EXPIRED: 08/08/10 – Jack Parnell, 87, began drumming as a teenager and, even though he was primarily a jazz drummer, he probably influenced more kids to pound the drums than every rock drummer combined.
For it was Parnell who was Animal, the drummer of “The Muppet Show.”
That Parnell should have entered show business or become a musician was no surprise. Both his father and his grandfather were ventriloquists, working as Fred Russell and Russ Carr respectively, the elder of the two having changed his name to avoid association with an Irish politician named Parnell who caused a scandal in Victorian Britain when he was named in a divorce case. The horrors!
When Parnell was 10, his dad took him to see Duke Ellington’s band at the Palladium, with Sonny Greer on drums. He liked it so much he went to see it twice. He was sold.
During World War II he kept drumming by playing in a band at the Royal Air Force. When the war was over he provided the backbeat for the Ted Heath Jazz Band (not so well known here, but in the UK they were something) until 1951.
During this time, the UK music magazine, Melody Maker, voted him Best Drummer for7 years in a row.
As television crept into people’s homes he served as musical director for big budget variety shows like “Sunday Night at the London Palladium,” and off-color favorite “The Benny Hill Show.” In 1973, he became the first British musician to snag an Emmy, won for a Barbra Streisand special he produced.
Then, in 1976, he got involved with “The Muppet Show” a musical variety show with a cast of Jim Henson puppets and celebrity human guest stars. Parnell conducted the orchestra for the whole of the series’ five-year run, and was the inspiration for Animal. His connections got jazz greats like Buddy Rich and Lena Horne to appear on the show.
Although long retired, Parnell continued to drum with local jazz bands well into his 80’s. He celebrated his 87th birthday with a glass of bubbly just two days before his death.
Animal would approve.