song his wife might sing for him, and writing it down. His own arrangements, lost tragically in a 1948 fire, included the interesting harmonies and instrumentations that fascinate him.
While his forte is jazz, he learned at different times bee-bop and early rock styles, Latin rhythms, and Dixieland. Rodney Palmer continues to play, continues to learn from other musicians, and continues to share his music with style and spirit. At 90 years old, sure he is a gift and a blessing, a special part of the Music Town of Maine.