One of the early progenitors of rock ‘n’ roll, Fats Domino may not have the same status in rock that Louis Armstrong had in jazz, but they had two things in common. Both learned their chops in New Orleans, and both loved to make music that made people happy.
Louis Armstrong was a musical genius whose influence can be felt in nearly all forms of popular music that followed him. As many have said, it’s impossible to overestimate his reach. Fats Domino was never the innovator that Armstrong was, but along with others like Arthur Crudup, Ruth Brown and Johnny Otis, he was a key part of the evolution of R&B into what we call rock ‘n’ roll. Fats thought it was funny that people made such a big deal out of the distinction. “Everybody started callin’ my music rock and roll, but it wasn’t anything but the same rhythm and blues I’d been playin’ down in New Orleans.” According to the scholars, the difference is rock’s pronounced emphasis on beats two and four, especially four: the backbeat. You can hear this more clearly in early Little Richard than you can in Fats Domino, though you do hear the backbeat emphasis on “Fat Man,” one of the many contenders for the title of first rock ‘n’ roll song.
We’ll leave all that for the musicologists to sort out and let Fats make us happy. He’s really very good at it. Whenever I’m in a funk, feeling stale or in need of a musical recharge, I’ll often play Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives or Hot Sevens, or a little Fats Domino to restore my spirits and bring a smile to my face.
The Fats Domino Jukebox is a hoot! Fans can argue about the quality of various compilations, but really, you can put almost any twenty Fats Domino songs on a record and make a great compilation. The Jukebox has the bulk of his hits from his peak years of 1949-1961 with Imperial, and while we can piss and moan about the exclusion of “I Hear You Knocking,” hey! This is Fats Domino! Stop whining and enjoy the man!
“The Fat Man”: Goddamn, I love pre-stereo recordings, the more primitive the better! They’re the musical equivalent of black-and-white photography, where all the distracting color noise is stripped away so your brain can process form more efficiently. Here the form is drawn by the rhythm, and while it may sound small and compressed into a very tiny sound field, that rhythm has ten times the power of drums and bass amplified to fill football stadiums because there are fewer distractions: the groove is the figure in your perceptual field. “You got to keep a good beat,” Fats told Downbeat magazine, explaining the secret of his success, and “The Fat Man” is a pristine example of a song where every element springs from that slightly modified boogie-woogie rhythm. Your head starts bobbing after a single measure, your feet start tapping after the fourth, and when Fats comes in with a vocal flavored by feel rather than hampered by precision, your entire body gets into the act. When he does his muted cornet imitation to fill the space for the solo instrumental passage, you’re all smiles. And while he may not have been Art Tatum, Fats had very nimble fingers and was fabulous at doing the most important thing: keeping the good beat. The song rocks all the way to the classic close.
“The Fat Man” also works as a time capsule left for the inhabitants of a health nazi culture of the future . . . one just like ours! Fats feels no shame whatsoever about his 5’5”, 220-pound frame—again, because the man knows what’s important in life:
They call, they call me the fat man
‘Cause I weigh two hundred pounds
All the girls they love me
‘Cause I know my way around
As of this writing, Fats Domino is eighty-six years old, having survived a lifetime eating New Orleans cuisine, a saturated fat fan’s dream. My theory is that having a good time and actually enjoying life is a much healthier way to live than basing one’s existence on the paranoid pronouncements of medical professionals. Here he is pushing 60—he looks pretty happy and healthy to me! And how on earth does he play the piano with all that bling on his fingers?
“Goin’ Home”: Fats is on his game in this slow blues number supported by seductive horns and a pretty stable rhythm. I say “pretty stable” because there’s a hiccup on the bass drum right before Herbert Hardesty’s tenor sax solo that sounds like the drummer was trying to kill a cockroach. He probably was, since they were recording in New Orleans. The only thing I hated about New Orleans were all those fucking bugs. Yecch!
“Going to the River”: This one slipped into the top 30 in 1953. Fats co-wrote many of his songs with producer and arranger Dave Bartholomew, and this is a classic blues number about a guy who’s going to go to the river and “jump overboard and drown” because his baby’s left town. Although Fats is more famous for his cheerier numbers, he sings this sucker convincingly, like he has tears in his eyes and desolation in his heart. Sad it may be, but it’s a beautiful and sincere performance.
“Ain’t That a Shame?”: Fats Domino’s breakthrough hit peaked at #10 and would have gone to #1 if a.) Imperial Records hadn’t been a podunk label and b.) he’d been a white guy. The truly scary Pat Boone took his highly sanitized version to #1. Did you know that Pat Boone wanted to change the title and the lyrics to “Isn’t It a Shame?” Is that one fucking committed white boy or what? Look, I don’t care if it’s Pat Boone, The Four Seasons or Cheap Trick, no one did this song as well as Fats Domino. The difference in his version is his restrained, clipped vocal, which mirrors the real sentiments expressed in the lyrics: the bitch has burned him, but that’s all over now and he’s moving on. “Oh, well, goodbye.” Shit happens. The guitar and horn accompaniment are equally low-key but very tight; every element in the song supports the all-important beat. You don’t need to rock out full blast or overdo the vocal on this song; to do it right you need the New Orleans touch, nice and easy. Woman’s gone? There are plenty of others showing off their tits on Bourbon Street. Laissez les bon temps rouler!
I do have to add that I am terribly fond of one Pat Boone song: “Love Letters in the Sand.” The bastard whistles on it. I’m a whore for whistling.
“All By Myself”: Sigh. This energetic and delightful follow-up to “Ain’t That a Shame?” made it to #1 on the R&B charts but completely failed to penetrate the pop charts. The segregation of music during this era is befuddling to me. I realize that the African-American performers didn’t have the promo money available to the white stars, but man, those were the people making the best music! Didn’t that count for anything? I can answer my own question, thank you. I love Fats’ vocal here, sung with a wink in his eye and a wallet full of dough ready to treat his lady to a good time. The sax solo is first-class, and the occasional skipping of measures sustains the interest.
“Poor Me”: Now this is fascinating. This is another song that failed to get through to the white people of the time, though a year later they would hear almost the exact same piano runs used in a song that became Fats’ biggest hit. Fats is in total command of the vocal, absolutely killing it on the stop time segments even though the third line requires a very dexterous tongue and command of the scale to fit the syllables into a very short interval. The instrumental passage is rock solid with some great cymbal work . . . shee-it, people of the 50’s! What the fuck was wrong with you?
“I’m in Love Again”: Success! At last! All the way up to #3! ‘Bout fucking time! One of Fats’ most joyful vocals, sung in fabulously high spirits and strongly supported by some great R&B backing, this just had to make the top ten. There’s the great sax solo from Lee Allen, the rollicking piano from Antoine (Fats’ real name) and that great line, “Baby, don’t you let your dog bite me.” Oo-eee!
So what happened between November 1955, when “Poor Me” languished in obscurity, and March 1956 to open the ears of the white American public? Rosa Parks’ arrest? The Montgomery Bus Boycott? The lunar eclipse? What happened was the result of what MLK referred to as “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism”—the “go slow, give people time” approach to human rights. The segregationist mindset (subtle in the North, legal and sanctioned in the South) in the USA was just beginning to crack, and progress on that front was slow and uneven. As late as 1948, R&B was still classified as “race music.” While Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby had smashed baseball’s barrier in 1947, the Boston Red Sox wouldn’t break until Pumpsie Green got the call in 1959. While the historical persistence of segregation infuriates me, it’s more than just being pissed off about politics. Real people got hurt by segregation; in this context, some of the most talented musicians of their era didn’t get the respect or the money they deserved. I’m glad Fats finally became a regular visitor to the hit parade, but he should have achieved that status much sooner.
“Blueberry Hill”: Louis Armstrong, among many others, sang “Blueberry Hill” long before it became Fats’ signature song, and in nine cases out of ten I prefer Satchmo’s versions of popular songs. Not this time. Fats is perfect for this song, laying back and singing it with the tone of someone reliving a special romantic moment tinged with a touch of melancholy. His Creole accent gives his phrasing a certain charm that mellows his vocal and gives it a sincerity that is hard to match. The arrangement is simply marvelous, especially in the gorgeous subtlety of the horns. It’s also extremely refreshing to hear Fats work with a song with greater chordal complexity than the classic three-chord blues structure. What’s remarkable about the performance is that its smoothness is partially engineered: the final version was pieced together from several takes. Dave Bartholomew didn’t even want Fats to record the song, but the Fat Man won out . . . and a rock ‘n’ roll classic was born. “Blueberry Hill” made it to #2, which was as high as Fats would ever get on the pop charts.
“Blue Monday”: “Blue Monday” ranks right up there with “Take This Job and Shove It” as one of the great “work sucks” songs in popular music history. In “Blue Monday,” the object of the animus isn’t the asshole boss, it’s the pattern of workweek exhaustion. The more things change, the more they stay the same, though now it’s more mental and spiritual exhaustion instead of physical and spiritual exhaustion. Fats changed the lyrics from the Dave Bartholomew original, choosing to emphasize the grind by including every lousy stinking day of every lousy stinking workweek (Dave jumped from Wednesday to Saturday):
Blue Monday, how I hate Blue Monday
Got to work like a slave all day
Here come Tuesday, oh hard Tuesday
I’m so tired got no time to play
Here come Wednesday, I’m beat to my socks
My gal calls, got to tell her that I’m out
‘Cause Thursday is a hard workin’ day
And Friday I get my pay
Saturday mornin’, oh Saturday mornin’
All my tiredness has gone away
Got my money and my honey
And I’m out on the stand to play
Sunday mornin’ my head is bad
But it’s worth it for the times that I’ve had
But I’ve got to get my rest
‘Cause Monday is a mess
Most notable from a musical perspective is Hardesty’s eight-bar baritone sax solo on the original; the lower reach of the baritone seriously reinforces the down feeling of the lyrics. Hardesty had never played baritone sax before, but he was apparently a pretty quick study: the solo is absolutely perfect for this melancholy song.
“I’m Walkin'”: This song made it four top 10 hits in a row for Fats! Good for him! A dance floor special that lets you swing and twirl your honey at high-speed, there was no way this was not going to be a hit in the dance-crazy Happy Days year of 1957. Hardesty kicks ass with the sax, and Fats is having the time of his life doing what he does best: making people happy. Ricky Nelson’s version reached the same heights as Fats’ version (#4), thanks to the power of daddy’s television show. I find that outrageous: Ricky Nelson sang this song with zero energy, zero emotion, zero life—and it should have wound up at #0 on the charts.
“It’s You I Love”: Fats was on a roll at this point, and both sides of a rather unremarkable single made it to the top 10. This Latin-influenced tempo lacks the strong beat and forward movement in most of his work. The background singers are a drag, but not nearly as much of a drag as the background singers on the flip side.
“Valley of Tears”: I hate angelic anything in the background of any song. This sounds like it might be a trio or a quartet but I don’t care if it turned out to be The Mormon Fucking Tabernacle Choir, get the fuck out of my earphones!
“Whole Lotta Loving”: After an 18-month slump in the pop charts, Fats gets back into high gear and into the top 10 with a hand-clapping, kiss-smacking barrel of fun. It’s nice to hear him get an extended piano solo, but being true to his music philosophy, he uses the time to accentuate the rhythm with the piano’s powers of percussion rather than dazzle us with melodic runs. Fats knew exactly who he was and who he wasn’t, and he wasn’t Duke Ellington or Oscar Peterson.
“I Want to Walk You Home”: Fats sure did a lot of walking for a big guy! This sweet and easy number is endlessly delightful. I love the way he refuses to Boone-icize his work when he sings: “I wants to walk you home.” It sounds so much more real and sincere than the correct verb agreement. I also love the way the verses end with syllabically-packed lines that roll off his tongue with ease, soaked in the rum of his marvelous accent. The guitar counterpoint is solid, and even better when it shifts to rhythmic reinforcement with some unusually rough chords for the era.
“I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday”: The B-side to “I Want to Walk You Home” gives Fats more opportunity for more vertical melodic movement than most of his songs. He even gets to throw in a glide and makes a game attempt at glissandi . . . but really, this isn’t one of his better numbers. Too jittery.
“Be My Guest”: A nice roller that’s rhythmically similar to “I’m Walking,” the lyrics are full of dance references: Suzy Q, Lindy Hop, The Stroll. It made it to the top ten, but I don’t know . . . Fats sounds like he’s getting a bit tired here. Is his tank running dry? Mellowing out, perhaps?
“Walking to New Orleans”: Enter Bobby Charles, a younger songwriter who idolized Fats. The story is that Fats had recorded one of his songs, and while on tour in Lafayette, he invited Bobby into his dressing room. As hospitable as his public persona would have us believe, he then invited the younger man to visit him in his home in New Orleans. Bobby said he didn’t have a car and would have to walk. That tiny utterance inspired Bobby to write “Walking to New Orleans” for Fats in fifteen minutes. Bobby eventually made his way to The Big Easy and played it for Fats, who tinkered with the lyrics and put it to record. Only afterwards did Dave Bartholomew decide to overdub the mimicking strings that give the song a more melancholy feel. The ironic beauty of the song is that though Fats is walking home because his girl played him for a sap and spent all his money, Fats sounds positively joyful about going home. His vocal is completely sincere, heartfelt and god, I love the way he drops the “s” on New Orleans. The character of this song may have been a sign that Fats did indeed want to take it down a notch, but at least he made his last trip to the top 10 a memorable one.