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Upon hearing the decidedly underwhelming first session that Fats Domino cut under the auspices of local record owner shop Al Young in January 1951, Imperial Records owner Lew Chudd said, “It wasn’t worth a damn. With Dave he was king”.

But Dave, as in Dave Bartholomew, the label’s producer, songwriter, bandleader and talent scout had left the company a few weeks earlier when Young, not Dave, got a Christmas bonus for his “help” with Imperial’s New Orleans’ ventures, which consisted mainly of claiming credit for everything and actually doing less than nothing.

But with that bridge burned, Chudd had little choice but to release a subpar single taken from that date and promptly shelved the other songs they’d cut for twenty years, and ordered them back in the studio the next month to try again.

In the interim Young didn’t learn to produce – in fact he never would figure it out – but rather Domino knew he had to take it upon himself to pick up the slack and make sure his still tenuous career didn’t go down without a fight.


A Suitcase In Hand
Playing music and making records are two different things.

That they share almost all of the same attributes make that distinction a little confusing for those who’ve never seen the inside of a recording studio, but the way to think of it is not that they rely on the same devices but rather that the process for deploying them changes depending on circumstances.

Sitting around and jamming with instruments, or even just riding to your next gig on the road and making up songs – melody and lyrics – as you go, the creative seeds are fully present, but those seeds haven’t been fertilized and watered.

Likewise tackling a completed song on stage a band can deviate from the written arrangement, in the process adding as much or more to overall effect through inspired enthusiasm and impassioned playing as they might be taking away by messing with a streamlined composition.

But in both of those cases the only measuring stick one truly has is the response in the moment by those who are there. Once the song ends, once that feeling it elicited subsides, the fading memory of it is all anyone has left.

Not so on record.

A studio performance is not meant to only be appreciated while the tapes roll by whoever is in the room at the time, but it has to connect just as strongly in each subsequent listen when that record is released to the public as well. Whether hearing it for the first time or for the hundredth time, a producer strives to make sure that what is captured on tape holds up.

As much as any producer ever, Dave Bartholomew fully grasped that fact and sought to create records that could be appreciated in passing by appearing deceptively simple, yet were also complex enough to constantly reveal additional nuance and shadings the more – and the more closely – you listened.

On his own Fats Domino, with a band that was reputedly second to none on stage, wasn’t quite capable of building that kind of track, but on Rockin’ Chair they lower their sights and focus on doing one thing well and with the benefit of a solid theme and Domino’s engaging vocal appeal they come away with their first unquestioned commercial winner without any help from whoever was sitting on the other side of the control room glass.


Rock Away My Blues
The thing that suffers most from Bartholomew’s absence is the musical arrangements. Though the primary musical concepts – melody and rhythm – came from Domino’s own songwriting, it was Bartholomew’s ability to voice those with a combination of instruments that made the songs really come alive.

He’d have certain parts being doubled up with two instruments to provide more punch while others overlapped to keep the music churning and even at times writing parts that seemed to conflict at first before you caught on to how they were each carrying out a different role that built upon one another to create a third all-encompassing sound.

On Rockin’ Chair we get none of that. The horns play one riff throughout while the rhythm track is moving in a steady but predictable fashion.

What gives it some color as well as the perception of intricacy is Domino’s own piano, particularly in the introduction where he makes one subtle but key decision which is to start off with his right hand establishing the melody just a bit before adding the left hand rhythm. Usually it’s the other way around, but the two second gap here shifts your attention away from the expected and as a result you’re more more focused on the slightly more inventive part rather than the “been there done that” bass line.

Beyond that however this is a very straightforward performance, albeit one that is capably executed by everyone with a minimum of fuss.

The key to this working isn’t the band though, but rather Domino’s vocals eliciting sympathy, which if you’d known the real-life situation he was in might be even more appropriate. Though it never drops below a mid-paced gait, the song is tinged with sadness, from his own downcast tone to the storyline which finds (a presumably innocent) Fats caught unaware that his girl is stepping out on him with another guy, about to leave him for reasons he can’t fathom.

Pained by the revelation, especially coming as it does from a friend who tells him what he’d just witnessed, the usually affable Fats is brokenhearted and pleads with her to come back while receiving very little moral support from Buddy Hagans who essentially takes the role of the pal who broke the news to him and yet remains rather distant with the colder upper register on his sax during a somewhat flighty solo.

The concluding lyrical stanza attempts to tie in the title theme rather awkwardly and doesn’t pretend to give us a resolution to the story itself and so while it’s a pleasant sounding record it’s also not a very compelling one beyond that. Commercially successful? Yes. Creatively competent? For sure.

But an indelible performance or an enduring record for the ages? No on both counts.


Without My Baby I Just Can’t Get Nowhere
Oddly enough the success of this record in spite its rather limited aims is something you could argue delayed a resolution to the Bartholomew-Imperial rift a little longer and by that measure you might even be disappointed that it charted – albeit only for one week on the national Billboard charts where it made #9 the last week of the year.

Had it failed to register outside of New Orleans, where Fats could almost be assured of hitting with whatever he released, maybe then there’d have been more impetus for Chudd to reach out to Bartholomew and bring him back into the fold. But with it selling consistently well throughout the fall the difference in outcome without Bartholomew at the helm was just a matter of degrees commercially and a matter of subjective taste artistically, neither of which was enough to warrant an olive branch being extended.

As for the record itself, it’s certainly good, though not great and most companies would be happy to have a Rockin’ Chair to release, even if it wasn’t raising the bar in any way when it came to this music… or in establishing Fats’ legacy.

But that’s the main takeaway from all this: Domino and Bartholomew separately were always well worth hearing, but together they were required listening.

Until they reunited you’d still be able to get records like this out of Fats on a fairly regular basis – solid, unpretentious, efficient and engaging performances, most of them perfectly enjoyable with a few bigger hits thrown in to keep his name and sound familiar to rock fans across the country.

But as long as they remained apart it’d be rare for you to get MORE out of it than that.


(Visit the Artist page of Fats Domino for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)