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Five years ago, on October 24, 2017, one of the founding fathers of rock and roll, Fats Domino died at his Louisiana home at age 89. More than anyone else he brought the sound of New Orleans R&B into the popular mainstream with hits like “Ain't It a Shame” and “Blueberry Hill.”
Domino began recording in 1949 and enjoyed his final hit in 1968, covering The Beatles’ “Lady Madonna.” Through it all, 77 of his songs charted on Billboard’s Top 100.
Millions of words have been written about Domino's life and music. In this article we focus on a rarely discussed aspect of his recording career, the speed-up. Some of Fats Domino's records were sped up before they were released. In other words, if you had been in that New Orleans recording studio when Fats and his band recorded “Blue Monday,” what you later heard on the radio would have sounded different. The record was faster and higher pitched than what you'd heard in the studio.
When did that happen, which records did it happen to, who made it happen and why did it happen? In what follows, we discuss all that. Many people, especially Fats fans and music historians, know generally that some or all of his most famous Imperial records were sped up. When we co-produced the definitive Fats Domino box set for Bear Family Records in 2019, I’ve Been Around, we discovered exactly which records had been doctored. The story proved to be considerably different from what we’d read before. We were asked a variety of questions on the topic and below is the result of our investigation.
Who decided to speed up Fats’ records and why?
HANK DAVIS AND SCOTT PARKER: The person most responsible for speeding up Fats’ records was studio engineer Abe “Bunny” Robyn. Robyn thought up the idea and convinced Lew Chudd, the owner of Imperial Records, to let him do it. Robyn believed that Fats had sales potential beyond the rhythm & blues (i.e. strictly African American) market. He thought that with a little “perking up,” Fats’ records might crossover into the emerging rock and roll market. He argued that Fats’ records often sounded “logy,” meaning “marked by sluggishness and lack of vitality.” Robyn proposed to give Domino a more youthful sound. Chudd had little to lose and so he green-lighted Robyn’s experiment.
Robyn’s clients included legendary songwriters and producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller who recorded several of their early hits in his studio.
How do you make a record that's sped up?
HD & SP: If you were to do it today, there's digital technology available to alter speed with great precision and leave all other aspects of the recording unchanged. But Fats was working back in the 1950s, long before such things were possible. The music was not in a digital file, it was on a reel of tape. Making that tape move faster would make the music faster too. But there's another thing that would happen when the tape moved faster, the music would get higher in pitch in addition to getting faster. That wouldn't happen with a digital file, but it does happen with tape.
To hear an example, play any vinyl record at 33 1/3 rpm and then play it again at 45 rpm. You'll notice that the music is both faster and higher in pitch when it spins faster.
How much were Fats' records sped up?
HD & SP: The increase was around 5 %, enough to raise the pitch of the music by roughly one half-tone. The result was that if the musicians played a song in the key of C, the record would come out both a bit faster, and in the key of C#. More than that would have further increased the tempo, but Fats’ vocal might have started to sound like a chipmunk.
How was the speed-up accomplished?
HD & SP: There is some disagreement about that. The speed-up occurred during mastering, creating finished master discs which were used in the process of producing the actual records. Although Fats recorded most often at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studio in New Orleans, it was Robyn at his Master Recorders studio in Hollywood who did the mastering after he received the tapes. Fats biographer Rick Coleman reported that Bunny Robyn told him he “had a special tape capstan made for Fats’ work which automatically moved his key up a half-tone which gave it just a little more movement and, of course, a little edge to his voice.” That’s an engaging story but it turns out not to be true.
The capstan is a metal cylinder that the tape goes around in the playback process used in mastering. It rotates at a fixed number of revolutions per minute, governed by the motor in the tape machine. If the diameter of the capstan is increased, then the length of tape that goes past the capstan in one revolution in the mastering process will increase and that will result in a speeded up and higher pitched record.
The thing is, there was no way that a special capstan could have been plugged in and out of a 1950s tape machine in order to speed things up 5%. Moreover, Ampex did not provide a way to change the motor speed in its tape recorders. Robyn’s actual solution was to wrap extra tape around the capstan to effectively make the capstan bigger. New Orleans studio owner Cosimo Matassa confirmed this, “What they’d do on the west coast is add a layer of tape to the capstan on the head of the tape machine. Then they’d add or subtract until they got the desired sound.”
In fact, Bunny Robyn had some history doing just this sort of thing. He was speeding up records as early as 1954, according to Mike Stoller “by winding editing tape around the capstan” rather than with the use of a special capstan. Stoller said that speeding up the recordings made the words sound “seemingly more enunciated.”
Wrapping tape around the shaft of the capstan five or six times would increase the capstan’s diameter approximately to the desired amount. That simple process is something that Robyn could easily do anew anytime he was mastering Fats Domino records. He could wrap the tape to master a Fats record and immediately remove it so he could master everyone else’s records.
It appears that engineer Bill Putnam in 1953 in Chicago did develop a detachable slip over capstan sleeve to double tape speed, increasing it from 15 to 30 inches-per-second. One of his earliest clients was legendary guitarist Les Paul. Paul’s supersonic guitar sound was achieved by doubling the speed of his recordings. However, Bunny Robyn’s work with Fats made a considerably subtler (i.e., smaller) change in tape speed and did not involve a special capstan. What he did was simpler but very effective.
Were all of Fats Domino’s records sped up?
HD & SP: Definitely not. In fact, only 13 of Fats’ 69 Imperial singles were sped up on their original releases.
Which records were sped up?
HD & SP: The first Fats Domino single release that was sped up was “Ain’t It a Shame,” recorded in March 1955. Nothing released before that came out sped up. Of course, “Ain’t It a Shame” was a huge success. And from that point on, Imperial sped up all of Fats’ single releases through Imperial 5477, “The Big Beat” with “I Want You to Know” on the flip side, released December 1957. None of Fats’ subsequent singles were sped up.
But the story gets more complicated because some of Fats’ recordings were released both as singles and on albums. The singles were simple, they either were or were not sped up when they were released. The situation with albums was more complicated. Many of Fats’ early single records, which had not originally been sped up, were reused as filler on albums and, when they were, they were sped up. That makes perfect sense. The Fats who crossed over to the rock and roll charts in July 1955 sounded quite different from the R&B hit maker who had been recording since 1949. Kids who bought his albums in 1955 and 1956 expected their man with his “perkier” sped-up sound, not the “logy” R&B hit-maker of just a few years earlier. They might have been confused and disappointed to hear their man sound so different, especially on the same album that combined old and new material.
The speeding up of earlier material for album reissue started with Fats’ very first album. If you heard Fats’ first record, “The Fat Man” on an original 78 rpm single in 1949, it was in the key of F. But if you heard it on his first album released in 1956, its tempo was faster, and it was in the key of F#. The back cover of the album was redesigned so that the later printings said, “A Robyn Recording,” providing credit for remastering where credit was due.
Why did the speed-up stop at the end of 1957?
HD & SP: First off, we have to think about the fact that any record released has two important dates connected with it, the recording date and the release date. Mastering, creating a “master disc,” is only done in order to manufacture records and so it probably occurred close to the release date. And the mastering process is where Bunny Robyn sped things up. So, let’s look at the chronology of the end of the speed-up.
The last Fats recording that got sped up was “I Still Love You” which was recorded in August 1957 and released the following month. But the last-released sped-up Fats record was “The Big Beat” which, although it had been recorded in June 1957, didn’t come out until December 1957. No singles released after December 1957 were sped up, even tracks that had been recorded earlier in 1957. So, the end of 1957 marks the end of the speed-up era.
We can’t be sure about the reasons for the change at that particular time, but we do know a major piece of the puzzle. In 1958, Bill Putnam was in the process of moving his audio engineering operation from Chicago to Hollywood to build United Recording. In order to get things up and running more quickly, Putnam bought Master Recorders from Bunny and Rose Robyn, and Bunny then went to work for Putnam. The end of the speed-up era occurred very close in time to the change in studio ownership. So, there’s a good chance that Robyn was no longer in charge of mastering Fats’ tapes.
And if that’s what happened, what a shock it must have been to Lew Chudd and to Dave Bartholomew. Up to that moment, Fats’ big popular hit records had been Bunny Robyn speed-ups. Could Fats’ records continue to be successful without that? We can't know just what went through any of their minds. And we can surely wonder why, if Robyn was gone, Lew Chudd didn’t simply find another engineer to speed up Fats’ records. Were there none available who were able or willing to do it? Did Chudd or Bartholomew or Fats think the speed-up was no longer necessary? Did Fats or Bartholomew welcome the opportunity to create records that wouldn’t be doctored?
Disappointingly, no published interviews with any of the principals, Chudd, Fats, Dave, Robyn or Putnam address this issue. Even the work of Fats biographer Rick Coleman is frustratingly silent on this topic. Thus, we don’t know the answers to any of those questions. But whatever Chudd, Fats and Dave came up with, it worked. Even without speed-up, Fats continued to have hit records on Imperial for five more years.
Which of Fats Domino’s greatest hits were sped up?
HD & SP: You can figure this out by their release dates. The list includes a lot of Top 20 hits “Ain’t It a Shame,” “I’m in Love Again,” “My Blue Heaven,” “When My Dreamboat Comes Home,” “Blueberry Hill,” “Blue Monday,” “I’m Walkin’,” “It’s You I Love,” “Valley of Tears,” “When I See You,” “Wait and See” and “The Big Beat.”
How did you determine which records were sped up?
HD & SP: The process was surprisingly simple. It consisted of a lot of careful listening and playing along with the records on an electronic keyboard. Musicians know that a band like Dave Bartholomew’s, a band with mostly saxophones and trumpets, tends to play music in certain keys but not others. The keys that horns tend to use are A♭, B♭, C, E♭, F, and G (Note: a similar bias applies to guitar players with keys of E and A being preferred). We listened to almost all of Fats’ early single releases on 78 rpm or 45 rpm records up to “Ain’t It a Shame” and every one of them was in one of those horn keys. Starting with “Ain’t It a Shame” and for several years thereafter, fewer than half of them are.
We worked on this assumption: if a Fats Domino track was in one of the horn keys, then it probably wasn’t sped up but if it was in any other key, and when it was, it was almost always exactly a half-tone higher than one of those good keys for horns, then it was sped up. The exceptions to our rule involved records in A♭ because although those could be records originally performed in A♭, they could also be songs originally performed in G and sped up a half-tone to A♭. In the few cases like that, we simply made our best guess, often guided by other recordings from the same session.
Why not just use the timings printed on the record labels to tell us what was sped up?
HD & SP: First of all, those timings often proved to be quite inaccurate. But more important is the fact that there would be no way to know what the “correct” time was so that we could compare the length of a record to it. Working with the key of the music proved the simplest and most accurate way to do it. A question we are often asked by non-musicians when discussing this topic is, “Don’t you need perfect pitch to determine the key?” No, you don’t. Like most people including most musicians, neither of us has perfect pitch. But we could listen to a record and easily determine its key by playing along with it on an electronic keyboard.
Is Fats the only artist whose records were sped up?
HD & SP: No. For example, Little Richard’s Ooh My Soul was sped up from F to F# and Smiley Lewis’ record of “I Hear You Knocking” was sped up from E♭ to E. The mid-1950s seems to have been the period when the practice was in greatest use, but we don’t know the full extent of speeding up records. The complete history has yet to be written.
Hank Davis is the author of Ducktails, Drive-ins and Broken Hearts: An Unsweetened Look at ‘50s Music, to be published in early 2023 by Excelsior Editions (SUNY Press). The book includes not only Fats Domino, Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, but lots of obscurities too.