Cherubic, rotund, and unthreatening in the extreme-unlike his wilder counterparts Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Elvis Presley, who combined to propel the Eisenhower era into a full-fledged tizzy with their raucous antics-Antoine "Fats" Domino was the only rock and roll star who appealed to every generation from the moment his seminal "Ain't It A Shame" crossed over to the pop side of the hit tracks in the summer of 1955.
After that, the roly-poly piano-pounding Fat Man from New Orleans embarked on an incredible run of across-the-board smashes for Imperial Records, enjoying gargantuan success with the songs he crafted with trumpet-blowing producer/collaborator Dave Bartholomew as well as ladling his happy Creole accent over an array of vintage Tin Pan Alley ditties to an equally rapturous response, charming cautious parents who frowned upon his lusty contemporaries.
Fats stood apart from his fellow rock and roll pioneers in another important way. Except for heavyset Kansas City-bred blues shouter Big Joe Turner, who had been around since the late 1930s and was the unlikeliest teen idol of all, most of them were either new to the spotlight or finally breaking through after struggling to sell wax prior to the revolutionary music's dawning. Domino, on the other hand, had been a consistent rhythm and blues hitmaker since 1950, when "The Fat Man," his rollicking introductory debut single on Imperial, vaulted to the uppermost reaches of the R&B charts. When his demographics shifted in the mid-'50s to encompass white teens, he didn't change his approach a whole lot from when he performed strictly for the R&B crowd. The blues was Fats' bedrock from day one, and he never wandered far away from it.
Born February 26, 1928 in the Crescent City, Antoine Domino, Jr. grew up in a family that spoke both French and English. His brother-in-law Harrison Verrett was a guitarist and banjo player and an early musical mentor, offering little Antoine advice on how to tinkle the ivories. Fats' other inspirations included pioneering jump blues saxist Louis Jordan, West Coast cocktail blues ivories ace Charles Brown, and thundering boogie pianists Pete Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis, and Albert Ammons. "I liked Albert Ammons. I liked his piano playing," said Fats in 1979. "I got real famous in New Orleans playing (his) 'Swanee River Boogie.'" Also influential was Houston-born pianist Amos Milburn, whose hits on Los Angeles-based Aladdin Records were racking up spins when Fats was just coming into his own. "I really liked his piano style," said Domino. "I started playing in little small clubs in New Orleans in '47."
Bassist Billy Diamond reportedly coined chubby young Antoine's nickname when Domino was a member of his combo. By 1949, Fats was leading his own outfit, holding down three nights a week on the stage of the Hideaway Club. Then New Orleans trumpeter Dave Bartholomew dropped into his life, and things began to get interesting. The trumpeter was more experienced in the music business--he'd begun recording for the DeLuxe label in the fall of '47, and his young band contained many of the Big Easy's future session aces: saxists Herbert Hardesty and Red Tyler, guitarist Ernest McLean, bassist Frank Fields, and drummer Earl Palmer. When the boss of L.A.-based Imperial caught Bartholomew's stomping band in action, the wheels for Fats' discovery were set in motion.
"I was working in Houston, Texas," said Bartholomew in 1977. "I had my band, and I was working for a guy named Don Robey at his club. He had a nightclub, a very big place called the Peacock, at the time. While I was working there, I was doing a lot of original material with my band. The guy who was later on to bring me into the recording business, he was there. His name was Lew Chudd, out of Hollywood, California. To me he said, 'I've never heard that type of music before.' I said, 'Well, just some things that I threw together, all original material.' He said, 'Well, I think one day I'm going to get you to do some things for me.'
"So sure enough, six months later, he was knocking on my door in New Orleans, Louisiana. He said, 'How about some new talent?' I said, 'Well, okay-there's a guy I read about in the local papers, he was real great.' He said, 'What's his name?' I said, 'Everybody calls him Fats Domino, and he's down at a place called the Hideaway.' So sure enough we went down, and we liked what we heard with Fats," continued Bartholomew. "That's when we first did our first record, in December '49. After we met Fats that day, a week later we recorded 'The Fat Man.'"
"The Fat Man" forcefully anticipated the imminent rise of rock and roll. Massaging the keys for two storming choruses before he began to sing, a youthful-sounding Fats introduced himself to the masses in front of co-writer Bartholomew's roaring five-piece horn section. "The Fat Man" was a juiced-up adaptation of Champion Jack Dupree's "Junker Blues," its ambiance enhanced by the thin sound quality inherent to Cosimo Matassa's fledgling J&M Studio on North Rampart Street in its pre-tape days. It leaped to #2 on Billboard's R&B charts during early 1950, and just like that shy, soft-spoken Fats was on his merry way, never to look back.
That historic December 10, 1949 session also encompassed the downbeat "Hide Away Blues," a clever salute to Fats' regular musical haunt that showed just how conversant he was with straight blues material. The romping Bartholomew-penned "Boogie Woogie Baby" hailed from a followup session the next month. Marvelous though they were, neither mined the same commercial gold as his debut. But it didn't take long for Domino to rebound. At a September 1950 encore session, Fats did "Every Night About This Time," a plaintive blues from the pianist's own pen that introduced his trademark triplet-driven piano style and rose to #5 R&B. Chicago blues guitarist Magic Sam waxed a slashing West Side-styled revival a decade later.
Because Bartholomew and Imperial owner Chudd had a serious disagreement prior to Fats's January 1951 session (the first captured on tape rather than acetate, resulting in noticeably cleaner aural quality), Domino's road outfit (saxists Wendell Duconge and Buddy Hagans, guitarist Walter "Papoose" Nelson, drummer Cornelius "Tenoo" Coleman, and bassist Billy Diamond) provided support while record shop owner/concert promoter Al Young assumed production duties. Papoose provided a lovely guitar solo on its only single, the mournful bayou blues "Tired Of Crying." A month later, Domino laid down the easy-surging "Rockin' Chair," a #9 R&B hit at year's close anchored by Fats' piledriving left hand. His band was perhaps a trifle less polished than Dave's boys, but that suited the anguished "You Know I Miss You," waxed in June of '51 and boasting another delicious Nelson guitar break.
"Goin' Home," cut in either November of '51 or January of '52, gave Fats his first R&B chart-topper that summer and provided him with his initial taste of crossover success by slipping onto Billboard's pop hit parade, a most unusual occurrence in those days of blatant musical segregation. Fats's sorrowful reading of the lyrics (he shared compositional credit with Young) locked into a hypnotic horn riff sliced to the bone by jagged guitar chords. Hagans' tenor solo displayed several hair-raising flat notes, but small details like that mattered not a whit to the folks who embraced its message. The same Young-helmed session produced another mean back-alley blues, "How Long," and it too was a success, rising to #9 R&B at the close of '52.
Happily reunited with Bartholomew for an April 26, 1952 session, Fats bemoaned his romantic fate on "Poor Poor Me," a churning Top Ten R&B entry that autumn that shouldn't be confused with his '55 smash "Poor Me." The same get-together spawned the horn-leavened slow blues "Cheatin'" and a rip-roaring jump, "Trust In Me," that saw Papoose going hogwild on his axe and Wendell Duconge weighing in strong on alto sax.
Domino and Bartholomew got back down to writing on a regular basis, and the hits flowed non-stop. Lightning struck in the spring of 1953 when "Going To The River," cut the previous December or January, blasted up to #2 R&B. Its message wasn't exactly cheerful, Fats threatening to drown himself because his woman had split (making its #24 pop showing a minor miracle) and engaging in a brief round of falsetto "wah-wahs." Fats had to fend off competition from Atlanta-bred blues shouter Chuck Willis, who covered it in February for Columbia's OKeh R&B subsidiary-more than two months before Domino's original cracked the charts. Chuck's mellow rendition did pretty well, peaking at #4 R&B in head-to-head competition.
Its issue limited to Imperial EP and LP, "Goodbye" was a particularly insistent blues from February of '53, Domino forlornly bidding his errant lover farewell (Shirley Goodman of the coosome New Orleans duo Shirley & Lee cameos on the intro) over sawing saxes and a rumbling rhythmic bottom (there's a dynamic handoff from guitar to sax midway through the solo section). On the other hand, the inexorably swinging "Please Don't Leave Me," written by Fats alone and cut April 18, 1953 at Radio Recorders in Hollywood with the trusty road band that Fats often employed in the studio back home, soared to #3 R&B that summer and inspired a savage 1956 rockabilly revival by Johnny Burnette's Rock 'n' Roll Trio for Coral. Granted, its lyrics weren't all that deep, kicking off with two choruses of carefree wordless whoops and closing with more of the same, but its rocking thrust-achieved without horns--was irresistible.
"You Said You Love Me," from the same date and tucked on the B side of "Rose Mary" (Fats' tribute to his beloved wife), was a sorrowful lament with a sturdy horn line and a mooing tenor sax solo. Domino indulged in relatively few instrumental showcases for his pianistic dexterity, but the ones he did uncork were scorchers. The aptly named "Domino Stomp," another standout from the session, finds him tearing up the 88s with only guitar, bass and drums urging him on. It was later retitled "Twistin' The Stomp," though even Chubby Checker might have found its furious tempo difficult to workout to.
"Something's Wrong," recorded September 2, 1953, was a laidback blues ballad that would have fit right into the swamp pop movement in southern Louisiana a few years later. Fats delivered his vocal soft and smooth, the bridge veered in unexpected directions, and the song climbed to #6 R&B at year's end. The Imperial braintrust also granted this one a second title, "My Heart Is In Your Hands," when it graced Domino's second album for the company.
On March 15, 1955, Fats cut "Ain't It A Shame" (quickly amended to the more genteel "Ain't That A Shame") in Hollywood. It skyrocketed to the top of Billboard's R&B list in mid-June and endured for an amazing 11 weeks while climbing to #10 pop, rendering the Fat Man an instant rock and roll luminary. Splendid though it was, the number wasn't all that stylistically different from what immediately preceded it. Fashioned by Domino and Bartholomew around a similar stop-time structure to his previous hit "Don't You Know" and sporting a stripped-down 12-bar Hardesty tenor sax break (his melodic Dixieland-tinged solos were no small factor in Domino's success for the remainder of the decade), it was just a tad more crisply executed overall. Keeping his vastly expanded audience in mind, Bartholomew would operate a bit differently from here on, yet Domino's unshakable blues base never faded from view.
"We were recording things in a different vein. We were more or less in a blues-type vein," said Bartholomew. "So what we did, we sweetened the tune up, with the lead. We kept the same old background, but for instance, like 'Ain't It A Shame,' we just sweetened the thing up. We had to sweeten the lead up so we could sell it, but we still kept the background, the rough background. And 'Ain't It A Shame' went over to white."
Pat Boone's fairly ludicrous cover for Dot Records went all the way to number one pop that September. "The first record that really put me over all over the world was 'Ain't It A Shame,' that I wrote in 1954. Then Pat Boone covered it the week after I wrote it. Mine came out, and it came out about a week or two later," said Fats, who never held a grudge toward the clean-cut pop crooner. "Ain't It A Shame" was a prime example of Imperial's mid-'50s policy to slightly speed up many of Fats's masters; after Matassa captured each performance for posterity in New Orleans, the tapes were shipped off to L.A., where recording engineer Bunny Robyn devised a capstan that lifted the songs a half step in pitch before final mastering. It made Domino sound a trifle peppier and threw the harmonics off so competing bands had a tougher time reproducing Fats' exact sound. Alas, the practice didn't deter Boone.
Domino and Bartholomew created rock and roll gold at a feverish pace during the mid-'50s: "All By Myself," "Poor Me," the countryish "Bo Weevil," "Don't Blame It On Me," "I'm In Love Again." "Dave wrote about 25 percent, and I wrote about 75 percent of my songs," said Fats, whose formula for songwriting success was to keep his titles and hooks as simple as possible. "Something of everyday life that people say, and something you see that happens every day, that's what people like to hear about," he explained. "When they're feeling bad, sometimes they want to hear something sad. Sometimes they want to hear something lively. So I try to keep it both ways. Try to keep my words clear. Anything that anybody could understand, True life. Something that happened to someone. That's how I write all my songs.
"I used to listen to people talk every day, things would happen in real life," he continued. "I used to go around different places, hear people talk. Sometimes I wasn't expecting to hear nothin', and my mind was very much on my music. Next thing I'd hear, I would either write it down or remember it good."
"Sometimes Fats would come up with the lead and I'd come up with the lyrics, or vice versa," said Bartholomew. "Whoever gets the idea, we'd both get together on it. Just like building a house-one guy comes in and he does the finishing work, and the other guy does the ground work."
In 1956, Domino began to sprinkle in ancient pop chestnuts, revitalizing then with a modern Crescent City drive. "My Blue Heaven" and "When My Dreamboat Comes Home" were massive hits, and "Blueberry Hill"-previously associated with his fellow New Orleans immortal Louis Armstrong-proved Fats' top seller of all. "That was the idea that we had, that we had to put some standards in there," said Bartholomew. "Because you still had some of the older people buying records. They may not buy the current hits, but if they see something that they heard in their childhood, they'll probably pick up the record and say, 'Yeah, I like that certain tune.'"
"I like old numbers like that, because they never die," said Fats. "They always keep good memories, and the older people like 'em, and the younger people like 'em."
Yet on the opposite side of "Dreamboat" was one of Fats' classiest blues-based originals. Cut November 30, 1955 in Hollywood, "So-Long" is an immaculate mid-tempo piece with a socking backbeat, its sax solo slick as goose grease and Fats attacking the 88s with gusto. The gem located hitdom in its own right, cracking the R&B Top Five during the summer of '56.
A slew of hits stretching into 1962 were yet to ensue for Domino at Imperial, the blues base that he developed in New Orleans' Ninth Ward permeating the great majority of them. Fats was a monumental figure in the development and popularity of rock and roll, but he merits equal immortality as one of the greatest postwar blues artists to emerge from the fertile Crescent City.