essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
Fats Domino composed and released almost as many songs as the Beatles, had almost as many hits as they did, and performed for over 60 years, from the late 1940s, a record breaking achievement which makes him one of the biggest stars ever in popular music.
Antoine Domino known as Fats had his first hit record called appropriately enough The Fat Man in 1949 when he was 21. The song was Fats’ first recording. He had been playing piano at various bars in working class areas of New Orleans when he was spotted by producer Dave Bartholomew of Imperial Records. The two worked up the song, based on a tune called Junker’s Blues. It was basically boogie woogie piano, with drums, bass, lead guitar and a horn section of four saxophonists, and Domino’s voice and scat singing. It was something new, which eventually was called rock and roll.
The label said they sold 10,000 copies of The Fat Man in 10 days. It became a million seller and reached no. 2 on the segregated Rhythm and Blues charts. In those days of racial segregation in America there were separate record labels, record stores and record charts for white people and for black people. Seems a funny arrangement now. If anything crosses national and ‘race’ boundaries then and since, it is music. White people in America had just finished fighting a war in Europe against a government that insisted on segregating Jewish people, so naturally(!) they came home and segregated black people.
The Fat Man is one of the songs claimed as the first rock and roll record, something that really can’t be traced because rock and roll was more than one style of music. But it is the only recording from that era still immediately recognisable as rock and roll (even though it’s boogie). That’s partly because other candidates for the first rock and roll record show their roots, but even more because of the fact that Domino has had a longer career of continuous performance than any other rock artist, and he didn’t change his act much at all.
Almost 100 of Fats Domino’s records were hits. He had nine number 1 hits and 10 number 2 hits and another 20 in the top 10 (the Beatles had 42 no 1 hits, for comparison’s sake), with most of Fats’ songs being split over two charts, the white Top 100 and the black Rhythm and Blues charts, counting white sales and black sales respectively. Add those two chart positions together and you got a lot of sales. Fats’ significant chart career lasted 1949-1962. He didn’t like to leave his home town, and performed mainly in New Orleans 1949 till 2012, usually to a full house. That’s 63 years for those weak in maths. Fats is in his 80s now and is not so regular a performer. He was apparently pretty badly hit by Katrina in 2005.
The Fat Man, Ain’t That a Shame, I’m In Love Again, My Blue Heaven, Blueberry Hill, Blue Monday, I’m Walking, Margie, I Want to Walk You Home, I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday, Walking to New Orleans, and My Girl Josephine. These are all Fats Domino classics, many co-written by Fats with Dave Bartholomew. You can put these on a turntable, CD or mp3 player at a party and have people dance to them. I’ve done it. Post punk, post rap, it still works. People who’ve never heard of Fats Domino want to know who he is. It’s the only basic pop music that hasn’t dated save the Beatles. The accent you hear when he sings is French. Fats grew up speaking Creole, English came later.
When estimating recording artists’ popularity the criterion is always record sales, as estimated by record companies and chart compilers (who base their estimates on information from record stores and record companies). But here’s a new idea. The impact a singer or performing artist had needs to be adjusted for the period in which their popularity occurred. We do that when estimating movies’ popularity, so as to compare fairly films of the 30s and the 90s for instance. When comparing income from an earlier period we adjust for inflation.
When measuring a recording artist’s popularity we need to do the same. In the 40s for instance, record buyers in black neighbourhoods had less money than those in white neighbourhoods. Money was worth more in the 40s. Buying a record, especially if you were black, meant more, was more of a sacrifice, than it is today. Reputation then was by word of mouth, not advertising. There wasn’t television promotion let alone MTV. There was no internet. So popularity was worth more. Let’s say in the 40s, by a factor of 10, in the 50s by a factor of five. Arbitrary I suppose, but it gets the idea across.
Accepted sales for the most popular artists are usually given as: The Beatles about 600 million sales, Elvis Presley as about 500 million sales, Frank Sinatra 150 million sales. Fats Domino is credited with 100 million sales. Let’s adjust for the 40s, when Sinatra had a lot of his sales, and the 50s, when Elvis took a lot of his sales, and Fats almost all of his. We get a popularity index (sales adjusted for period):
Elvis Presley 850 million
Frank Sinatra 650 million
Fats Domino 600 million
The Beatles 600 million
Totally ridiculous I know. We need an accountant to do it more exactly. Fats Domino, though retaining popularity, has been out of the limelight for 50 years. Yet if we adjust for the impact stars had in earlier periods, it seems he is one of the most popular stars who ever recorded. The music he made was rock and roll. If anyone is looking for a reason why rock and roll took off and became a dominant musical genre, wouldn’t it be reasonable to give the credit to the incredible long lasting popularity of Fats Domino? It should be noted that lists such as Wikipedia’s, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_music_artists, features mainly artists from the mid 70s onwards. The only 50s artist mentioned in their list is Frank Sinatra (not even Bing Crosby). There is bias here, based on failure to measure for period impact of popularity. The list tries to be objective, based on certified figures, and while that’s good, the system has its limits. Wikipedia’s list of top grossing films is adjusted for inflation BTW.
New Orleans is a large seaport like Liverpool in England and is a melting pot of musical styles. Cuba’s not far away. The Big Easy is where jazz was born. The African American community provided gospel and blues. Listening to the Imperial sides Fats recorded in the early 50s it’s obvious he was equally eclectic, playing music to please the crowd in his club acts and doing much the same on his records. There’s classic boogie, straight blues, up tempo rhythm and blues, jazz standards. The sax solos sometimes sound like swing. A track like Going Home sounds like Benny Goodman in a house of ill fame. Boogie Woogie Baby and Mardi Gras in New Orleans don’t try to hide their origins. Fats’ first hit The Fat Man is straight boogie woogie. Most songs have the rock steady beat provided by drum and bass, accented by bass rhythm on the keyboard. By the time Ain’t That a Shame came along, it had all jelled. It was rock and roll, and it was a sensation with black and white communities across the nation.
You made me cry, when you said goodbye
Ain’t that a shame
My tears fell like rain
Ain’t that a shame
You’re the one to blame
You broke my heart, when you said we’re apart
Ain’t that a shame
My tears fell like rain
Ain’t that a shame
You’re the one to blame
The song came out in 1955. It was preceded by a revolution in the marketing of music, the invention of the small 45 rpm disc, the long playing album of 33 rpm, and the obsolescence of the old shellac 78, which happened in 1949. Music was marketed more fervently via radio, and the music the radio played was from all sections of the community, black and white. Conservatives in the deep south worried about this trend, but most just dug the music, including an 18 year old truck driver called Elvis Presley. The segregation of markets began to crumble as ‘Rhythm and Blues’ artists sold to a white market and charted on the newly launched Billboard Top 100. Teenagers identified with Marlon Brando in The Wild One in 1953 and with James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause in 1955. Early chart toppers were Bill Haley in 1953 and Elvis Presley in 1956, who played rockabilly, gospel shouter Little Richard (heavily influenced by Fats Domino) in 1955, Chuck Berry in 1956, who mixed piano based blues from accompanist Johnnie Johnson with country and his own perceptive lyrics, and Fats, who played rock and roll from 1949.
Fats Domino by this stage had achieved two firsts. In 1949 a contender for the first rock and roll record, The Fat Man. And in 1955, the first crossover hit of a Rhythm and Blues artist to become a national hit, Ain’t That a Shame. But Fats Domino is not just important as a pioneer, though he is one in the history of rock and roll. It is the man’s prolific songwriting ability and performing endurance that has counted. He just went on going, year after year, hit after hit, with 180 or so songs (the Beatles released 217 songs, in comparison), just under 100 of these charting, for an extraordinary recording period of 30 years, 1949-1980, followed by a performing period into the early 2010s. As a composer he was as fertile as Lennon and McCartney, few others came close.
Fats was taken up by the Beatles, who admired him, and whose version of pop became so influential it hasn’t dated either. The Beatles took their line up from the then popular instrumental group The Shadows, who were influenced by Buddy Holly and the Crickets. Buddy Holly was impressed by Elvis Presley, who synthesised a sound that combined country blues and rhythm and blues. And then there were the performers who were at the same time rewriting rhythm and blues: songwriter and instrumentalist Chuck Berry, gospel shouter Little Richard, guitar wizard and arranger Bo Diddley. And rock and roll pioneer Fats Domino.
The best way to appreciate Fats is to hear him. There is a concert at Austin City from 1986 that shows the man and his band and reveals how little they have changed, and how perennial is their appeal http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kFZrXw0ccwQ. Fats is nearing 60 here and his band members look much the same vintage and they all perform with the energy of men half their age. It’s non stop fun. There’s a highly praised book about Fats by Rick Coleman, Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock and Roll (Da Capo 2006) I hope to read soon. I listened to Fats’ music from the 1991 release by Capitol They Call Me The Fat Man, a four CD set with 84 page booklet and 100 songs from the period 1949-1962. The good thing about this set is, aside from the clarity of reproduction, the three quarters of them which weren’t top 40. They’re as good, or even better, than the hits (all included in the set) and show off Fats’ exceptionally wide range of styles. More information on Fats is at http://www.digitaldreamdoor.com/pages/best_artists-bio/fatsdomino.html.
©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.