Sunday, October 29, 2017

In Memoriam: Fats Domino 1928-2017


"Well, I wouldn't say that I started it (rock 'n' roll), but I don't remember anyone else before me playing that kind of stuff."

Domino was born and raised in--where else?--New Orleans.

Domino started playing pianos in bars when he was about 14 (apparently he wasn't carded.) He was a little older than that when he was hired to play piano for the Solid Senders. It was the leader of that band, Billy Diamond who gave the young Antoine (he was of French-Creole descent) his nickname "Fats" after piano players Fats Waller and Fats Pichon. And, yeah, Domino had a hearty appetite, so that had something to do with it, too.

Domino came to the attention of trumpeter-turned-record producer Dave Bartholomew, who signed him to the Imperial label. Together the two men wrote, and Domino sang and played the piano on, a 1949 recording called...

..."The Fat Man". Domino also supplied the "wah wahs".  

Domino, with Bartholomew's help, had a string of hits throughout the 1950s.

"Ain't That a Shame". Domino's first Top 10 hit,in 1955. Note the actual record had the WRONG title!

"Blueberry Hill", written in 1940, had previously been recorded by the Sammy Kaye Orchestra, Gene Krupa, Glenn Miller, Gene Autry (!), Jimmy Dorsey, and Louis Armstrong, but it became (most likely) forever identified with Domino, starting in 1956, when it went all the way to #2. It was his biggest hit.

"I'm Walkin'", 1957.

You may be curious about the quote at the top of this post. What does Domino mean he doesn't remember anyone recording that kind of stuff before him? What is he, a raving egomaniac? I doubt it. When he says people didn't play it before him, I think he was talking about folks, particularly white folks, like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, who hit the charts about the same time he did. The fact people WERE recording that kind of stuff before him. 10, 20, even 30 years before Domino. That's absurd, you say? Rock 'n' roll didn't come along until the 1950s. Well, yeah, if you're talking about rock 'n' roll LABLED rock 'n' roll. But listen to pre-World War II jazz sometimes, before Charlie Parker got his hands on it. Artists such as Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway recorded music that doesn't sound all that different from 1950s rock 'n' roll. Or listen to jazz's kid brother swing. White artists such as Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman (the Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis of their era)--well, if you had played one of their numbers at a 1959 sock hop, I'm not sure any of the teens dancing in the high school gym would have noticed the difference. Most of all, listen to a sub-genre of swing called boogie-woogie (as well as the closely related jump blues, and the more countrified honky-tonk) Many of the artists and songs are obscure now, but I'm sure you've been exposed to at least two boogie-woogie songs in a rather unusual place: animated cartoons. Ever see the one Tom and Jerry short where the feline dresses up in a zoot suit and sings "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby?"  Tell me that song (originally recorded by Louis Jordan) doesn't sound a lot like 1950s rock. Or maybe Walt Disney is more to your liking. Watch Dumbo sometimes. The racial stereotyping is unfortunate, I'll admit, but when Jim Crow and his pals (actually white jazzman Cliff Edwards a.k.a. Ukulele Ike) performs "When I See an Elephant Fly" , it rocks!

So why does most everyone think that rock 'n' roll started in the 1950s? Well, after World War II, swing, boogie woogie, whatever you call it, fell out of favor. Jazz, in the form of bebop, became intellectualized (whether performers such as Parker saw themselves as intellectuals or not.) As a now Depression-free and war-free America became a much more mellow place, so did its listening habits. Artists such as Doris Day, Patti Page, Perry Como, and Johnny Mathis ruled the airways. I personally don't have a problem with their kind of music (which is now almost extinct) but had I been a teenager in the 1950s, I probably would have found it boring, as did many teens at the time. So when the new/old music now called rock 'n' roll came along, kids found it new and exciting, and THAT'S what I think Domino meant. 

Of course, in the coming decades, music would become even more novel and exciting, even revolutionary, probably too revolutionary for the likes of Fats Domino, who fell out of favor. He nonetheless earned a living on the nostalgia circuit, and, as I understand it, continued to keep fans satisfied.



  1. Hi, Kirk!

    Is it just my imagination or is the grim reaper working overtime this year harvesting titans of rock and R&B? With rock 'n' roll pioneer Chuck Berry over on the other side since March of this year and Petty and Domino passing away in recent weeks I am reminded of the Righteous Brothers singing "If there's a rock 'n' roll heaven, well you know they've got a hell of a band."

    You did a fine job of paying tribute to Fats Domino, my friend. Some of my earliest childhood memories are linked to Fats. My parents and my big brother both dug his music and bought his 45s. In the mid 50s, around age five, I was already busy playing DJ in our subterranean game room, spinning stax 'o' wax on my tiny tinny turntable. My favorite Fats Domino record then and now is "I'm Walkin'" which, by the way, was covered nicely later that year (1957) by Ricky Nelson, another fallen great. Around 1969/70 I got caught up in the wave of nostalgia that was sweeping the nation and started collecting oldies. That's when I purchased a Fats Domino anthology double album that had all his best recordings starting with "The Fat Man."

    I was saddened to learn that Fats had his home and office destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and that he and his family needed to be rescued by helicopter. That ordeal must have taken a lot out of the Fat Man because he stopped performing live shows shortly thereafter.

    With Chuck and Fats gone, my attention now turns to another all time great, Little Richard, the self-proclaimed "architect of rock 'n' roll." Richard Penniman got started making recordings in 1951, a year after Fats. Little Richard will be age 85 in December.

    Thanks for putting together a great article saluting Fats Domino, good buddy Kirk, and have a super week ahead!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Shady, and thanks for reminding me about Chuck Berry. When he died earlier this year I was in the middle of writing a tribute to Mary Tyler Moore, and so put him on the back burner. He's definitely on my to-do list.

      I remember that shortly after Katrina hit, Domino couldn't be located for awhile. In his absence, someone spray painted "R.I.P Fats. YOU WILL BE MISSED." But Domino was still alive, having been rescued by helicopter.

      Yes, there's still Little Richard. He was perhaps the wildest '50s rocker of them all. Ooh!

  2. I loved Fats Domino and Walking to New Orleans is my all time favorite.
    I remember lining up and then "Strolling".
    Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Roy Orbison all the greats.

    cheers, parsnip

    1. I agree, parsnip. Love those '50s rockers. Thanks for commenting.

  3. Replies
    1. '50s cool, Debra. It had risen quite a bit by the '70s, though Domino never sported what you might call an Afro.