At his peak, during rock’s first generation, he sold over 60 million records: more than Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Buddy Holly combined. He brought a New Orleans sound and vibe to the whole nation, adding vibrant new flavors to our national stew. He helped integrate America’s youth, attracting fans of every color and creed. But Antoine “Fats” Domino never lived the Rock God lifestyle. He is naturally shy. He performed behind his piano, where only his masterful playing was flamboyant. When not touring, he stayed close to his Ninth Ward home. His relative reclusiveness may have kept him from getting the full measure of recognition. As his disciple Dr. John said in a recent NY Times profile, “The planet missed out on certain things that Antoine was about. He’s the one who brought everything to fruition.” A recent documentary may help set the record a bit straighter.The Big Beat: Fats Domino and the Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll, timed to coincide with Fats’ 88th birthday, celebrates his brand of NOLA R&B-turned-rock-and-roll, and its absolutely profound influence on American music and culture.
Let’s start with the music. Fats was drawn to it from an early age, so much so that he quit school after fourth grade and worked in a factory so he could perform in local clubs. He mastered the boogie woogie piano style of heroes like Meade Lux Lewis and Pete Johnson; and the barrelhouse singing of Big Joe Turner and Louis Jordan.
The combination was potent, but the magic happened when Antoine paired with producer/songwriter/bandleader Dave Bartholomew, who co-wrote and produced most of Domino’s hits. Bartholomew led them to Cosimo Matassa, the legendary studio owner, engineer and producer (Little Richard, Ray Charles, Lloyd Price). Their first record together, The Fat Man, is arguably one of the first bona fide rock recordings.
They quickly developed the sound that made them famous: hooky melodies and lyrics; laid-back singing; striding piano and percussive horns that drove the rhythm. (Consider the horn part on Fats’ biggest hit, Ain’t That a Shame. “You Made…” BLAM! BLAM! “Me Cry…” BLAM! BLAM! James Brown famously treated every instrument like a drum, a lesson he may have learned from arrangements like these.)
Hits followed quickly — like Blueberry Hill, Blue Monday and Walking to New Orleans — as did the touring. And that’s where Fats made his second big impact.
In 1957 alone, the Domino band traveled 13,000 miles across the country, playing 355 sold-out shows, often for unprecedentedly integrated audiences. Domino biographer Rick Coleman explains:
“He [Domino] had four major riots at his shows partly because of integration; but also the fact they had alcohol at these shows. So they were mixing alcohol, plus dancing, plus the races together for the first time in a lot of these places. There was this historic moment in American history,” says Coleman. “People don’t really credit rock ‘n’ roll for integrating America, but it really did.”
The hits dried up after 1963 and The British Invasion, but Domino kept touring, sticking close to his musical roots, for the next 40 years; until his final public performance in 2006. Now back home, full-time, in New Orleans, maybe Fats is taking the time to enjoy the accolades, including the entirely-justifiable tribute in The Big Beat.
Photo credit: American pianist and singer-songwriter Fats Domino, 27th March 1967. (Photo by Clive Limpkin/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)