There were hundreds if not thousands of heroes associated with the birth of rock and roll but the vast majority of them remain unsung. Only a handful them are still remembered as major figures. I’m talking about people like Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Last week we lost one of the people who very definitely belongs on that list, Fats Domino, and the sad fact is that only two pioneers, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, remain with us. Both of the piano-playing giants are well into their 80s and are said to be in declining health.
Today I want to celebrate Fats Domino because that’s the way it’s done in his beloved hometown of New Orleans. When someone dies in New Orleans people have a parade. They dance and sing and remember the good times. So it should be with Fats. I’m not going to try to relate the entirety of his storied life and career here. That would require a lengthy book. But I thought I would talk about his beginnings, and the record that put him, and New Orleans, on the musical map.
Antoine Dominique Domino, Jr. was born in the Crescent City’s fabled Ninth Ward and despite the fame and fortune that he acquired, he remained there until Hurricane Katrina drove him out. Fats was one of eight children born to Antoine Caliste Domino, a violin player, and Marie-Donatille Gros. Incidentally, the first name of every one of the children began with the letter ‘A.’ He quit school in the fourth grade to help support his family with a job assisting a man who delivered ice.
At the age of ten, Fats began to play the piano, with instruction from his brother-in-law, the jazz guitarist Harrison Verrett. Four years later, Fats was playing in local bars. At the time there was a popular band in town called the Solid Senders. The band was led by Billy Diamond and when Diamond heard Fats play at a barbecue, he invited him to join the band. The gig at the Hideaway in New Orleans paid $3 a week. It was Diamond who dubbed Antoine “Fats,” not so much because of his size but because he reminded the bandleader of legendary pianists Fats Waller and Fats Pichon. Fats Domino could do some eating though and that also contributed to the nickname.
By 1949, Fats had a record deal of his own with Imperial Records. He collaborated with producer Dave Bartholomew on a song called “The Fat Man.” If he put out a record with that title today it would be called building his brand. And yes, given its release date, “The Fat Man” is one of a handful of records that is in the discussion of the first rock and roll records.
So a now-legendary pianist, working with a now-legendary producer and recording in a now-legendary studio called J&M owned by the equally legendary Cosimo Matassa. Oh, and the backing musicians happened to include a drummer named Earl Palmer who also became, that’s right, legendary. The ingredients were all there for a perfect gumbo.
The shellac record was released in December 1949. Sadly, the shellac master has been missing for decades. If you hear the song now, you are hearing a recording made from masters of 78 RPM records that are still in good condition. The song itself was a variation on a traditional song called “Junker’s Blues.” That same song informed Lloyd Price’s hit “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” and “Tipitina” by Professor Longhair.
Nationally, “The Fat Man” began to get attention in January 1950. A month later it was in the Top 20 on the R&B chart. By 1953 the record had sold a million copies. Whether it was the first rock and roll record is and always will be the subject of debate, but it was certainly the first rock and roll record to be a million-seller. It marked a beginning for Fat’s Domino’s amazing career.
For Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew “The Fat Man” was the first in a long string of hits for Imperial Records that continued until 1962. You know these songs by heart. “Ain’t That a Shame,” “Blueberry Hill,” and “I’m Walking are just three of the titles from this remarkable period of hit-making.
So we say goodbye to Fats Domino and to an era that is quickly receding. And while we are sad to see him go, we will continue to play his music for as long as music is played, and it will continue to make us smile until that day when we join him on the other side.