Producer Dave Bartholomew and label owner Lew Chudd are often given the lion’s share of the credit for helping make Fats Domino an international star.
However, if it weren’t for Billy Diamond, conceivably Domino might today be playing Dixieland on Bourbon Street. It was Diamond who hired Domino to play in his band in 1947, gave him the “Fats” moniker, and was the first person to encourage him to start singing.
Diamond, who now lives in Los Angeles, was in New Orleans during the recent Jazz Festival to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of Domino’s first recording along with Bartholomew, Earl Palmer and Cosimo Matassa. A short, chubby man with a perpetual grin, Diamond is well aware of his place in history, but he is matter-of-fact about it.
“Louis Armstrong actually gave me a trumpet in 1930 but I never learned to play it,” said Diamond. “I used to make guitars out of screen wire and basses out of an old innertube tied to a washtub. That’s how I learned to play bass. Later I got a Kay bass when I was 15 and learned from Tom Copelin and Narvin Kimble—they were great Dixieland bass players.”
By the early 1930s, Diamond moved with his family ro Andry Street in the Ninth Ward. “I lived right next door to the Rumboogie,” said Diamond, referring to the legendary Ninth Ward bar. “I helped build the place. My aunt owned the joint. There was no live music there, it was too small. It was a place you’d go to get a beer or some wine. They had a jukebox though and it was a real popular neighborhood bar.”
During WWII, Diamond was stationed at Camp Poche in nearby Harahan where he drove trucks and later dispatched them. After the war he thought he’d take on music as a profession.
“It was real competitive back then and there were a lot of good bands and great musicians,” said Diamond. “I’m talking about Joe Robichaux, Snookum Russell, Herbert Leary and William Houston-those were the guys that played all the society jobs and played on the river boats. A lot of the creole clubs and organizations only wanted to hire creole bands, not black bands. That didn’t really change until Dave Bartholomew busted the walls down with his band.
“My first band was Billy Diamond and the Mellow Riff Trio. Besides myself I had Johnny Fernandez on piano and Rupert Roberts on guitar. We didn’t get a lot of the good gigs but we worked around the Ninth Ward at the Club Desire which was a nice club; The Cougar Club, Boger’s Patio and Rose Dixon’s place on Derbigny. We played a lot of high school dances too—you see I was pretty good about selling the band.”
The Mellow Riff Trio was part of the “Dawn Patrol” which was sponsored by Jax Beer and advertised in The Louisiana Weekly and broadcast over WWEZ radio.
“Every Monday night we played a different club with Dr. Daddy-O or Ernie the Whip emceeing the show,” said Diamond. “We’d back Patsy VaIdalia or Annie Laurie and it would be a promotion for the Jax and the club we played at. They both pay us $40. Every place we played was packed because of all the publicity.”
In 1947 Diamond formed a another band, Billy Diamond and the Senders, which consisted of himself, Frank Parker on drums, Harrison Verret on guitar and Fats Domino on piano.
“I knew Fats’ brother Joe from hanging out at a grocery store on North Rocheblave,” said Diamond. “Fats had a band at the time with Buddy Hagan playing at the Ballerina Club. Buddy was a sax player; I went on the road with him once backing Roy Brown.
“Fats had a lot of talent even back then. He reminded me of Fats Waller and Fats Pichon. Those guys were big names, and Antoine—that’s what everybody called him then—had just got married and was gaining weight. So I started calling him ‘Fats’ and it stuck.”
Initially, Domino didn’t sing with the Senders as Parker sang several numbers, or depending on the gig, Little Sonny Jones was hired.
“Paul Gayten was real popular at the time and Fats really liked his records ‘True’ and ‘Hey Now Baby’,” said Diamond. “I convinced him to start singing on the gigs and those were the first numbers he tried. Later on he started singing ‘Junco Partner,’ which was James Wayne’s tune.”
Diamond said one of the first breaks the band got was playing the Sunday matinee replacing Gayten ac the swank Robin Hood Club on Jackson Avenue. However, it was the tiny Hideaway Club on Desire Street deep in the Ninth Ward where the band picked up a large and loyal local following.
“That club was owned by Ed Wein,” said Diamond. “His brother Tony had the Green Room downtown. It wasn’t much of a place, but the Desire Projects had just opened about a block away so it was packed all the time. Fats loved to play there because people came in there just to hear him play ‘Swanee River Boogie.’ We made $12 a man at the Hideaway. We made $12 at the Robin Hood too, but they paid our union pension dues.
“Dave heard about us at the Hideaway and he brought Lew Chudd down here one night. Obviously they liked what they heard because chey signed Facs and made a lot of records with him.”
Bartholomew preferred to record Domino without the Senders and he used his own group. That meant chat Frank Fields played bass on “The Fat-man” and most of Domino’s New Orleans recordings, not Diamond. The Senders, however, continued to play with Domino around town.
“Frank was probably a better bass player than I was,” said Diamond. “But I was a good entertainer and I worked hard. Fats went on the road with Dave a couple of times but they didn’t do so well. He felt more comfortable playing with my band.
Diamond explained that besides playing the upright bass, his job was to keep the crowd entertained. He accomplished this by riding his instrument, slapping it, walking it and clowning with it.
Diamond did play on the number one R&B hit, “Going Home Tomorrow,” which was recorded in 1952 during the brief period when Bartholomew quit his job at Imperial and Diamond’s band was employed. He also played on most of the sessions Domino cut while on the road, including “Blueberry Hill” and “Blue Monday.”
Once Domino’s records were beginning to climb the charts, Diamond began spending a lot more time on the road with the Imperial recording artist. As the band grew and dates were more scattered across the country, Diamond also became road manager, the role he held when tragedy struck in 1952.
“We were going to a job in Rayne, Louisiana,” said Diamond. “I took the band and the instruments in the station wagon up Highway 61 and 190 to Opelousas and then drove down to Lafayette. That was all straight highway. Fats rode in his Cadillac with Melvin Cade. He was our first booking agent, he also owned the Rhythm Club on Jackson Avenue. They took Highway 90, which was 15 miles shorter, but it was all winding road. They got into a wreck and Melvin got killed. Fats was shook up but he was okay.”
By the mid-1950s, the powerful Shaw Agency was handling Domino’s booking and they convinced Diamond to put the bass down and concentrate solely on being Domino’s road manager.
Diamond spent about five years in this capacity and only played infrequently. When in New Orleans, Diamond got to know and advise several local artists. In 1962, not long after accompanying Domino on his first trip overseas, Diamond opted for a career change.
“Fats stopped working for a long time,” said Diamond. “When we played on the West Coast we played [he 5-4 Ballroom in Los Angeles which was owned by Charles Sullivan.
Charles was the guy behind Motown moving out west and had been after me to work for him. I had just got married and my wife didn’t want to raise kids in New Orleans because it was segregated. So we moved to Los Angeles. I already knew a lot of
New Orleans cats that were already in L.A. like Plas Johnson, Earl Palmer, Ernest MacLean and Paul Gayten. I hired the bands and managed the club. I met all the West Coast R&B people then, Johnny Otis, Big Mama Thornton, Guitar Shorty, Phillip Walker, T-Bone Walker. I did that until 1969 when Charles got killed and they closed the club.”
With numerous connections in the music business, Diamond decided to venture into the record promotion business. Today he still hires himself out co record companies looking to promote their latest releases on the West Coast.
There virtually isn’t a person in the music industry you can name that Diamond doesn’t know or whom he’s had dealings with. Most of his waking hours are taken up with calling deejays, program directors and record labels. Over the years, Diamond has remained close friends with Domino and they often get together during his frequent visits back home.
“I saw Fats at the House of Blues earlier this year and at the Festival,” said Domino. “I thought he sounded better at the House of Blues. Fats complained that his band doesn’t like to rehearse, but you can’t keep a band and get them to rehearse if you only work once every six months. It would be great to see Fats get out there and play more because his music is so important.”
Shirley Goodman is now living in Los Angeles with her son… Demon/West Side has Huey Smith & the Clowns: Vol. III in the pipeline and Soul Stirrings, an anthology containing Ace material by Lee Dorsey, Joe Tex, Chuck Carbo and Benny Spellman. They will also release five original Ace LPs on CD at a mid-line price including Frankie Ford’s classic Sea Cruise. The Spiders were recently inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame. Ex-Spider Chuck Carbo went to New York for the honor and performed.