In April 2015 OffBeat writer David Kunian asked New Orleans piano players three questions:
What is your favorite Fats Domino tune and why? What does Fats Domino and his music mean to you personally? What does Fats Domino and his music mean to New Orleans, the United States, and the Universe?
There are a few Fats songs in my repertoire. “Blueberry Hill,” obviously, and I think “Blue Monday,” just what happens when you’re playing hard with a band and you get to that bridge where the whole band is playing triplets and it builds and builds and builds and it’s a great pressure cooker. That’s one of my favorites.
Fats Domino provided material that you could replicate fairly quickly. It’s very simple in its structure. What he did with it was add a whole lot of soul to it, and that’s magical. But the form—triplet form with the Jimmy Yancey bassline—that was relatively simple and that was the key that could unlock the door and you could start delving more deeply into Toussaint and others.
There’s a lot I like about Fats. “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday,” it has a certain appeal to me.
I knew Antoine for a long time. After a period of time, I developed a respect for his ability to present his music. I think Fats means a lot more to New Orleans than any other parts of America. See, the thing about him and his music is that it came from the culture of this town, and over the years he used musicians who were either from here or had been here for a long time. Like Lee Allen, he lived here but he came from somewhere else. They were able to grasp the concept of Fats. And consequently if he went to Vegas or wherever he went, what he brought to people was the culture of New Orleans. He brought them New Orleans. Fats had 23 gold records. And when he would come to Al Hirt’s, sometimes his road man Raymond, it would take Raymond forever to get him on the bandstand. But once he got on the bandstand, he wasn’t going to get down until the people in that club had heard all 19 of those records. There were not that many people who would understand the tradition here that reached the level where people would know them through the music or have heard the name. The point is that he was the consummate showman.
“I’m Walking”—I’ve always liked the contrapuntal line the sax plays, and counterpoint in general.
Ray Charles and Fats may have been the two earliest to crossover to white pop audiences. I think New Orleans loves him because he stayed in his original hood until he was flooded out—and because he is such a wonderful singer and cherubic presence.
My sentimental favorite is “The Rooster Song.”
Fats is so big all over the world. He’s our Elvis, our Beatles, our Michael Jackson all rolled into one. Every time I play a Fats song, the room lights up. It brings back memories for old folks and makes little kids dance. Fats is just magic.
Fats Domino was one of the more unique pianists/vocalists to come out of New Orleans. His uniqueness did not necessarily come from having great dexterity or facility on the piano. As I have listened to much of his music over the years, I think that he understood that he was not able to compete with the likes of James Booker, Allen Toussaint, Tuts Washington, etc.—but, he had lots of appeal being his natural, musical self.
Fats Domino, in his simplicity, gave New Orleans presence at the top of most of the popular charts. He made lots of New Orleanians, people across the nation, and people throughout the world happy—especially when they heard him in live performance.
“I’m Ready,” because it was the song that turned me on to Fats when I first started checking out the early rock ’n’ roll piano players as a kid. The whole thing just grooves.
It was important to me because when I started really studying New Orleans music, it was a bridge between a lot of music I was already familiar with and this new stuff I was hearing for the first time. Hearing what he had in common with, say, the Chicago blues and boogie-woogie players but also noting how he was different from them, was an important step for me in understanding a lot of New Orleans music.
My favorite Fats Domino song is “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday.” It captures the essence of that playful feel of New Orleans R&B. It was written by Roy Hayes. The other credited writer is Dave Bartholomew, whose hand is very evident in the arrangements. It’s classic Fats, driven by Earl Palmer and spiked by Lee Allen. All this epitomizes Fats for me—that he was able to attract such massive talents to collaborate with him.
Fats Domino and the early New Orleans rhythm and blues style influenced music in America and the world on a level and scale equal to that of New Orleans jazz in the 1920s. There have been New Orleans styles since then that have been recognized and imitated world-wide—bounce, funk, modern brass bands, but nothing yet has had the influence of Fats et al, who had a seismic impact on the national aesthetic.