Music

Fats Domino: Born to Please

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Everyone who knew Fats Domino, who died at 89 on October 24 just outside the New Orleans he loved, reports that he was shy —painfully, perhaps pathologically shy. By the standards of Fifties rock ’n’ roll, this is tantamount to calling him a Martian. Chuck Berry? Little Richard? Jerry Lee Lewis? Bo Diddley? Etta James? Shy? Nah. Buddy Holly or Sam Cooke? Careerist visionaries who remembered their manners. Arguably Carl Perkins, who, like Domino, needed to get loaded to perform.

I’ve left one candidate unmentioned, however: mama’s boy Elvis Presley. Elvis got over it as Domino never did. But before he patented his politeness-with-a-sneer, there was definitely some shy in him. And what else did Elvis and Fats have in common? Simple — they were the biggest hitmakers of Fifties rock ’n’ roll by far. Of course Berry and the rest tried to please, and did. But for Fats and Elvis, pleasing the audience was a more urgent matter. Try to imagine Chuck Berry or even Carl Perkins singing “Let me be your teddy bear” like Elvis — or covering the decades-old Guy Lombardo smash “What’s the Reason (I’m Not Pleasing You)” like Fats.

The B side of 1957’s No. 5 “Blue Monday,” “What’s the Reason (I’m Not Pleasing You),” didn’t quite go Top 40. But over an eight-year span between 1955 and 1962, 35 other tracks Domino cut in New Orleans for the Los Angeles–based Imperial label did, all produced by legendary bandleader Dave Bartholomew and engineered by legendary studio owner Cosimo Matassa, with legendary drummer Earl Palmer pitching in early. Elvis was up over fifty Top 40 records by 1962, but unless you count balladeering imposter Pat Boone, the next nearest was Ricky Nelson, who launched his singing career in 1957 by covering the then-current Fats hit “I’m Walkin’.” Fats was the only black rock ’n’ roller who was a full-fledged pop star, and he did it without discernible commercial calculation — he played what he liked.

This is hardly to claim that Antoine Domino didn’t want to make money from his music. The youngest of eight children, he was born in 1928 to a deeply country, Creole-speaking family recently resettled in New Orleans’s undeveloped Lower Ninth Ward. Because he was shy, he quit school in fourth grade for a succession of low-paying jobs, the last and best in a mattress factory. But there were many semi-professional musicians in his sizable extended family, and even before he’d quit school a brother-in-law had taught him to play boogie-woogie piano, which he took to. By fifteen or so he was entertaining the customers at house parties his sister put on, and after the war, music became a second job for him. Soon enough arrived his break. On December 10, 1949, Bartholomew and Domino transformed Champion Jack Dupree’s “The Junker’s Blues” into “The Fat Man,” where Domino’s pounding, unusually steady left hand proved a prophetic intimation of the unrelenting beat that would come to define rock.

“The Fat Man” was the first of a long string of r&b hits for Domino, but it was more than five years before his “Ain’t That a Shame” would reach the pop charts in 1955, breaking a month before Berry’s “Maybellene” and a full eight months before Elvis’s “Heartbreak Hotel.” Of course it was Presley who broke open the teen market where Fats would thrive — it wasn’t until the summer of 1956 that “I’m in Love Again” established Domino once and for all. But that song was so infectious that it is mere cynicism to believe it wouldn’t have been a hit regardless. Working in tandem, Domino, Bartholomew, Palmer, and Imperial’s Lew Chudd — who among other things made Domino sound younger by mastering his records to lift the key half a tone — came up with a simplification of the ingratiating Big Easy groove that had to be good for at least a healthy fad. “Whapping out triplets in the right hand and thumping left-hand power chords instead of walking basses,” as Ned Sublette put it, Domino had achieved a minimalist boogie-woogie and straight-ahead second line that moved his hometown crowd, and it was ready for export.

Domino obviously didn’t approach the technical mastery of the decade-older New Orleans piano prodigy Professor Longhair or the decade-younger James Booker. Nor was he as adaptable as the decade-younger studio whizzes Huey Smith and Dr. John. But while the piano was his anchor, his hits weren’t instrumentals. He was a singer, and if Peter Guralnick was right to observe fondly that he had “great charm but little charisma,” that was exactly the point. Domino’s voice was warm, rolling, deeply relaxed, and strikingly legible given its high drawl quotient — a remarkably unremarkable instrument that was the very definition of affability. Moreover, this affability extended to his material. “Blue Monday” is a class-conscious plaint that presages the many living-for-the-weekend larks rock ’n’ roll would make its own, “I’m Walkin’ ” bemoans his loneliness at a double-time pace that sounds very much like fun, and “I Want to Walk You Home” gave a faraway bassist the idea of calling one of his raucous tunes “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Fats covered country songs as if he was born to them, which he was, and pop standards as if he’d loved them since childhood, which he had. And then there’s what Cosimo Matassa once told Domino biographer Rick Coleman: “Fats made things his own. Even on little frothy tunes whipped up in the studio, the phrasing and delivery was always Fats. It’s an amazing singularity I think most artists would die for.”

Instead, Fats Domino lived for it. As a genuine pop star, he spent years headlining the package tours that brought interracial consciousness to teen America in the late Fifties. Sometimes he was the soul of geniality and sometimes he wasn’t so affable about it — for good reasons like holding out for full integration and bad ones like epic drunks or the lure of New Orleans. And like almost every other Fifties rocker, he couldn’t adjust to the Sixties or what followed. Inevitably, the hits stopped coming.

Loving bling as much as any rapper, Fats still wanted to make money from his music, so kept performing. As always, he comforted himself by cooking on the road, and combatted his shyness by drinking on the road. He played Vegas and lost big at the tables. He embraced the oldies circuit. He played Vegas and cut down on his gambling. He toured Europe. He toured with Rick Nelson. He lost two guitarists to heroin. He accepted the honors and TV specials that came his way. But as he aged, hanging in there got harder for this shy man. When Katrina hit in 2005, the rumor that he’d died in his flooded Ninth Ward house served as a needed reminder that he was still with us. In fact, he’d been rescued early, and brought with his wife to live with one of their eight children. He didn’t disappear — even released a pretty good Katrina charity album. But he remained a shy man until he went gentle into an unusually private night.

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