Listen. You can hear Fats Domino everywhere in New Orleans, even in places where there is silence. There is something about his rhythms and melodies that are in the way people walk and horns riff and cars drive and streetcars squeal and cutlery clanks and cast-iron pots simmer. It might be over 65 years since he took an old junker blues riff and joyously proclaimed that he was the Fat Man because he weighed 200 pounds and was checking out the Creole gals on Rampart and Canal (scant blocks from where Fess said you’d see the Zulu Queen) and the world changed forever, but all that is still here. If you have spent enough time in the Crescent City, it’s in your heart beat (hence how it’s in the silence…) and the fact that it is part of your inner workings makes your life a little better, mark my words.
The music and presence of Antoine “Fats” Domino has made the lives of millions better. It’s not just the fun and street profoundness of the music, although that would be enough. As Rick Coleman’s stellar biography of Fats make clear, Fats was a stealth saboteur of Jim Crow and the bullshit race laws of mid-century America. Domino’s performances so inspired dancing teens in the 1950s that they would cross or knock down any barriers to their frenzied movements, and next thing you knew, whites were boogieing with blacks who were shaking it with Latinas who were high stepping with Native Americans.
And all that came from a man who, while his persona was very non-threatening, was by no means subservient or a racial stereotype. Fats Domino was revolutionary, both musically and sociologically. But he and his band paid their dues for it. No matter how much mixing there was at the dances, in the early days, they were getting take-out food from windows labeled “Colored” and staying in black hotels. But the performances laid the seeds for a better future.
And let’s not forget the band. Fats was and is a powerhouse of music, but he was matched and supported by one of the best bands in the business both live and in the studio. It was a band full of characters that could only come from the Crescent City—guys with names like Tennoo, Smokey, Stackman, Earl, Papoose, Red, Reggie, and Reggie. There is a great dispute on whom or what invented rock ‘n’ roll, but if this band didn’t invent it, they perfected it.
This band could swing and dart, shoot and skim. They were a sweet caress on the ballads and a barreling freight train on the rockers. They were recorded by the great Cosimo Mattasa and whipped into shape by the great unsung hero of American and New Orleans music, Dave Bartholomew, Fats’ partner and alter-ego. The way that Bartholomew made that music sound still influences the sound of popular music to this day, and of course it does because it’s a pinnacle of excellence. The horn arrangements, the backbeat, triplet, and Cuban rhythms, the songs—they still sound hip. It’s a sound that has influenced everyone from the Beatles (who, if you take a cynical view, were just a ramped up Fats Domino cover band) to New York trumpeter Steven Bernstein’s Domino-inspired arrangements of Jewish liturgical music to free jazz titan’s Peter Brotzmann’s Fats horn section on steroids recording “Machine Gun” to the Skatalites (whose rock steady and ska beats are just Fats Domino Jamaican style). It is the DNA of popular music. If you put rock ‘n’ roll under a microscope to analyze the strands, you’d see Antoine’s smiling face beaming back up at you.
That smile is one of his signatures. Most photos you see of Fats, he is smiling. Those who had a chance to hear him in concert know that he’s smiling most of the time. His audiences at those concerts—from the tiny babies to the old folks, from the rookies to the hard core cynical music fans—are all smiling. Domino makes happy music. Even his sad songs aren’t that sad. When he sings things like “Please Don’t Leave Me” or “Every Night About This Time,” there is still a sense of optimism in their tone as if to say “these blues won’t last and I’m going to make sure about that.” Also, part of what makes it happy is that the music sounds so effortless (in a very New Orleans fashion). It’s not by any means, but it sounds that way, and that makes it happy too.
And finally, a great part of the appeal of Fats and his music is the simplicity. It is basic, simple music. Several of the pianists interviewed for this article emphasized this. One well-regarded New Orleans pianist, who will remain nameless as this piece of information comes from a reliable but still secondhand source, considers Fats to be almost a guru to him because of the simplicity of the music. It’s basically boogie-woogie and triplets, but in that there is so much expressiveness and depth of emotion, experience, and spirit. Domino’s music has complexity in the simplicity. That’s a contradiction, but the great truths of our existence are such. There is a power and zen in how something so basic can contain so much. You can listen to Fats on that level and get lessons in life from it, and you can listen to it as great and energetic party music.
Either way and both ways, or any other way, Antoine still wants to walk you home after he’s got a new pair of shoes from walking to New Orleans as he lets the four winds blow while he’s going to be a wheel some day and, by the way, hello Josephine, how do you do, etcetera. You get the message. You already had that message and the music in you, and you are better off for it. And that ain’t a shame.
What does Fats Domino mean to New Orleans piano players?
The people who have unique insights into Fats Domino are the pianists. They have thought about him on both a pianistic, technical level, and on a more encompassing metaphorical level. Each pianist was asked 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?
We tried to get a variety of pianists both renown and notorious to give their opinions. No matter what you think about Fats’ profile around the current culture, he is still creating a disturbance in the mind of New Orleans pianists (to paraphrase Fats’ Ninth Ward neighbor and occasional opening act Jessie Hill) in a big way.
When you asked the question about a favorite Fats tune, that’s a tough question. What first came into my mind is from an album that Fats doesn’t even play piano on. Booker does—Fats Is Back. It’s called “Wait ‘til It Happens To You.” I like his voice in that song. I like the way he expresses himself. There is no perfect answer. That’s what came to mind first. At the very least, that’s one I focused on as an interesting song. What usually comes to mind are the standards. The stuff most characteristic of Fats is the stuff he and Dave Bartholomew wrote together. They were collaborators—they completed each other. Fats had something that Dave needed and Dave had something that Fats needed. Neither one of them would have gotten the notoriety without the other. They were critical to each other.
They were alter egos in some way. I’m glad for their relationship because it produced such great music. The way he puts his stamp on things is great.
Never saw Fats up close. I saw him in big concert settings. It was extraordinary how much he put into his concert performances. He was so totally there. And the other thing important is how extraordinary his band was throughout his career—they were amazing, and he defined them. You’ve got these musicians who are better than Fats is. Folks like Fred Kemp and Herb Hardesty. It doesn’t get any better, and in a way, Fats is a boogie-woogie player. Compared to him, he doesn’t have the status in the snooty musician world. For me, if the music is good, then the technique is strong. By those terms, Fats is as good a musician as could exist. But, he’s got that amazing power. And at the end of the gig, he would get up and the band would keep playing. And when he stopped playing, it was like half the band went away. That’s what struck me about his live performance—how much of the glue that held it together was him. Half the band went away even if it was 15 people.
Fats is one of many people who uniquely represents New Orleans. When you talk about things that represent New Orleans that you can only find here, Fats is in the top 10, maybe number one. He could not have come into being any place else. He is an iconic figure who represents New Orleans in a very complete way. If you think of the world wide impact of him, it’s amazing. I don’t think you could think of a musician whose name is more known worldwide than Fats—even Michael Jackson or other superstars. Over the last 50 years, his music is more known to more people. His music is so direct. It has a simplicity and drive that everybody can relate to. How many people in their art can reach so many people—and if you’re in an audience at a Fats show, everybody is smiling.
I don’t have a favorite Fats tune. There are several I really like, and I like all of them. 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.
Being someone who fell in love with New Orleans music and hearing it from a very young age and then coming here and spent a lot of time listening to it and learning and getting a lot of pleasure from it—Fats is an inspiring piano player to a youngster. 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.
The music that they invented here in New Orleans—and you can’t say when that started because it was a long evolution from day one, but the point they arrived at in the late 1940s—it’s hard to imagine what that sounded like to people more than half a century later, but it was revolutionary. The R&B that they developed here was the ethnic folk music of New Orleans, and there is ethnic folk music all around the world, but there is a style here that translates onto records and lit the world on fire and they renamed it rock ’n’ roll and it first happened here in New Orleans. It’s a style of music that became rock ‘n’ roll and evolved into heavy rock groups and heavy metal, all these different facets of what pop music is now. All of the music can be traced back to New Orleans. So to me, he is the face of New Orleans rhythm and blues. He’s the face of the little thing that happened here and took over the rest of the world, the backbeat and blues notes and the funk and the soul.
My favorite Fats Domino tune is one I love, “I’m Walkin’.” I love Fats’ version, but I love George French’s version too. It’s one of my earliest musical memories as a professional musician.
Fats is my link as a piano teacher. He’s the perfect first piano lesson for someone who wants to learn the piano but doesn’t want to study the classical repertoire. There is simplicity in the way he plays. It’s not easy by any means, but it’s straight-forward and simple.
Most people have Fats’ music in their head already—major triad in the left hand and funky triplet rhythms in the right hand. Once you play that, you’re pretty much playing a hit right there. As a teacher it’s great. As a performer, once I start playing [sings the opening riff of “Blueberry Hill”], everybody in the room is really going to appreciate that. And if it’s a hip room, somebody is going to be dancing. When someone starts playing “Blueberry Hill,” grab a pretty woman and start dancing.
Really, the music of Fats should mean more than it does. I think Fats is underappreciated in the annals of American music. It might be different in the South. Internationally, I think the audiences are more tuned into New Orleans and understand his place in the New Orleans music pantheon. Even the serious jazz heads have to appreciate how Fats was able to take the New Orleans rhythm and blues and break out on a rock ’n’ roll scene. In New Orleans, people my age and older all love Fats, but I’m not sure that translates to younger listeners. I’m sure they’ve all heard it, but—I don’t know, I’m pessimistic about the younger listeners.
There’s a lot I like about Fats. I like a lot of what he did. A lot of what I liked about Fats was when he worked at Al Hirt’s Club, and I was working with Al Hirt. He was a consummate showman, and he had an arrangement of “When the Saints Go Marching In” that was killer, but if I had to pick one, it would be “I’m Gonna Be A Wheel Some Day.” It has a certain appeal to me. They were all rhythm and blues tunes. All of Fats’ music had a heck of a groove to it.
It’s hard for me to pin down what he means 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. A lot of people came to Al’s to hear him, and they came from these little bitty towns right out of New Orleans. And I always had a respect for that because I would later on figure out how difficult it was to get people to come out and hear you.
I’m never sure what someone means about American music. As you know, America is the land of immigrants. And there are a lot of different people playing music to all these different immigrants, and it sort of becomes a gumbo of music. If I had to pick something, 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 where ever he went, what he brought to people was the culture of New Orleans. He brought them New Orleans. That’s basically what he meant. What he was doing, when you leave here, it’s not the same in Nashville. They have a version of the “Saints,” but his is one of a kind. People use that expression a lot, “one of a kind.” But he definitely is one of a kind.
Fats had 19 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.
I never met Fess or Jelly Roll, have barely met Booker, Mac and Toussaint and Harry Connick, Jr., but through my friend Haydee Ellis, I’ve been to Fats’ house several times, and that’s been pretty cool. Even went to his old Ninth Ward home twice back in the day.
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.” I had never heard it when my oldest brother Buford, who has now gone to the next life, asked me if I could play it, so I learned it for him, and it makes me think of him every time I play it. It’s got the same hook as his hit “Ain’t That a Shame.” Also “Blue Monday” is one of my favorites too because it really speaks to me as a working man lyrically and I love the raw tension that the bridge creates that is released so beautifully in the final verse. It uses a very simple musical device of a repeated triplet figure for a really long time to create the tension but it’s as dramatic as a Wagner opera in its result!
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. Fat’s is just magic. The triplet feel that he popularized is pounded deep into my soul. I’ve only met him a few times.
He’s a kind sweet soul who just likes to hang out and play his piano.
He played a gospel song for me one time in his living room and it was absolutely beautiful, his groove was deep, just him and the piano.
His music is simple with a strong groove and a smile in it. He touched millions of fans all over the world and brought so much joy into the world. No matter where I play, in Europe, Japan, or Cocodries, when I start playing Fats, everyone lights up. Elvis and the Beatles were huge fans and he influenced them greatly. What we call swamp pop today began as just Fats sung in French. Fats along with Louie Jordan created and popularized Rhythm and Blues and gave birth to Rock ’n’ Roll. What more could you ask for from a boy from the Ninth Ward.
“I’m Walkin’” is probably the first Fats Domino tune I ever heard when I was very little. I just remember as a kid walking with a little strut to the song and singing along. It’s still got that bounce that brings back fun summer memories of my Grammy and Grampy’s house—the perpetual smell of Polish cabbage, inevitable bee stings from the pool, and unlimited raspberry ice cream.
I didn’t even know Fats was from New Orleans until well into my adulthood, which says a lot about his fame. It’s heresy to say something like that down here, but I don’t think I’m in the minority. I just knew I loved his sound. In fact, a lot of music to which I had a strong visceral connection I later found out came from New Orleans. It is not something taught in music school. Maybe because it’s so simple and feels so good that it isn’t given its deserved clout by musicians outside the city. Maybe it’s because the element that makes New Orleans music so appealing is unteachable unless you live here.
This sounds like a digression, but Fats was the first guy to expose the general public to our undefinable musical feel. It doesn’t matter if it can be defined. The beauty is that those who know the least intellectually about music get the most out of New Orleans, precisely because of their lack of musical vocabulary.
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, Allan Toussaint, Tuts Washington, etc.—but, he had lots of appeal being his natural, musical self.
I am not one who usually has favorites coming from musicians’ bodies of work. The composition that is active in my repertoire right now is “Hello, Josephine.”
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. There has been absolutely no one coming out of New Orleans, or anywhere else, like Fats Domino.
“I’m Ready,” because it was the song that first 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, and the piano solo is so simple but so perfect for the song.
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 in understanding a lot of New Orleans music.
He’s the original King of Rock ’n’ Roll. What else can you say?
My favorite Fat’s Domino song is “I’m Gonna Be A Wheel.” It captures the essence of that playful feel of New Orleans R&B. It written by Roy Hayes, the other credited writer is Dave Bartholomew, whose hand is very evident in the arrangements. It was originally a hit for Bobby Mitchell, but Fats owns it, and the countless groups who cover it are doing Fats’ version. 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, but then he gives it a stamp that makes it unique.
He’s an icon. That charisma and charm are as important as chops when it comes to being a successful entertainer.
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.