Fats Domino Heads Off In Search Of The Great Blueberry Hill In The Sky And That Ain’t A Shame

by Richard Cameron


Fats Domino (1928-2017)

Antoine Dominique “Fats” Domino Jr., who passed late Tuesday at age 89, is one of those artists we can recognize for their contributions to the music scene that we don’t need to spend much time introducing.  His impact on pop music is imprinted on so many recordings and facets of pop culture that just mentioning one of his hits, defines the concept behind the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Domino remained in the footprint of New Orleans – in nearby Harvey, Louisiana; a short trip across the bridge over the rolling Mississippi in his later years. Mr. Domino was king of the Rhythm and Blues music scene in the 50’s during the years when, 45 RPM singles replaced the larger 78 RPM discs.  As such, his music moved 65 million copies – mostly on Los Angeles based Imperial Records

photo of Fats Domino with the lettering reading "Fats Domino - Ain't That A Shame"

Domino and musical partner Dave Bartholomew, wrote their first hit, recorded in 1949, called “The Fat Man,” – which alone amassed sales of a million copies by 1951.  Only one artist of the era sold more – Elvis Presley, who named Domino as a seminal influence.  In 1957 – Presley was interviewed by black oriented magazine, Jet and told the reporter:  

“A lot of people seem to think I started this business. But rock ’n’ roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that music like colored people. Let’s face it: I can’t sing it like Fats Domino can. I know that.”

Domino grew up in a large household – the baby of the family with eight older siblings. Incidentally – Fats and his wife Rosemary had eight children of their own and apparently were hooked on the letter “A” for the names of all eight – Antoine III, Anatole, Andre, Antonio, Antoinette, Andrea, Anola and Adonica.

His musical story began as many have – the family’s acquisition of a piano, in this case from the bequeath of a relative. His sister’s husband – a musician himself – began showing Antoine around the instrument at the age of 10. From Harrison Verrett –  he learned some rudimentary notation and the whereabouts of some basic chords, and young Antoine went to town from there.

So enthusiastic was he that the piano was relocated to the garage. Most of Domino’s style and approach to the instrument came from musicians who pioneered “stride” and “boogie woogie” that were legendary at that time, as Fats is now.  Players like “Pinetop” Smith, Meade Lux Lewis and Amos Milburn. Domino described the process to Offbeat – a magazine that chronicles the New Orleans music scene:

“Back then I used to play everybody’s records; everybody’s records who made records. I used to hear ’em, listen at ’em five, six, seven, eight times and I could play it just like the record because I had a good ear for catchin’ notes and different things.”

photo of Fats Domino at the piano

No discussion of Fats Domino’s musical legacy can neglect the value brought to it by Mr. Domino’s longtime musical collaborator, David Louis “Dave” Bartholomew .

Bartholomew, who will turn 100 next year on Christmas Eve, is the relatively unsung musician, composer, arranger, bandleader, producer and musician without which, the happy and memorable Domino catalog would never have materialized as it did.

The famed recording engineer, studio owner and producer Cosimo Matassa – who passed away in 2014 described Bartholomew as an organizing and motivating force behind Fats:

“Many times I think Fats’ very salvation was Dave being able to be stern enough and rigid enough to insist on things getting done… He was adamant as he could be about the discipline of the players.”

It is Bartholomew’s band – with Bartholomew on trumpet and Herbert Hardesty (who passed away at 91 last year) playing the instantly recognizable sax riffs, that you hear on most all of Domino’s hits.  

Domino’s magic was his lighthearted wistfulness and feel good delivery. Unlike some of the other rock and roll innovators of the day, whose music resonated with shrieking intensity – Domino never sounded as if he was headed to a fire.

a record sleeve from an early Fats Domino 45 RPM EP (Extra Play)

At first, when “race records” were shunned by white parents, Domino and Bartholomew’s recordings were, like many other R&B artists, taken, repackaged, the edges sanded off and sanitized by the likes of Pat “White Bucks” Boone and Teresa Brewer.

But it wasn’t long before Domino (along with Chuck Berry and Little Richard) began making their own inroads with white teens and the pop charts.

As soon as Domino began to receive invitations from TV kings Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan, the race barrier, musically at least, began to melt. with “Ain’t It A Shame”, “I’m Walkin” and “Blue Monday”.

Domino did not actually write one of his most memorable recordings.  “Blueberry Hill” was a tune that had been previously recorded, not only by another New Orleans musical icon, Louis Armstrong, but also by the Glenn Miller band in 1940.  Domino made the song his own, though:

“I liked that record ’cause I heard it by Louis Armstrong and I said, ‘That number gonna fit me,’ ” he told Offbeat. “We had to beg Lew Chudd for a while. I told him I wasn’t gonna make no more records till they put that record out. I could feel it, that it was a hit, a good record.”

 

photo from 1964 of the Beatles reuniting with Fats Domino, whom they originally met in 1962 in Liverpool, England

Fats’ success continued on into the sixties and he actually became acquainted with the Beatles during a tour that included New Orleans. If the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna” reminds you somewhat of Fats Domino – there is a good reason says Paul McCartney:                    

“‘Lady Madonna’ was me sitting down at the piano trying to write a bluesy boogie-woogie thing.  It reminded me of Fats Domino for some reason, so I started singing a Fats Domino impression. It took my other voice to a very odd place.”

It is a bit hard to believe that Fats had to wait until 1986 – over 30 years after his first hit, to be voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 

It didn’t take Jerry Wexler – one of the progenitors of the great R&B, Jazz and Soul music pioneering labels – Atlantic Records, 30 years to realize what Fats would mean to the music world of the future.

Back in 1953 – Wexler told Down Beat (magazine), in an eerily prescient quote:

“Can’t you envision a collector in 1993 discovering a Fats Domino record in a Salvation Army depot and rushing home to put it on the turntable?” he wrote. “We can. It’s good blues, it’s good jazz, and it’s the kind of good that never wears out.”

I can. 

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