BIOGRAPHY AND DISCOGRAPHY

 

The most consistent rock star of the 1950’s as well as the defining artist of New Orleans and one of a handful of true immortals in rock history, the legacy of Fats Domino takes a back seat to no one from any era.

Antoine Domino was born in February 1928 in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, the eighth and last child of a family headed up by his father who worked at the Fairgrounds as did most of the male children, including Antoine at one point.

At ten years old the family acquired a secondhand piano and his brother-in-law, Harrison Verret, twenty years his senior and a professional musician himself, taught him the keys by writing the letters on them and then taught him chords so he could play actual songs. By his late teens Domino had joined Billy Diamond’s band – it was Diamond who first called him “Fats” – and the newly married pianist began to earn a living playing music around New Orleans.

Domino got his big break when Imperial Records Lew Chudd came to town after finalizing a deal with local legend Dave Bartholomew to head up his new venture into rock ‘n’ roll. Needing artists for the label they came to The Hideaway Club where Diamond’s group was ensconced. Bartholomew, who had once kicked Domino off stage when he climbed up and played a song during an intermission at drummer Earl Palmer’s insistence, asked Fats to sing something rather than just play and upon hearing him tear through “The Junker’s Blues” Chudd offered him a contract on the spot.

With Verrett acting as an adviser and insisting that Fats get royalties rather than sell his songs to the label outright, the deal was struck and within a week they were in the studio recording the re-worked song he’d impressed them with, now entitled “The Fat Man”, which announced him to the world in stunning fashion when it hit #2 on the national charts in early 1950.

For the next thirteen years Domino was the cornerstone of Imperial Records stable, the biggest star in any field of music to emerge from New Orleans since Louis Armstrong, and the de facto ambassador of rock ‘n’ roll as it went from being exclusively a music that reached the black community to one which infiltrated white America by mid-decade and soon went worldwide.

During the 1950’s only Elvis Presley had more hits and sold more records than Domino and yet for all of the furor Presley’s stage show created it was Domino who arguably had the bigger impact as a live performer as well, playing to integrated audiences, many of which were the first times those communities had seen their racial restrictions challenged and ultimately torn down.

But Domino’s shy self-effacing manner and his affable stage presence when he’d appear on network TV (sometimes with his band hidden behind curtains to keep the home audience from seeing too many black faces on their screen) undercut his reputation as a revolutionary compared to many of his contemporaries. Though Time magazine singled him out in 1957 when comparing his popularity to Presley, future rock historians often ignorantly confined him to also-ran status among the legends of that era, using demeaning stereotypes such as “cuddly” and a “harmless minstrel” to further marginalize his impact. Yet he had more Pop Chart entries in the 1950’s than Chuck Berry and Little Richard combined and was the headliner on all of the multi-star shows he played during that era, no matter who else was on the bill. As for his supposedly “safe” material, many of his songs contained sly undercurrents of sex which flew over the head of most reviewers. Fats’s records were also being consumed by future reggae stars who idolized him like no other American star, adapting his beats for their own emerging brand of rock ‘n’ roll.

In the early 1960’s when many of those with whom he vied for headlines in the mid to late Fifties were out of the spotlight, either blacklisted (Jerry Lee Lewis), in jail (Berry), retired (Little Richard) or deceased (Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Chuck Willis), Domino was still churning out hits, more than doubling his career total on the Pop Charts by the end of 1964.

Yet when Chudd sold Imperial Records in 1963 Domino signed with ABC-Paramount Records who moved his recording sessions out of New Orleans to Nashville, replacing Bartholomew as producer and giving him studio musicians ill-equipped to play his style of rock as they saddled his records with strings. Already a rich man thanks to the 110 million records he would go on to sell during his lifetime Domino’s interest in recording diminished and he concentrated on touring which took up the final twenty-five years of his career. He would record only sporadically during that time but he remained a steady draw in concert around the world until he quietly retired from the road in the 1990’s and largely kept to himself at home in New Orleans, unwilling to even go to Washington D.C. to receive the National Medal Of The Arts from the President.

In 2004 he was back in the news when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and Domino, who steadfastly remained at home, was feared dead when his house was flooded. But he and his family were rescued from the second floor in boats and in the weeks following that disaster it was his music which was sung by a litany of stars in the many fundraisers for the city.

Domino passed away in 2018 at the age of 87, the same year the more celebrated Chuck Berry died and got more headlines than the always underrated Fats. But no artist of his era reached quite as many divergent pockets of rock fans as Domino, one of the few acts who was equally popular before and after the music’s audience was integrated, and who left behind a catalog of enduring hits that defined the music better than anyone as it reached previously undreamed of heights.
 
 
FATS DOMINO DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

THE FAT MAN
(Imperial 5058; January, 1950)
Arguably the greatest debut single in the history of rock, this is an electrifying record that hits on all cylinders from start to finish, the band churning relentlessly, Domino’s piano laying down a deep groove and his infectious vocals announcing his arrival to the world… you couldn’t ask for anything better. ★ 10 ★

DETROIT CITY BLUES
(Imperial 5058; January, 1950)
Generic, though fairly well played, this suffers from the fact that the positive lyrics don’t mesh with the maudlin sound on top of which it’s lacking any convincing personal touches to give the topic itself more authenticity. (4)