Fats Domino is without a doubt one of the pillars of R&R. The amount of hits the Fat Man scored in his hey day is uncanny. For a while there it seemed that Fats had the Midas Touch. Yet, for some reason, Let the Four Winds Blow proved to be one of his last smash hits in 1961. By that time Domino had released 55 singles, most of which charted, 21 of which double. Domino’s first charting single, doing better on the jukebox charts they still had back in the day, was the rollicking Fat Man, defining his image for the rest of his career and selling over a million copies in the process. Released in 1949, it is regarded as the first R&R single by many. Not without good cause, the record predated Rocket ’88 by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, sax-man for Ike Turner and his Rhythm Kings, by a full 2 years. The latter often gets the edge over Fats’ single since it was recorded by Sam Phillips of Sun studio fame and then covered by Bill Haley and his Comets. It may be knit picking, but I’d rather put my money on the Fat Man.
Domino was a New Orleans native. His style would define the sound of that city as much as it would define the sound of R&R. His piano style isn’t totally unique though. The rolling rhythms are highly indebted to New Orleans legend professor Longhair. The professor’s unique combination of Rumba, Calypso and Mambo, not only gave birth to R&R but would evolve into what we know today as Funk. Though the professor scored just that one minor hit with the delightful and ridiculous Bald Head, his approach to the piano is an influence still heard in New Orleans today. Fats Domino, Dr. John and Allen Toussaint would all pay tribute to the man and will gladly admit they owe their careers to the foundations the professor laid down. I suspect Roy Bittan enjoys himself a side of Longhair from time to time as well.
Another figure Fats Domino owes quite a bit of his success to is the late and legendary Earle Palmer, probably the greatest R&R drummer that has ever lived. Palmer provided Domino with that infectious back beat that made his single, including Fat Man and Let the Four Winds Blow so irresistible. Palmer played on such an impressive number of genre defining R&R singles that it is easy to argue that the whole genre might have had a whole different feel to it if Palmer had decided to focus solely on Jazz, in which he was trained. When Palmer passed on September 19th last year, Garage radio DJ Dave the Spazz managed to fill a full three hour radio show with material Earle Palmer played on. Almost every tune featured on that show was a classic. Go check it out for yourself, Eddie Cochran, Little Richard, Sam Cooke and Richie Valens are just a few of the impressive names you’ll find, Dave the Spazz makes radio that causes Little Steven to froth at the mouth.
Fats Domino’s success kept the Fat Man busy and on the road. Too busy in fact to spend much time on recording sessions. Enter another legendary New Orleans figure, Allen Toussaint. At a mere 17 years he was asked to step to the plate and play the Fat Man’s parts for him whenever he was out doing his dates. Full backing tracks, including Toussaint on piano, would be send out to Fats, where ever he was at the time, all he had to do was provide them with the vocals. That’s how the hits were made. Taking is schooling with him, Toussaint would himself become one of those legendary figures in the New Orleans R&B scene. Over the course of his career, Toussaint released a mere 5 albums in the seventies that hardly made a dent at the time, but before that had already established himself as a reliable hit maker, producing sides for a wide arrange of people. Notable titles produced by Toussaint include Benny Spellman’s Lipstick Traces on a Cigarette and Fortune Teller, Irma Thomas’ Ruler of my Heart, or Lee Dorsey’s Working in the Coalmine and Yes We Can. Does the latter sound familiar? I thought so. Inspired by Katrina Toussaint was recently rehabilitated by Elvis Costello when he recorded River in Reverse with the man and subsequently toured behind it with Toussaint.
Back to Fats, born Antoine in 1928, Domino’s ground breaking career almost didn’t happen. Domino earned his first chops playing the local nightclubs for pennies. He earned his actual living by working in a mattress factory. When a pile of bedsprings fell on Fats hands one day, the doctors told him he would never play again. It took Fats a mere two years to be back in the game, this time playing in the Hideaway Club as a regular. Dave Bartholomew, a local trumpet player with a record deal in the pocket, was impressed by the man already called Fats. So when Lew Chudd, owner of the Californian Imperial records asked Dave if he knew some talent he could sign, Dave hipped Lew to Fats by taking him to the club. Lew signed Fats on the spot, the rest they say is history. Throughout his stint with that Californian label Fats stayed loyal to his home of New Orleans as much as to the label. When Imperial records traded ownership however, Fats took the opportunity to switch employers and signed with ABC in the fall of 1962, the label that worked wonders for Ray Charles’ career. ABC however forced him to leave his native home and record in Nashville. Significantly the hits stopped coming soon after.
Fats Domino continued to be a New Orleans resident for the rest of his life. Domino felt so rooted in the city that he refused to evacuate when Katrina was approaching august 2005. His house stood in an area that was heavily flooded, many thought that Domino had perished in the storm, somebody even wrote R.I.P on the remains of his house. Like many Fats Domino lost everything he had in that hurricane. One of the few things president “bystander” Bush saw personally to was that Fats got an replacement for the medal Bill Clinton had given him a few years earlier. Domino managed to rebuilt his sober house soon enough and has since dedicated his time and efforts to the Tipitina Foundation, a non-profit organisation whose mission is to provide musical instruments to school and keep New Orleans’ rich musical history alive. The foundation fittingly lends its name from one of professor Longhair’s most well known songs. The Fat Man’s latest contribution are the proceeds of an album recorded by some of R&R greatest in his tribute. Springsteen was at one point rumoured to contribute, which unfortunately never materialized. The list of names that did is none the less impressive. How many albums feature the likes of Lenny Kravitz, Neil Young, Robert Plant, Randy Newman, Elton John and Tom Petty all paying their dues. If we should ever question the width of the Fat Man’s influence.
Available on Greatest Hits: Walking To New Orleans
Bruce Springsteen, Cambridge, 01-07-1974