If Elvis Presley personified the sex appeal of early rock ’n’ roll, and Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard channeled the danger lurking within this unbridled form of youthful expression, then Fats Domino was the living embodiment of the pure joy that was an integral part of the musical sea-change that revolutionized world culture in the 1950s.
The argument over exactly where rock ’n’ roll began has been debated for decades. But I’ve long argued that well before Bill Haley & His Comets set teens hopping in 1955 with “Rock Around the Clock,” before Elvis first got teens quaking a year earlier with “That’s All Right,” even before Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats (which in reality was Ike Turner and His Kings of Rhythm) weaved wicked double entendres into a rollicking rock workout called “Rocket 88” in 1951, there was Antoine “Fats” Domino.
In 1949, he recorded “The Fat Man,” an exuberant, jumping track that has all the elements that would come to define the genre.
Instead of the swinging rhythm that heavily emphasized the second and fourth beats of each measure common to so much jump blues and R&B of the late-1940s, “The Fat Man” was built instead on a steady pounding beat from Domino’s left hand in the lower half of the piano keyboard pushing the song along, the driving four pulse that was a signature of rock ’n’ roll.
The lyric also conveyed a sexy swagger even though Domino didn’t cut the lithe figure that Presley, Lewis, Richard and others did — hence his nickname. Yet his celebrated girth was no impediment to his confidence in the ways of romance:
They call me the Fat Man
’Cause I weigh 200 pounds
All the girls they love me
’Cause I know my way around
When I asked Led Zeppelin lead singer Robert Plant on Wednesday, the day after Domino’s death at age 89, about the pioneer’s influence on him and his peers, he zeroed in on just those elements.
“How lucky for me to be a kid and grow up with his funness and kindness, because it came out of the records,” Plant said. “It was a coy exuberance in the way it worked with [collaborator/producer] Dave Bartholomew. I guess he actually kind of carried the torch for happy singing.
Roughly 30 years ago, I caught Domino perform in his hometown of New Orleans at the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival. He was being feted as one of the pioneers of New Orleans rock ’n’ roll and rhythm and blues, and was literally the poster boy for the 1989 edition of Jazz Fest.
Still, it was apparent he was struggling with health issues at the time, when he was 60.
It was something of a workout for him to ascend the stairs that led to the stage where his piano awaited. But as soon as he sat down at the bench that for so many years was home to him, he turned toward the crowd, beamed a smile as wide as the Mississippi, applied his sausage-like fingers, one of which was decorated with a spectacular bejeweled ring in the shape of a grand piano, and proceeded to tickle, stroke and pound the ivories as he spun out one effervescent hit after another.
He personified the spirit of the city 17 years later when, even though he wasn’t able to perform, he showed up for the closing day of Jazz Fest in 2006, the first major cultural event following the devastation wrought upon the Gulf Coast eight months earlier by Hurricane Katrina.
On the final day of the 2006 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Fats Domino was unable to perform, but he did make an appearance.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
A picture taken on October 20, 1962 shows pianist and signer-songwriter Fats Domino performing on the piano at the Palais des Sports in Paris.(AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on July 20, 1985 shows Fats Domino attending the ‘Grande Parade du Jazz’ event in Nice, southern France.(RALPH GATTI / AFP/Getty Images)
Jerry Lee Lewis, from left, Fats Domino and James Brown pose at a reception where they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York on Jan. 23, 1986.(G. Paul Burnett / Associated Press)
Music legend Fats Domino performs on the NBC “Today” television show in New York. D(RICHARD DREW / Associated Press)
Then-President George W. Bush talks with Fats Domino, left, in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans in August 2006 to commemorate the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.(AFP / Getty Images)
Fats Domino checks in on the rebuilding of his home in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward in March 2007.(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)
Fats Domino performs before a sold-out crowd at the famed Tipitina’s nightclub in New Orleans in May 2007, his first performance since Hurricane Katrina. Domino was playing in Big Easy clubs by the time he was a teen.(Tipitina’s Foundation )
The singer, composer and pianist in 1956.(Associated Press)
Domino performs on the NBC’s “Today” show in New York in November 2007.(Richard Drew / Associated Press)
Fats Domino waves to fans before a November 2008 ceremony re-presenting two Grammy awards to replace the ones that he lost during flooding from Hurricane Katrina at his New Orleans home.(Cheryl Gerber / Associated Press)
Fats Domino visits with Little Richard in a dressing room in May 2009 after Richards’ performance at the Domino Effect, a tribute concert for Domino, at the New Orleans Arena.(Associated Press)
Other early rockers tapped more into the blues side of the blues, R&B, country, folk and gospel amalgam that fueled what soon became known as rock ’n’ roll. But the records that put Domino on the map largely left the spiritual angst to others.
“You made me cry / When you said goodbye,” he sang in the opening line of “Ain’t That A Shame,” his 1955 hit that spent 11 weeks at the top of Billboard’s R&B charts, and went to No. 10 on the Hot 100 pop chart. “Ain’t that a shame / My tears fell like rain.”
Although the words were downhearted, the spirit of the song was undeniably up. The implicit message: He may have experienced heartbreak, but he wasn’t about to let that take him down.
Like Chuck Berry, who was born a little more than a year before Fats came into the world on Feb. 26, 1928, Domino was nearly a decade older than Presley and Lewis and several other first-generation rockers. That meant that to many teens of the ’50s, he came across more like a genial uncle than a peer or an object of romantic infatuation.
Like so many of that class of rock pioneers, his career slowed considerably at the end of the ’50s. “Walking to New Orleans,” released in 1960, reached No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100, the final Top 10 record of his career.
Nevertheless, he placed a couple dozen more songs further down that chart right up through 1964, when the arrival of the Beatles and the British Invasion rendered so many rock artists virtually irrelevant.
Ironically, Domino’s final appearance on the Billboard Hot 100 was his 1968 recording of the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna,” the original being something of a tribute by Paul McCartney and his fellow Liverpudlians to the exuberant American music that inspired them to take up instruments.
Yet I keep going back the unbridled joy that Domino projected from the very beginning.
“The Fat Man” was his first collaboration with Bartholomew, a noted New Orleans producer, songwriter, trumpet player, bandleader and talent scout who first heard Domino playing at the Hideaway Club, then one of the hottest nightspots in New Orleans, and soon they became songwriting partners.
Following the first two verses, Domino begins singing what sounds like an imitation of a trombone or trumpet solo.
Perhaps it was a financial issue, and they couldn’t afford to hire an additional horn player on that first session, but hearing Domino warbling “Wah-wah, wah-wah” over that irresistible beat during the solo break never fails to bring a smile to my face.
It set the tone for the quality that made him a musical treasure: pure joy
Follow @RandyLewis2 on Twitter.com
For Classic Rock coverage, join us on Facebook