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Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Fats Domino - ten rays of aural sunshine from a true rock 'n' roll giant

I gave a friend a Fats Domino greatest hits LP for his 20th birthday. I'd been bullying him into appreciating early rock 'n' roll (I was young and determined to spread the gospel). When he unwrapped it and studied the distinctly uncool, unthreatening-looking, fat little black man smiling benignly beside a piano on the cover, his disappointment was evident. "Just give it a listen," I suggested. I was relieved a week later when the birthday boy appeared at my door, raving about the album. (He might have been trying to spare my feelings, but that really would have been a first for him.) I've long ago stopped expecting anyone to share my popular culture enthusiasms, but I still suspect anyone who fails to react positively to The Fat Man's music of being  an anhedonic miserabilist. You don't have to respond to Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent or Carl Perkins - but if your system doesn't flood with endorphins the moment Fats Domino comes on the radio, it probably means you're a bad person. Not that I'm being judgmental or anything. If you've got Sky, and you've hooked it up to broadband, I strongly recommend visiting the Sky Arts catch-up section to download The Big Beat: Fats Domino and the Birth of Rock 'n' Roll...


There have been so many mediocre rock 'n' roll and blues TV documentaries recycling the same old footage, the same old myths, and the same old clich├ęs that I no longer expect much in the way of insight or originality. When it becomes apparent that the programme-maker is more interested in delivering the hot news that America was a tad racist in the '50s, rather than in celebrating the music itself, I tend to switch over - as I do automatically if those clips of DJ Steve Allen smashing a 78rpm disc while announcing that their radio station will no longer play rock 'n' roll records, or of that white preacher railing against "nigger bop music" rear their all-too-familiar heads. Mercifully, The Big Beat managed to avoid most of the standard pitfalls: racism is discussed, of course - black musicians undoubtedly suffered because of it, especially when touring in the South - but the programme concentrated on excellent historical performances of the main songs and interviews with the musicians who backed the great man on stage and in the studio. There's also a lot of Dave Bartholomew, Domino's producer, song-writer and band-leader - who's still with us, at the age of 91, as, of course, is Fats Domino. (I wrote about Bartholomew - a hugely influential figure in the history of rock 'n' roll and rhythm 'n' blues - here.)

How can you not love a singer who pronounces "corner" as "cawnder"? Or a pianist capable of producing this sort of thrillingly joyful racket?:

Or a performer who so effortlessly makes the listener feel better?:

Or one who can give us something as liltingly lovely as "I've Been Around":

Or who can invariably take other people's songs and instantly turn them into his own, as he does here with with Hank Williams's "Jambalaya":

In the 1950s, Jamaican teenagers, bored with the sort of American pop Jamaican radio was playing, began listening - weather permitting - to the records being broadcast on New Orleans radio, including, of course, Fats Domino's. That, so the theory has it, is where Ska music comes from: I'm no expert, but "Be My Guest" - my favourite Fats Domino track ever since I first heard it at the age of seven- sounds like a classic Ska record to me:

Claims have been made that Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew invented rock 'n' roll - those claims are repeated in the Big Beat documentary. They didn't - nobody did, really. Fats released the first of his singles to sound like genuine, hard-driving rock 'n' roll - "Please Don't Leave Me" - in 1953, a year after Bill Haley's "Rock the Joint" and two year's after the Jackie Brenston/Ike Turner number, "Rocket 88". But Fats and Dave were hugely influential in spreading The Big Beat. While 1956 was Elvis Presley's annus mirabilis, Fats Domino's 1956 was none too dusty either - a slew of hits on the pop charts, including "Blueberry Hill" and "Blue Monday", which exponentially increased the size of his white audience; his first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show (the first of many); riots at four of his concerts; and appearances in the films, The Girl Can't Help It and Shake, Rattle & Rock! Here he and the band mime to their first Top Ten pop hit, "Ain't That a Shame", while a bunch of white kids clap out of time:

There's boogie-woogie in there, plus jump blues, rhythm and blues, a dash of mainstream pop, Cajun, Zydeco, and Ska - and it all comes out as a unique musical genre: Fats Domino music. It's simple, happy, beaty, bouncy, benign - yet there's nothing cheap or obvious or anodyne or cynical about it (although he did go on to record some dodgy versions of American Songbook standards - but, then, even Little Richard did that). Everything one reads about him suggests the music reflects his personality - he's obviously a very likeable man. Some of the clips of his appearances on '50s TV entertainment shows reveal a tendency by white hosts to patronise their guest: the appalling Ed Sullivan insisted Fats started off his performance by standing upright at the piano - which he never did - so the audience could see how tubby he was. While Fats remained his usual amiable self, there wasn't a hint of Uncle Tom about him. Having seen the same arrogant treatment meted out to Elvis by Steve Allen (the wanker who made him sing "Hound Dog" to a Basset Hound), I suspect the hosts' lack of respect had more to do with the artists' undeniable Southernness than their colour. (I'd like to have seen them try to treat Howlin' Wolf with similar disdain.)
There's no disdain in this household for Antoine Dominique Domino Jr. - just an enormous sense of gratitude for the countless hours of pleasure his superb recordings have given me for almost sixty years. The playwright Alan Bleasdale - who wrote the musical Are You Lonesome Tonight? - said of his hero, Elvis Presley, that when Elvis smiled, he smiled.  Well, whenever I hear a Fats Domino song, no matter what sort of mood I'm in, I smile:

One last thing about The Big Beat - if I ever knew that Fats Domino played piano on the Lloyd Price classic, "Lawdy Miss Clawdy", I'd forgotten it. Apparently the pianist booked for the session just couldn't get it right - and Fats, who happened to be at the studios, agreed to pitch in. Listen to the record, and it's just seems obvious. I do appreciate rock documentaries that tell me things I didn't know. 


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