Fats Domino: Is he rock ‘n’ roll’s real king?

Fats Domino at home, sitting beside his piano. Domino had to be resuced from his New Orleans-area home in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Fats Domino isn’t going to argue with those who say he doesn’t get enough credit for helping to create the musical style now called rock ’n’ roll.

“Well, that’s the way people feel. It don’t make no difference to me,” says the 80-year-old singer-songwriter and boogie-woogie pianist from the house in Harvey, La., on New Orleans’ West Bank, where he and his family settled after Hurricane Katrina washed away their home in the Lower 9th Ward.

Elvis, it is said, called Fats “the King of Rock ’n’ Roll.” But the gentle soul doesn’t want to stake claim to Presley’s iconic status.

“I like Elvis and Chuck Berry and all of them,” says Domino. “Elvis, I went to see him when he was in Las Vegas. He was a real nice fella.”

He, too, regards Elvis as “the King.” “I like him myself. So does everybody,” he says.

Antoine Domino’s large stage persona, dancehall piano playing and drawling tales of love and home made him Elvis’ top rival, if not as a sex symbol, then at least as a box-office attraction and hit record-maker, during the birthing of rock ’n’ roll.

He calls himself simply “lucky” that such songs as “I’m Walkin’” and “Blueberry Hill” allowed him to make a living while staying true to his religious beliefs. “Nobody lives forever,” he says. “Stay as close as you can [to the teachings in the Bible]. That’s the main thing.”

He could easily argue that he doesn’t get enough credit as one of the originators of rock ’n’ roll. After all, he “sold more records (65 million) than any other ’50s-era rocker except Elvis Presley,” writes the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame about the man who was honored at the organization’s first induction dinner in 1986.

(The class of ’86 also included Elvis, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, James Brown, Little Richard, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and the Everly Brothers in the performers’ category. Early influence honorees that year included Jimmie Rodgers, Jimmy Yancey and Robert Johnson. John Hammond was honored for lifetime achievement and non-performer inductees were Alan Freed and Sam Phillips.)

Fats thanks fans for their loyalty. “I never thought about [being called “King”]. But I know people bought the records, so I appreciate that part. I sold a lot of records, so I say, ‘Thanks‚ to everyone.’”

R&B scholar Rick Coleman, author of the 2006 biography “Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock & Roll,” is one who says Fats’ contributions often are overlooked, at least in part, because of that humility and a chunk of shyness.

“Fats always hated interviews,”says Coleman. “He basically didn’t want to go on television unless he absolutely had to. Fats didn’t care. He’s turned down million-dollar offers.”

Fats concedes that “I don’t like to talk too much. [I] try my best to answer questions. That’s about it.”

Coleman says “the roots of popular culture as we know it today were established by people like Fats (and other New Orleans artists like Professor Longhair), putting together this amalgamation of popular music which incorporated blues and joy in a very emotional, succinct way that people could dance to.

“It was just a powerful form of music, because before music had been very mannered and polite, and it didn’t force you to get involved physically or emotionally, and when Fats Domino and many of his R&B forebears came along, they drew in people like Elvis Presley, who became a starring figure for doing the same thing.”

“Elvis called Fats the King of Rock & Roll; Bob Marley said reggae started with Fats Domino,” says Coleman, adding that John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison pledged allegiance to Domino.

Still, much of the world likely had forgotten Fats was alive — until Hurricane Katrina drowned the city he calls home.

In fact, as the floodwaters rose in the Lower 9th Ward, and as National Guard helicopters plucked the victims off roofs, there were broadcast reports that Fats was missing.

Many musicians were accounted for at evacuation sites from Houston to Austin to Nashville and Memphis. But no one could locate Fats, who had chosen to ride out the storm at home. There were real fears about his well-being.

That changed with the mass publication of a New Orleans Times-Picayune photo of Domino being helped off a boat after being rescued from his house.

“We were on the second-floor balcony. The water kept coming up,” Fats recalls.

Finally, it was time to summon a boat to rescue the singer and Rosemary, his wife of almost 60 years, as well as many of their eight children and countless grandchildren (“Oh, I never count ’em. I got a lot of them,” says Domino).

Like almost everyone in the Lower 9th, he lost everything. But to Fats, that’s just material stuff, and it’s not that important. “I ain’t missed nothing to tell you the truth, and I was able to replace what I lost.”

Thanks in large part to Tipitina’s Foundation, this soft-spoken gentleman with the Creole patois has become something of the face of New Orleans’ rebirth.

The foundation is an offshoot of the New Orleans music venue. Although it has become better known in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the foundation began operations five years ago.

“Before the storm, our programs were designed to uplift the music culture of New Orleans,” says Bill Taylor, former executive director of the foundation. “Since Katrina, it’s about saving that same culture.”

Enlisted in the cause, in May 2007, Fats ripped through a stirring 32-minute set at Tipitina’s. Proceeds benefited the foundation’s drive to provide musical instruments to New Orleans public schools, and to help musicians, including the headliner, recover from the hurricane.

“It was great,” says Taylor. “He sounds just like he always did. Once he sits down in front of a piano and starts playing, it’s like he still has it.”

“Tipitina’s Foundation does a lot for a lot of people,” says Fats, by way of both thanking that organization and explaining his involvement.

Twenty-five percent of that show’s take went toward the restoration of Fats’ Lower 9th home. At  the height of his fame, when his piano and hit songs took him around the world, he kept his home in the working-class neighborhood near the Industrial Canal.

“I was born and raised there,” says the musician. The evacuated two-building complex (home and offices) at Caffin Avenue and Marais Street was about 20 blocks from the spot where he was born.

He knows he’s been more fortunate than most having been able to afford the home in Harvey, on New Orleans’ West Bank. “I’m getting used to it,” says Domino. “It’s not that far from where I lived. I got a nice bunch of people calling on me and everything.”

Still, the family’s return to the Lower 9th will shine a beacon of hope among the desolation that still exists.

“They are doing all right with it,” Fats says of the rebuilding. “They have put all the sheet rock on the walls and everything.”

One of the first items to be restored when the project was begun last spring: The back end of a 1959 Cadillac, which had been a couch in his home. Now the project is complete.

The intertwined rebirths of the city and its most-beloved rock ’n’ roller continued when a double CD set, Goin’ Home: A Tribute To Fats Domino, was released by Vanguard Records.

Again, profits went to Tipitina’s Foundation. In addition to helping rebuild Fats’ home, funds raised will go toward building a Lower 9th community center and funding other programs aimed at helping the neighborhood recapture its vitality.

Rock greats interpret some of the Fat Man’s most memorable songs on the album. For example, Paul McCartney sings “I Want to Walk You Home” and his Beatles partner John Lennon makes a posthumous appearance with “Ain’t That a Shame.”

Domino — along with Chuck Berry, Elvis and Carl Perkins — was among the artists whose style The Beatles sometimes copied. Indeed, the boogie-woogie feel of their 1968 classic “Lady Madonna” is seen as an homage to Domino. That same year, Fats cut his own version, his last appearance in the Billboard Top 100 pop singles.

Others making appearances on the  tribute/fundraising album include Elton John doing “Blueberry Hill,” B.B.King’s take on “Goin’ Home,” Robert Plant’s “It Keeps Raining,” Tom Petty’s “I’m Walkin’” and Willie Nelson’s “I Hear You Knockin’.”

As of this interview, Fats hadn’t heard that record, but he was clearly pleased: “I guess they are doing it because they might be fans, too.”

The capper of the tribute album is Neil Young’s “Walking To New Orleans,” which he sang at a Hurricane Katrina fund-raising concert. To say the music is timeless is an understatement, considering that song was Domino’s last Top 10 pop hit, according to the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. Fats’ magical version was released June 1, 1960.

There were years of stirring musical success leading up to that last hit. On Dec. 10, 1949, he cut eight tracks at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studios, which was to New Orleans what Sam Phillips’ Sun was to Memphis. Among the first tracks he cut was “The Fat Man,” considered among many to be the first rock ’n’ roll song (the genre had not yet been given that moniker).

It was a time when musicians borrowed from each other in creating this new sound, leading to a bridge over the nation’s racial divide being constructed from the rockabilly crafted in Memphis by Bill, Scotty and Elvis, the poetic, spitfire St. Louis R&B of Chuck Berry, and the rollicking, sensual dance music of Fats.

On Aug. 1, 1954, Freed, who claimed to give this music its name, sponsored what now could be termed a “rock festival” at old Ebbets Field, where Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color barrier, in Brooklyn. Fats was the headliner. Others in the “Moondog Jubilee of Stars Under the Stars” included Muddy Waters, The Clovers, The Orioles and Little Walter, according to the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame’s list of Domino’s career highlights.

Domino’s contributions to rock ’n’ roll includes such other songs as “All By Myself,” “Be My Guest,” “Bo Weevil,” “Don’t Blame It On Me,” “Every Night About This Time,” “Let The Four Winds Blow,” “Going To The River,” “My Girl Josephine,” “I’m In Love Again,” “Please Don’t Leave Me,” “Poor Me,” “So Long,” “Something’s Wrong,” “Three Nights A Week,” “Valley Of Tears” and “Whole Lotta Loving.”

Fats is quick to share credit with Dave Bartholomew, who co-wrote and produced much of that recognizable and joyful sound.

Haydee Ellis, a longtime family friend who helped orchestrate the Tipitina’s fund-raising concert  and who also brought artists together for the tribute album, is sure of Domino’s place in the history of music: “I really do think Fats originated rock ’n’ roll music.”

The fact his influence remains huge is illustrated by the reception she got when helping to pull together artists for the tribute album. “I talked to Randy Newman, what a lovely man he is. I said, ‘We would enjoy your participation on this album.’

“He said, ‘I’d love to. I’ve been stealing from Fats for years. Any musician with any sort of musical knowledge would acknowledge Fats as being a big influence.” Newman does “Blue Monday” on the double-CD tribute.

New Orleans based journalist, musician (Hackberry Ramblers drummer) and folklorist Ben Sandmel agrees Fats doesn’t get deserved recognition outside the city with which he is so closely identified. “He’s a founding father of rhythm and blues/rock ’n’ roll.”

Sandmel lumps Domino in with a select few others, including Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Elvis as being “ … one of the most important, historic, ground-breaking, influential figures” in music history.

“He is one of the people who put that music on the map in the ’50s. This music is in its fourth generation now, and it’s just as important as it was then.”

In the final pages of his 1996 autobiography, “Go, Cat, Go!,” (co-written by David McGee), late rockabilly king Carl Perkins reflects on what has become of his contemporaries who conspired to create rock ’n’ roll. Tragedy befell many; some became oldies acts of self-parody.

Perkins, who died in 1998 after suffering a series of strokes, wrote in his book of one joyous exception: “Fats Domino was still smiling and living the good life in New Orleans, emerging on his own terms to play whenever and wherever he liked, always for adoring crowds, presiding over the most joyous of rock ’n’ roll celebrations when he did.”

When asked what he prefers, writing or performing, Fats’ answer is simple: “Both of them.”

“You get different ideas on a song,” he says of his writing process. “I still practice every day, still run over the piano every day. Sometime I’m at the piano and I get a good idea, [and] I put it on tape. I don’t know what I’m going to do with them, but I want to remember the melody and everything else.” And while he admits distaste for straying far from home (he hates waiting in airports), Fats says he may just take his show back on the road. “I’m thinking about traveling again. I always feel better when I’m playing.”

Tim Ghianni is a veteran music journalist, based in Nashville.

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