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Fats Domino

One of the rock’n’roll/R&B pioneers, charismatic New Orleans legend FATS DOMINO was the biggest star to take popular music from its roots in swing music to boogie-woogie. An easy-going piano player and baritone singer, the 16-stone, 5 foot 4 inch “Fats” – nicknamed so by his bass player Billy Diamond – rolled off hit after hit, many of them sheer classics, including `The Fat Man’ (his ground-breaking debut 78), `Ain’t That A Shame’ (his first crossover hit), `Blueberry Hill’ (a timeless tune), `I’m In Love Again’ and `Blue Monday’. A subsequent line through CHUCK BERRY, JERRY LEE LEWIS, LITTLE RICHARD, CHUBBY CHECKER, DR. JOHN, BOB MARLEY and early reggae music itself (via his blue-beat `It Keeps Rainin’’), among many others, could be drawn directly.
Born Antoine Dominique Domino, Jr., February 26, 1928, New Orleans, Louisiana, “Fats” grew up in a musical family and began playing local honky tonk clubs before he even reached his teens. Antoine was soon tinkling the ivories alongside Crescent City masters like PROFESSOR LONGHAIR and CHAMPION JACK DUPREE, while digging out the recordings of FATS WALLER and LOUIS JORDAN. DOMINO was barely over 16 when he joined the band of trumpeter/producer/composer extraordinaire, Dave Bartholomew, and over time the pair struck up a long and fruitful partnership.
Also working as an A&R man for Imperial Records, his associate helped the youngster sign to the label in 1949; that same year the pair co-penned what would become DOMINO’s aforesaid debut single, `The Fat Man’. A rollicking piano groove oft cited as the first rock’n’roll record (alongside a few others), the piano-led dirge was unveiled in the first month of 1950. It went on to sell a million copies over the ensuing three years. More importantly, it created a sizeable market for Fats’ laid-back, free-rolling take on classic, New Orleans R&B. Employing a cracking backing band consisting of Bartholomew, Alvin “Red” Tyler and Earl Palmer, DOMINO cut a further succession of R&B hits over the next five years, while touring almost constantly; this was despite being married to childhood sweetheart Rosemary Hall (on August 6, 1948), soon-to-be mother of his 8 children (she passed away in 2008).
It was only a matter of time before DOMINO crossed over to the mainstream pop charts and, in summer 1955, the piano-player took his propulsive boogie-woogie to the masses by way of `Ain’t That A Shame’, a Top 10 breaker; the double-A `I’m In Love Again’ and `My Blue Heaven’ also went platinum. Along with his appearance in teen movies, Shake, Rattle & Rock!, The Girl Can’t Help It (featuring his song `Blue Monday’), and Jamboree, this success initiated almost a decade of regular chart action. His best-loved and most well-known track, `Blueberry Hill’, smashed the Top 10 on both sides of the Big Pond in autumn ’56. Among his biggest and best at the time were `I’m Walkin’’, `It’s You I Love’ (double-A; b/w `Valley Of Tears’), `Whole Lotta Loving’, `I’m Ready’, `Be My Guest’, `Walking To New Orleans’ and `My Girl Josephine’ – all million-selling 45s or thereabouts.
On the albums front (a fresh concept at the time), inroads were in place to secure sales, and most of them accommodated hit 78s/45s. ROCK AND ROLLIN’ WITH FATS DOMINO (1956) {*7}, FATS DOMINO – ROCK AND ROLLIN’ (1956) {*6} and THIS IS FATS DOMINO! (1956) {*6} were all positioned within the Top 20, while 1957’s HERE STANDS FATS DOMINO {*6} and THIS IS FATS {*5}, did not register at all. THE FABULOUS “MR. D” (1958) {*6}, LET’S PLAY FATS DOMINO (1959) {*7} and …A LOT OF DOMINOS! (1960) {*5}, went much the same way, but their lack of success was of little consequence to a singles-orientated artist who toured constantly.
A curiosity of sorts was Fats’ `It Keeps Rainin’ hit (from 1961’s I MISS YOU SO {*7}), a track cited as a precursor to ska/reggae after import copies caused a musical storm in downtown Jamaica (BITTY McLEAN later took the song itself to UK No.2 in 1993). This and further hits (from accompanying LPs LET THE FOUR WINDS BLOW (1961) {*7} and WHAT A PARTY (1961) {*6}), consolidated Fats as one of the most popular and respected performers of the now bygone rock’n’roll era. His unique encapsulation of his native city’s multicultural musical heritage saw him rack up more sales than any other American artist save ELVIS PRESLEY. If RAY CHARLES had raided the vaults of C&W singers, then so too had DOMINO; the proof in the pudding arriving in hit versions of HANK WILLIAMS’ `Jambalaya (On The Bayou)’ and `You Win Again’, platters squeezed either side of a re-take of SMILEY LEWIS’ `I Hear You Knocking’. Meanwhile, mono LPs TWISTIN’ THE STOMP (1962) {*5}, JUST DOMINO (1962) {*6}, WALKING TO NEW ORLEANS (1963) {*6} and the un-timely LET’S DANCE WITH DOMINO (1963) {*5}, were churned out willy-nilly.
By the time crooner Fats moved to ABC-Paramount in spring 1963, the hits were becoming thinner on the ground as the British Invasion heated up. Nostalgic material such as `Red Sails In The Sunset’ (his final US Top 40 entry), were hardly in keeping with the traditions and roots of rock’n’roll and, with same-old/same-old albums (HERE COMES… FATS DOMINO (1964) {*6}, FATS ON FIRE (1964) {*6} and GETAWAY with FATS DOMINO (1965) {*5}), time seemed to be standing still for the N’Orleans hero; a live one-off for Mercury Records: FATS DOMINO ‘65 {*5} was also poorly received.
Ironically, The BEATLES were big DOMINO fans and were no doubt both thrilled and amused when the “Fat Man” chapped with a double-six in hand on a rendition of `Lady Madonna’, one of his first singles on Reprise Records and his last Top 100 entry. It was also one of two LENNON-McCARTNEY songs (the other being `Lovely Rita’) lifted from his comeback LP, FATS IS BACK (1968) {*5}, while he also threw the dice with the Fab Four’s `Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey’. 1971’s FATS {*4} would be his last studio long-player for several years; Atlantic Records kept the ball rock’n’rolling on LIVE AT MONTREUX `HELLO JOSEPHINE’ (1974) {*6} – in concert in Switzerland, May 1, 1973 – and, United Artists did similar for LIVE IN EUROPE (1978) {*6} – cut in Munich, Germany, March 19/20, 1977 – which presented a re-vamped look at the man’s back catalogue.
Signed for Polydor Records, 1979’s SLEEPING ON THE JOB {*4} was not what the doctor ordered, as music had underwent further surgery a la punk/new wave. Nevertheless, Fats continued to work his magic on tour; an all-encompassing HIS GREATEST HITS (1986) {*6} – live at the Universal Amphitheater, August 22, 1985 – highlighted what it said on the tin, while several years on, a festive selection box, CHRISTMAS GUMBO (1993) {*4}, showed how far down the line the old master had come; he finally retired from the music business shortly afterwards.
DOMINO was back in the news in August 2005, when it was thought the New Orleans giant might be one of the casualties of Hurricane Katrina. However, after a day or two he was lifted to safety, and was even planning to get back on the road. “Make It Funky” the movie – a benefit concert for the lost people of the tragedy – marked the big man’s return.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD-LCS // rev-up MCS Dec2015

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