|The Fat Man||Imperial 5058|
|Hey! La Bas Boogie||Imperial 5085|
|Don't You Lie To Me||Imperial 5123|
|Ain't It A Shame||Imperial 5348|
|I'm In Love Again||Imperial 5386|
|Blueberry Hill||Imperial 5407|
|Blue Monday||Imperial 5417|
|I'm Walkin'||Imperial 5428|
|Sick And Tired||Imperial 5515|
|Walking To New Orleans||Imperial 5675|
|My Girl Josephine||Imperial 5704|
|It Keeps Rainin'||Imperial 5753|
Contributor: Dave Stephens
Fats Domino, pioneer and innovator. Does that ring true? We’ve all heard the sentence, “If it hadn’t been for XXXX YYYYYY there wouldn’t have been any rock’n’roll, or at the very least, it would have turned out differently”. Who would be your choice for XXXX YYYYYY? Elvis, Ike Turner, Sam Phillips or someone else? Mine is a certain Antoine “Fats” Domino, every time. For evidence, just bend an ear to this one, from 1949, yes 1949, on 78 RPM:
The Fat Man
Let’s get one thing out of the way immediately. Yes, it was a crib, but what a glorious crib. Junker’s Blues from Champion Jack Dupree in 1940 started off in an almost identical manner, only Fats gave us two run-throughs of the verse on piano for starters instead of one. And then those words, from “They call, they call me a junco, ’cause I’m loaded all the time” to “They call, they call me the fat man, ’cause I weigh 200 pounds”.
It’s been cleaned up, moving from junkie’s lament at his desolate life through a total mood switch and a gent who’s virtually revelling in his existence and doesn’t suffer in the slightest from weight issues. That mood is enhanced by the marvellously fruity horns which enter alongside Fats’ almost bawled vocal. Our man even essays a trumpet like scat for a couple of verses just to emphasise the sheer positivity of the whole thing.
This is Champion Jack in case you were wondering:
While there were faint echoes of the Dixieland music that was such a major part of New Orleans musical history this was something new, something we’d start to call rock and roll a few years down the road.
Fats was born, Antoine Dominique Domino in 1928, in the city of New Orleans, of black creole parentage. He started playing piano from a very young age. Early influences were the boogie-woogie pianists Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis. He left school at the age of 14 and got a job in a factory. He also started playing club gigs in the evenings either solo or in a small band.
He was spotted by Lew Chudd, owner of Los Angeles based Imperial Records who signed the young Fats up to a contract and put him together with Dave Bartholomew (see Footnotes). The pair started song writing together from the outset. Their first single released at the tail end of 1949 was a coupling of Detroit City Blues and the aforesaid The Fat Man with both songs having been written by Fats & Dave (but see my comment above about the origins of the latter). The recording took place at the soon to be famous Cosimo Matassa Studio behind the Matassa family shop in Rampart Street. The disc caught the imagination of the black record buying public and gave Fats a number 2 placing in the R&B Chart, something fairly spectacular for a debut single (and it went on to sell a million copies).
While he had to wait a bit before he charted again (with Every Night About This Time), by early 1952 he was beginning to be rewarded for his singles releases by regular R&B Chart entries. His big breakthrough to the US National chart came in 1955 with Ain’t It A Shame (often called Ain’t That A Shame) although he had had a couple of sniffs beforehand. A cover from Pat Boone, which made number 1, took the edge off Fats’ success a little but he was to go on to achieve a quite amazing level of consistency in the US charts. Between 1955 and 1963, he hit the top 40 with 37 singles. His version of the standard Blueberry Hill which made #2 in 1956 is probably the best remembered of all of these but Walking To New Orleans runs it close.
Which brings me neatly to …
The BIG tracks
Certain tracks from Mr Domino deserve more than the adjective big. They were immense as in Easter-Island-Statues-immense or Carved-In-Mount-Rushmore immense. And I’m not talking about sales here, though they did sell, I’m talking about the way these performances have resonated through the years and continue so to do.
To put things in some kind of perspective: Ain’t It A Shame was released in the US in April 1955, three months before Chuck Berry’s first Chess offering, Maybellene, six months before Little Richard’s first Specialty record, Tutti Frutti, and a whopping nine months before Presley’s first RCA release – bear in mind that only a relatively small number of people had heard the Sun cuts at that time. Of the big rock names only Haley and Big Joe Turner had had the spotlight on them before Spring ’55. Ain’t It A Shame was an important rock single. What’s more it was a damn good one; simple, direct and still packing a punch. In essence it wasn’t a lot more than a stop time blues but oceans away from the jump blues format that had ruled the roost in the black ghettoes since the post war years.
You made Bam Bam me cry Bam Bam
When you said Bam Bam goodbye
Ain’t ….. that ….. a ….. shame Horn riff
My tears fell like rain Horn riff
Ain’t ….. that ….. a ….. shame Horn riff
You’re the one to blame Horn riff
(Just checked that and was pleased to hear that my memory didn’t fail me on the musical punctuation.)
I never cease to be amazed at how jaunty Fats was about the fact that his lady had dumped him. But then, wasn’t that what the blues was all about? When you wake up in the morning feelin’ bad, it does sometimes help a little if you tell the world about it. In his excellent biography of the man, “Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock ‘n’ Roll”, Rick Coleman comments: “In New Orleans, the tradition of defiantly dancing your blues away, which was at the core of rock‘n’roll, went back for centuries.”
The world was certainly listening. The record hit the #10 spot in the US and #23 in the UK. Fats also featured it in Shake, Rattle And Rock, one of a rash of rock films in 1956 which attempted to take advantage of the new phenomenon. It was also my first Domino purchase via one of those splendid London EPs (though this one didn’t see release in the UK till ’58).
Eighteen months later and Fats had a bigger smash on his hands. He’d had a few dry runs with oldies before – Careless Love, My Blue Heaven, When My Dreamboat Comes Home – with none of them to be sneezed at, but Blueberry Hill capped the lot. Written by Vincent Rose in 1940 it had been picked up by a range of artists and instrumental outfits. There was a second spell of popularity in 1949 with a version from Louis Armstrong but all those records are forgotten now. Fats owns the Blueberry Hill brand to put it in modern ad speak. Virtually all the post-Fats versions – and there have been many, from Loretta Lynn to Link Wray – owe something to Domino. The riff used by Dave Bartholomew and the boys isn’t a million miles from the one used on Ain’t It A Shame but slowed down it has more depth and resonance – that word again. And the back beat is even bigger. And I haven’t even mentioned that piano intro – I’m almost inclined to use the word, iconic!
And for the first time I should talk about the Domino voice, never really stretching but still capable of expressing a range of emotions, possessing what’s usually referred to as a French Creole lilt, and with a timbre that’s always been instantly recognisable. No one ever sounded quite like Fats either before or after (with the possible exception of white cajun swamp performer Joe Barry who one suspects of a degree of mimicry).
But in terms of classic records Fats wasn’t finished yet. His follow-up to Blueberry Hill featured an oldie – What’s The Reason I’m Not Pleasing You – but it was on a B-side. The A-side was Blue Monday, a new song credited to Domino and Bartholomew. Sure it might have borrowed a little thematically from T-Bone Walker’s Stormy Monday but there was a twist. It started out cursing the back-to-work feeling, “Blue Monday, how I hate blue Monday, got me workin’ like a slave all day”, moving through the weekend with its positives but finishing with the line “But I’ve got to get my rest, ’cause Monday is a mess.” So a more cyclical and possibly a more representative take on the week. (Though in comparison I have to concede it doesn’t have a line as elegant as “the eagle flies on Friday”.)
Musically, Blue Monday is a triumph. After another rollicking pianistic intro it kicks off properly in slow determined mode but with an urgent riff. The bridge coincides with the weekend start:
Saturday morning, oh, Saturday morning
All my tiredness has gone away
Got my money and my honey
And I’m out on the scene to play
… and this section is performed entirely in triplets but with the difference that the entire band play them, in an attempt (which to these ears, succeeds) to convey a whirl of pleasure.
Over half a century has passed and I still haven’t made my mind up whether I really like the strings on the Bobby Charles penned Walking To New Orleans. Okay, the record works; it works very well but could it have been better with fruity saxes instead of those echoing violins? I’m inclined towards an answer of yes, but does it really matter now; those strings are engraved on my memory banks. A slab of music which is indelibly associated with the Big Easy.
The Swamp Connection
While that first single was upbeat and bouncy, it wasn’t the norm by any means for the early singles. Every Night About This Time released in the following year was more typical – slow blues with lyrics oozing with self pity: “Every night about this time, I go to sleep to keep from crying”. And they’re accompanied by Fats’ usage of triplets on the piano, something that was to feature in oh so many swamp pop records. The combination of the double time piano, the slowly riffing saxes and the doom & gloom lyrics seemed to hit a vein right across south western Louisiana.
A couple of later examples of the Domino swamp sound are worth a listen. Firstly, Something’s Wrong aka My Heart’s In Your Hands which was released in late 1953. This one is so close it could be a candidate for first swamp pop single (and it has a slight resemblance to the much later Mathilda from Cookie and the Cupcakes):
Then there was a flip side entitled Thinking Of You. Okay, there was a lack of triplets on this one (apart from the break) but there was that bass and horn section riff which we were to hear time and time again from artists recording in places like Lake Charles and Crawley, LA, and it had the famous swamp chord sequence.
I could go on in this vein. Tired Of Crying from ’51 also has several of the swamp hallmarks.
Oh baby, I’m tired of crying over you.
Oh baby, I’m tired of crying over you
I cried that I love you so but I ain’t gonna cry no more
The swamp guys didn’t only pick up on Fats’ slowies, his more upbeat material formed a major part of the Louisiana rock’n’roll scene. My next one, I Cried, from Jivin’ Gene and the Jokers (see the Rod Bernard Toppermost) sounds almost exactly like the Domino band sound (with a good stab at the vocal) but the song was surprisingly an original.
By 1960/61 there was a two-way thing going on. Fats had started recording songs from two of the major swamp pop writers, Bobby Charles and Jimmy Donley. The former was responsible for Walking To New Orleans of course, plus Grow Too Old, which title Domino expanded to Before I Grow Too Old, and it got released as a flip side in 1960 (and it’s in the Bobby Charles Toppermost).
Charles also had a hand in writing It Keeps Rainin’ although both Fats and Dave also get credits. While the record doesn’t resemble the typical swampie melodically or even in terms of arrangement (no triplets and horns playing something other than the usual line), it doesn’t half match the swamp laments mood wise. Either Fats and/or Dave was keen on the usage of rain as an emotion metaphor and on this one it certainly does its damnedest to break Fats’ heart. It’s also a record that undoubtedly stirred hearts down in Jamaica judging from early Blue Beat and Ska records.
The rather more obscure Jimmy Donley provided Fats with a number of songs. One that I’m rather partial to is What A Price which saw release in January, 1961. It’s a little known Domino track and features our man in introspective mode on a slow brooding number which bears resemblance to swamp pop even while it doesn’t feature the characteristics usually found on such records.
I tried so hard to do what’s right
But you only wrecked my life
Oh what a price I had to pay
For loving you, you, you
As a final comment on swamp pop and who-did-what-first, I’d note that after the Domino move to ABC, he included in his first album for the label a version of I’m A Fool To Care; this borrowed heavily from the Joe Barry swamp version of the song which was a hit in ’61. The irony of course was that many people had thought that Barry sounded like a clone of Fats.
The Lesser Known Favourites
Let’s pick up the story. In 1963, Fats moved to ABC-Paramount where he was to achieve his last top 40 single that same year with Red Sails In The Sunset, another revived oldie. While it would be trite to say that this was the sunset of the Domino recording career, it is nevertheless true that he would never achieve another top 40 placing.
But there were goodies dotted all over his Imperial career plus a few in the ABC days. Sick And Tired (1958) and My Girl Josephine (1960) are a couple that I always tend to bracket together even though there’s no direct connection. Both are straightforward twelve bar bouncers with a latin rhythm going on, in the first instance carried by the horns and in the latter by Domino’s piano. The former was penned by Chris Kenner, no slouch as a performer himself though known in the main for other songs (see Footnotes). The piano riff in My Girl Josephine – or Hello Josephine as it’s often known – bears some resemblance to the one used by Huey “Piano” Smith. However, to be fair to the latter, he was using it on record from ’58 onwards so wouldn’t have been copying Fats (see Footnotes).
An earlier Domino single, Don’t You Lie To Me (1951), yields a load more musical connections. This is the original version of the song from Tampa Red, way back in 1940:
Here’s the Domino version which retains the strut of the original plus the piano lead but adds a more intricate piano pattern plus distinct hints of the New Orleans rhumba, sometimes termed a shuffle. Take a listen to this one and then tell me that (a) Fats wasn’t up there with guys like Longhair on the joanna, and (b) that he couldn’t sing the blues:
Then ten years later a certain Chuck Berry put this number on his New Juke Box Hits album and it came out differently again (and was one of the star tracks on the set). There’s no doubt that he’d heard the Fats take; the rhythm comes straight from the Crescent City.
The Stones heard that one and cut it themselves as did a few others like the Pretty Things and the Flamin’ Groovies – even Albert King had a go.
There was one particular connection that was often present in Domino music even if it was usually well assimilated: that was the one to Professor Longhair, an artist to whom I might have shown a little disrespect elsewhere in this document. The interesting clip below gives us the Longhair original and the Domino cover of Mardi Gras In New Orleans. Both versions are captivating and it’s evident that Fats has tried to add value to an original that he loves. For me, the good Professor just has the edge on this occasion but I love both:
There’s a kind of theme or subtitle to this sub-section and it’s Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy. If “The Swamp Connection” largely illustrated the Yin side of Fats then this is the Yang. Even lyrics like “Oh baby, whatcha gonna do, I’m sick and tired of foolin’ around with you” come out upbeat in these selections.
There’s a similar duality to the lyrics of I’m In Love Again – “Need your lovin’ and I need it bad. Just like a dog when he’s goin’ mad” – but that performance leaves you in no doubt that Fats is in a pretty upbeat frame of mind. This was his biggest seller as of March 1956, #3 in the US Chart and almost made the Top Ten in the UK. I’m Walkin’ from just under a year later and taken at arguably his fastest pace yet was another stormer. Don’t know whether that back beat was hand claps or percussion but it was mighty effective and it had a middle eight to die for. This might just be the most sanguine performance ever of a song wherein the lady has disappeared off into the sunset leaving our hero almost ecstatic.
What you gonna do when the well runs dry?
You gonna run away and hide
I’m gonna run right by your side
For you pretty baby I’ll even die
I’m going back almost to the beginning for my last selection. Hey! La Bas Boogie could have got in on title alone. It was the flipside of his third single, released in 1950. It kicks off with Fats playing a strident beat with his left hand. For the second twelve bars he weaves patterns with the other hand, and then we get the vocal, one verse only, consisting of not a lot more than the title but minus the boogie bit and sung in French. He also has the band echoing vocal phrases in the manner of a lot of jump blues at the time (though it was rare for Domino). And that’s it for the vocal, the rest is the sheer joy from saxes, the band and the tubby fellow’s piano. You can imagine them marching along Rampart to this one.
… and the Ones That Nearly Got In
Careless Love (1951) Fats’ first attempt at an oldie albeit one that might be termed a “trad. arr.” – over the years the song had or has been sung by Bessie Smith, Leadbelly, Buddy Bolden, Big Joe Turner, Eddy Arnold, Bill Monroe, Pete Seeger, Elvis and a few more – an excellent precursor to Blueberry Hill.
Mardi Gras In New Orleans (1953) See reference earlier and it still got very close to making it in my main selection regardless of the Longhair original.
Please Don’t Leave Me (1953) Loads of “Ooh Woo Oohs” and great boogie piano, this one got covered by the Johnny Burnette Trio.
44 (1953) Released on album only (The Fabulous “Mr D”). Suicidal lyric with Fats announcing that he’s going downtown to buy himself a “44” and then kill himself ’cause “livin’ ain’t worthwhile” – and all this taken at a storming pace, perhaps the most extreme example of the dichotomy between content and delivery.
Little School Girl (1954) Musically, possibly the best rhumba realisation from Fats and the band but lyrically one that wouldn’t have been permitted today (see Footnotes).
You Can Pack Your Suitcase (1954) A goodbye song but again it’s a cracker with Fats deploying yet another rhythm; he was much more varied in his syncopation in the earlier days.
What’s The Reason I’m Not Pleasing You (1956) The flip of Blue Monday and distinctly different in style, almost a Dean Martin style throwaway in a kind of shuffle style.
Valley Of Tears (1957) Sentimental near country item with an entirely unexpected femme chorus, probably known more via the Holly version from his self-titled album.
Wait And See (1957) About as close to an aggressive rocker as Fats ever waxed; sax driven with Fats’ piano dropped unusually back in the mix.
Little Mary (1958) Just another of that stream of twelve bar blues from Fats and Dave which managed to sound warm, charming and distinctive. How did they keep ringing the changes? Two great sax breaks as well
I’m Ready (1959) or to expand that first line, “I’m ready, I’m willing, and I’m able to rock and roll all night” – Fats declaring he’s up for it (and he did indeed have something of a reputation as a ladies man). Handclaps a la Gene Vincent plus a kind of rikky tick sound which might have gotten tiresome if this had lasted for more than two minutes.
I Want To Walk You Home (1959) An excellent slow twelve bar item credited only to A Domino – no D Bartholomew in sight – the riff is carried by a guitar just to ring the changes. The whole thing is made by the extra phrases Fats packs in during the climactic lines.
I was tempted to include Domino’s Let The Four Winds Blow (1961) in this list but since I prefer the original from Roy Brown (released in ’57) I’m giving you a clip of that instead. The song has a curious history. Written by Fats and Dave, it initially saw release as a single from Mr. Bartholomew in ’55. A year or so later, Dave was instrumental in reviving the career of Roy Brown which had fallen somewhat into the doldrums. He produced a number of sessions for Roy on Imperial including this one (see also Footnotes). I’d add that apart from the delights of Brown’s highly individual vocal style, I’m also a fan of the instrumental break apparently played on multiple saxes.
Jambalaya (1961) Superb band sound (and arrangement) on a fast version of the Louisiana anthem.
I Hear You Knocking (1961) Flip of the above. Singles by this time were sometimes tending too much in a poppy direction but this was a welcome return to his mid/late fifties sound – the original of course was from Smiley Lewis in 1955 but I prefer the fuller sound on this one.
You Win Again (1962) Two Hank Williams numbers in succession. Fats loved country music and it showed here.
In 1968, Fats (encouraged one presumes by his production team) made a version of Lady Madonna, a song that the Beatles had said was part inspired by Antoine D. It’s okay but for me this was too close to the original to work. However, I don’t dislike the follow-up, Lovely Rita, where more of the Fats personality peeps through (that’s if you can ignore some slightly irritating instrumentation).
Fats Domino has attracted less critical attention than any of the other first generation rockers and there have been few books written about him outside of Rick Coleman’s “Blue Monday: Fats Domino And The Lost Dawn Of Rock ‘n’ Roll”. This, in part, may be due to his reluctance to involve himself in international touring. It’s also worth stating that, unlike most of his peers, he’s never been involved in anything controversial and has led a relatively placid career. One of the biggest news stories associated with the man came in relatively recent years with Hurricane Katrina and the destruction of much of New Orleans. Fats was determined to stay at home due to the poor health of his wife. His area was badly flooded and he was thought dead for days until rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter, which shots made the national news.
In the seventies and eighties it was fashionable to deride Domino for his “simple pop ditties” in comparison to some of those doctors and professors who came from a slightly earlier generation of piano pounders (see Footnotes). Professor Longhair was the most commonly feted name, though Tuts Washington and James Booker also got mentions. While I have nothing against these latter gentlemen, indeed I find them most entertaining, I would comment that their recorded output is often restricted melodically and in terms of supporting instrumentation. Compare that to the range of material and the often interesting full band arrangements to be found on Domino records.
It’s true that there was a gradual shift from early blues material to what I call New Orleans rock‘n’roll but we still got good solos from band members even while the leader himself was less likely to indulge in oodles of extemporisation. His piano playing was to the point and was unerringly suited to the particular song he was performing. An excellent example of this can be heard on Lloyd Price’s first single, Lawdy Miss Clawdy. That’s Fats on piano in the intro grabbing your attention.
Fats Domino is the cornerstone of New Orleans rock‘n’roll, and, with more than a little help from Dave Bartholomew, he created a body of work that stands comparison against any of rock’s big names, Elvis included.
“In short, this shy, deferential, uncharismatic man invented New Orleans rock and roll.” Robert Christgau in review of My Blue Heaven – The Best Of Fats Domino
“Imperial, another Los Angeles company, was the label that succeeded in carrying a singer from rhythm and blues through rock ‘n’ roll and its demise into the twist period, without drastically changing his style. Fats Domino was the singer, whose apparently universal and eternal appeal defies musical analysis. His records were simple, convincing and memorable.” Charlie Gillett in “The Sound Of The City”
I invariably find it’s worth going back to Charlie’s groundbreaking tome. He had the knack/ability of managing to say a lot in a few words.
“There isn’t an obvious time or place when rock ‘n’ roll integrated into society, but Fats Domino was the artist who introduced the heavy African American beat to the pop charts.” Rick Coleman in interview in Jerry Jazz Musician
“The list of people who Fats Domino influenced goes on and on, but strangely enough I didn’t see any reverence reflected toward him in the thousands upon thousands of pages of history written about popular music. I felt there was a big discrepancy, which I aimed to fill, and it became more of a passion as I did more and more research.” Rick Coleman talking about his book “Blue Monday: Fats Domino And The Lost Dawn of Rock ‘n’ Roll” in the above interview
“Fats never seemed more disarming than when at his most mournful.” Dave Marsh in his “1001 Singles” in relation to Walking To New Orleans
“Fats, the smiling personification of bottomless horniness, was rock’s ultimate one-track mind. Never has anybody made sexual frustration sound more pleasant and attractive – almost like fun. Until you realize what he’s saying, the stuff in the growl of the saxophones that the jollity of the piano can’t quite erase.” Dave Marsh in his “1001 Singles” in relation to I’m In Love Again
1. New Orleans rock‘n’roll was characterised by the usage of the piano as lead instrument and by heavy use of brass, particularly saxophones, almost invariably playing boogie lines in unison riffs. Electric guitars which were to the fore in most other forms of rock‘n’roll were usually relegated to support roles in the music that emanated from this city. Vocals varied from the urgency and stridency of the likes of Little Richard and Larry Williams to the more playful and sometimes laidback tones of Fats Domino and others. Rhythms from the city could sometimes take on latin colouration in what was usually termed a rhumba beat.
I would identify three main factors that were responsible for the way that popular music developed differently in New Orleans than anywhere else in the US:
a) The strong tradition of piano players from the city, many of whom could manage at least a basic bluesy vocal as well. These were the guys who would appear at informal events like parties and picnics and have the ability to play any kind of music and sound like a whole band. They were particularly deployed in brothels where the need for music was high but economics dictated that use of even a small band would cut too much into the profits. Such pianists were often called “professors” or “doctors” which was an indication of the respect in which they were held. Essentially, they played boogie with the left hand holding down a riff most often in a twelve bar format and the right hand extemporising around a melody line. There were many performers including Champion Jack Dupree, Cousin Joe, Archibald, Fats Pichon, Tuts Washington, Professor Longhair and James Booker.
b) The high popularity of music in the city which ensured that large bands, like the outfits led by Paul Bartholomew and Paul Gayten, could continue to thrive while similar size bands in other cities were shrinking due to the economic climate.
c) The strong strains of multiple ethnicities which were far more pronounced than in other US cities. New Orleans had actually been under Spanish and French rule until its acquisition by the United States in 1803 and consequently contained many settlers from those countries. From the south the city had received wave after wave of immigration from the Caribbean. These weren’t the only ethnic strains to be found, merely the more dominant ones. This cocktail was responsible for the popularity of far more exotic syncopation than the 2/4 rhythm found in so much rock‘n’roll.
2. Dave Bartholomew was born in 1920 in a small town called Edgard, Louisiana. While still young he learned to play a tuba and then switched to trumpet. The family moved to New Orleans about the time that Dave was going to high school. He kept up his musical interests picking up roles in several bands in his teens which culminated in a position with the Fats Pichon band in 1939. When Pichon retired the following year, Dave took over the lead role. Over coming years musicians like Alvin “Red” Tyler, Lee Allen (both saxes) and Earl Palmer (drums) joined the band. These guys would be mainstays of the Domino/Bartholomew era. In 1947, Dave began recording for DeLuxe Records with some success but switched to LA/Hollywood based Imperial in 1949. His job at Imperial included producing, band leading, arranging, song writing and talent spotting. That’s in addition to his involvement with Domino of course.
3. According to Wiki, Ain’t That A Shame was the first song John Lennon learned to play.
4. Blue Monday was originally recorded by Smiley Lewis and, at that time, the composer credits merely read D. Bartholomew. Smiley might just have been one of the unluckiest men in rock’n’roll, to the extent that he should have been renamed Grin-And-Bear-It Lewis. Virtually all the major songs associated with him were made into bigger hits by other artists: Blue Monday by Fats of course, One Night Of Sin by Elvis under the marginally cleaned up title One Night, and I Hear You Knocking by Fats, and subsequently Dave Edmunds. Smiley, christened Overton Amos Lemons, was born in 1913 so was from a different generation entirely from Domino and the other New Orleans rockers. He was from the era when the professors and doctors ruled the clubs and brothels of the Crescent City. Indeed during the 30s he often played with backing from Isidore “Tuts” Washington.
After a few records for DeLuxe Records Smiley signed a contract with Imperial shortly after Dave Bartholomew had started with the label. In 1950, Dave recorded Lewis on Tee Nah Nah, which was the first of a long series of good, and sometimes very good, singles on Imperial of which The Bells Are Ringing (1952) gave him his first national R&B hit. Blue Monday in 1954 was to gain him more recognition though most of the glory went to Domino for his cover. In ˈ55, Lewis came out with what, for some, was his best record, I Hear You Knocking, with Domino on piano. An excellent record which did well in the R&B Chart but was effectively prevented from crossover success in the pop chart by a cover from Gale Storm. That same story of a cover version taking the sales was to occur again in the following year when a sanitised version from Elvis of Lewis’ One Night (Of Sin) took all the potential national sales from Smiley.
5. I have made several mentions of Professor Longhair, real name Henry “Roy” Byrd, and some biographical words might be helpful. He was born in 1918 but didn’t start playing piano until he was into his thirties. His first records, which included his signature song Mardi Gras In New Orleans (see reference in main text), were made in 1949 for the Dallas based Star Talent label. His band at the time had the rather splendid name of the Shuffling Hungarians. Over the early fifties he was to switch label frequently but it was during these years that he was to make his most well known records including Big Chief, Tipitina, Go To The Mardi Gras. His style had aspects of latin about it (called rhumba within New Orleans as I’ve noted) with plenty of flourishes from his right hand. He only had one minor hit and ironically that was with one of his less interesting numbers, Baldhead. Longhair wasn’t rock‘n’roll as such but he was a massive influence on many of the younger pianists in the city, from Domino onwards.
6. Champion Jack Dupree was another member of the New Orleans professors’ community, indeed one of the earliest. Although less celebrated than Longhair, we saw more of him in Europe since he started living in Switzerland in 1960, moving on to Denmark, England, Sweden and finally Germany (source Wiki). I recall seeing him in one of the Folk Blues Festivals in the sixties.
7. T-Bone Walker came from North East Texas although much of his recording was done in Los Angeles. During the period 1950 to ’54 he, like Domino, recorded for the Imperial label and some sessions were held in New Orleans. His single, Call it Stormy Monday (But Tuesday Is Just As Bad) to give the song its original title rather than the one under which it’s more commonly known, was released in January 1948 from Black & White Records. It’s more than likely to have been well known by Domino and Bartholomew since Walker was popular right across the south. Personally, I tend to the view that Blue Monday was a tribute to T-Bone and his record.
8. There’s a story in Wikipedia that when Fats was on tour, Bobby Charles came to see him in Lafayette. Fats “invited Charles into his dressing room, and regretted he did not have a copy of his new record (the Charles written Before I Grow Too Old) to give to Charles, but invited Charles to come visit him in Domino’s home of New Orleans. Charles replied, “I don’t have a car. If I’d go, I’d have to walk.” Afterwards, the thought remained on Charles’s mind, and he said he wrote the song for Domino in some 15 minutes.”
9. Chris Kenner was one of the more obscure members of the New Orleans rock and R&B community. He wrote two of Fats Domino’s best songs, Sick And Tired and Something You Got Baby, the former of which has now been covered by a host of artists. Kenner’s own versions of these songs aren’t bad either. Even better though are his own performances on his two originals, I Like It Like That (Parts 1 and 2) and Land Of A Thousand Dances, both all time classics, and well worth seeking out. I’m lucky enough to own a vinyl version of Kenner’s Land Of A Thousand Dances Atlantic album which is still available on CD. Even better, in terms of value, is the Charly MP3 set I Like It Like That which gives a bigger selection of Kenner’s Atlantic work. Each of these collections features Kenner’s relatively primitive slurring vocals plus Allen Toussaint’s rolling piano on songs that range from one chord numbers or two chord riffs to ones that have a slightly greater level of complexity.
Have a listen to the Kenner version of Something You Got. It’s a curious but fascinating track which contains elements of the old – the wailing backing chorale, and the new – those horns presaging a funky future.
10. Huey “Piano” Smith is invariably described in reviews as being in the tradition of the great New Orleans pianists. Indeed Wikipedia references “the boogie styles of Pete Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons; the jazz style of Jelly Roll Morton and the piano playing of Fats Domino.” Not to miss anyone out they also namedrop Professor Longhair as an influence slightly further down the page. While I wouldn’t dispute any of this – more informed musical brains than mine have made such contributions – I always saw Smith as a little different than the other New Orleans keyboard rattlers, particularly his peers who fitted more easily in the barrelhouse tradition. His piano styling was always instantly recognisable and considerably more distinctive than the others (though by that I’m not implying that he was necessarily the best of the bunch). I’m not a pianist myself so don’t really have the words to describe his approach but he seemed to have his own version of the New Orleans rhumba and didn’t use the same ascending and descending riffs as the others. Interestingly, Smith did a lot of session and live backing work before he and his band won their first record contract and on these sessions his playing was very much in the Domino mould or the not dissimilar style used by Little Richard.
After a modicum of success with solo singles plus a stint backing the aforementioned Mr Penniman, Huey started putting his own band together which he named the Clowns. Lead vocal was usually from Bobby Marchan. The guys got a contract in 1957 with Johnny Vincent’s Ace Records. The hits started almost instantly with Rockin’ Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu making the R&B top five. It was also unusual in being split into two parts with Part 1 on the A side and Part 2 on the flip. A couple of records later and along came the double sided hit, Don’t You Just Know It coupled with High Blood Pressure. This pairing not only made the R&B Chart but also managed to get into the pop Top Ten. However, after this the hits started drying up.
11. For those who didn’t get the earlier reference, I should explain that “Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy” was the title of a compilation from The Who, released in 1971 (albeit without commas). After I’d resisted using the adjective “bouncy” for the nth time, this title just popped into my mind.
12. The lyrics in Little School Girl would certainly have been controversial if contained in a single released today (and that’s a considerable understatement). “Hey little school girl are you going my way. Let me bring your books home baby, feels so good today.” And they continue in much the same vein. In defence of Fats I would state that although the credits are down as Domino & Bartholomew, the song was a variant on another very similar one, Good Morning Little School Girl, which has seen release from several household name blues stars including Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson (not to mention Rod Stewart). That’s not an excuse but attitudes to sex, age and sometimes marriage were very different in the southern states of America from elsewhere in the early to mid 1900s. Witness also Jerry Lee Lewis, also from Louisiana.
13. As a postscript to the above I’d add that when Little School Girl came out on an EP a couple of years later it was renamed Are You Going My Way. However, I’d doubt that that was Imperial doing a cover up because they included another song – a different one – entitled Young School Girl on an album two years further down the road.
14. Roy Brown was from New Orleans but moved to LA to get his first taste of success albeit as a boxer. He won a number of fights in that city but eventually left boxing. He won a singing contest in LA in 1945 performing Bing Crosby songs but then returned to Louisiana, getting work singing in clubs. While his repertoire was initially very much pop ballad oriented he worked more blues based material into it. I should comment that Brown’s voice is one of the most unusual that I’ve heard with a plumminess that I’ve not encountered in any other black musician. He wrote Good Rockin’ Tonight in 1947 and tried to interest fellow R&B performer Wynonie Harris in it. Harris wasn’t keen but the song came to the ears of Jules Braun, owner of DeLuxe Records, and he was impressed enough to offer Brown a contract. It made #13 in the R&B Chart which, in turn, impressed Wynonie Harris so much that he cut his own cover which topped the R&B Chart in 1948. Meanwhile, Brown continued to cut tough blues oriented singles for DeLuxe and, subsequently, King Records of Cincinatti. The hits dried up in the early 50s. A move to Imperial actually saw him covering white rockabilly material in the mid 50s, which actually sounded better than one might have expected. During this period he had a minor hit in 1957 with Let The Four Winds Blow.
15. Post Hurricane Katrina, in 2007, an album was released entitled Goin’ Home: A Tribute To Fats Domino from a variety of artists. I purchased it, gave it five stars on Amazon and included the following remarks in the closing paragraphs of my review:
“As a postscript I would just say that while it’s absolutely horrifying that it takes a catastrophe like Hurricane Katrina to put Fats more in the public eye and even gets us a tribute album at long last, let us just say thanks that, (a) he is still with us, and, (b) there are a lot of artists out there with so much love for the man and his music that they were able to come up with this album and do it so well.”
As a taster for the set, this is Robert Plant with the Soweto Gospel Choir and Valley Of Tears:
16. In terms of buying Domino you could do a lot worse than look into the four separate albums from Ace Records covering his Imperial Singles. In all, these cover the date range 1950 to 1964. In terms of value there’s a 4 CD set from Proper Records entitled King Of New Orleans Rock ‘N’ Roll, covering the early years. Since writing those lines – which I probably could have done in my sleep – I’ve checked and there’s a 4 CD set entitled They Call Me The Fat Man: The Legendary Imperial Recordings which isn’t cheap but it’s apparently very well packaged in terms of information content. And there’s a considerably cheaper MP3 version.
17. When I started out on this exercise I hadn’t intended to focus on Fats’ Imperial records to the exclusion of anything else but it just worked out that way. For Fats and Imperial compare with Chuck and Chess, Jerry Lee and Sun, Little Richard and Specialty. One should also take into account the fact that the Fats move to ABC-Paramount severed the Domino/Bartholomew connection.
18. Two alternative titles occurred to me for this Toppermost: “Fats Domino and New Orleans Rock’n’Roll”; or the somewhat more frivolous, “Fats Domino and the Longest Footnotes Yet”.
“Blue Monday: Fats Domino And The Lost Dawn Of Rock ‘n’ Roll” by Rick Coleman
“Rhythm & Blues In New Orleans” by John Broven
Dave Stephens had a long career in IT – programming, consultancy, management etc. – before retiring in 2007. After spending time on the usual retiree type activities he eventually got round to writing on one of his favourite subjects, popular music, particularly, but not only, the sort that was around in his youth. He gained experience at ‘the writing thing’ by placing CD reviews on Amazon. This led to his first book “RocknRoll” which was published for Kindle in 2015. He followed this up with “London Rocks” in July 2016. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX