“It shouldn’t even exist,” Joe Lauro, director of The Big Beat: Tales of the Fat Man and the Birth of Rock ’n’ Roll explains. “To find a 45-minute concert of any black rock ’n’ roll band filmed in 1962 is almost unheard of.”
Most often, in the ’50s and ’60s, rock ’n’ roll bands were limited to brief appearances on variety shows or lip-synced segments in Hollywood films marketed to sock-hopping teenagers. Yet, stowed away deep within the lairs of the French national archives, astutely prepared for their resurrection one day, sat reel upon reel of live concert footage showcasing the beloved pianist and songwriter Fats Domino alongside his original band, featuring bandleader Dave Bartholomew wailing on trumpet.
Acquiring licenses for the original live footage required years of bargaining, but Lauro broke through in 2013. The resulting documentary film, which will have its world premiere as the closing night presentation at the New Orleans Film Festival on October 23, weaves together rare vestiges of local rhythm and blues with sharp, contemporary interviews that explore the long-standing professional relationship between Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew.
In The Big Beat, audiences are led through the lives of Fats and Dave. “The music was in their bones, in their families. And both Dave and Fats grew up in families that came from rural sugar-cane plantations,” Lauro says. Dave’s family worked the fields in Edgard. They later opened a barber shop when the Bartholomews migrated to New Orleans. Fats’ family shared cabins and cut sugar cane in Vacherie. The Domino family moved into a double-shotgun house in the rural Ninth Ward before Fats, the clan’s youngest child, was born. In a city where the most profound collaborations and creative musings are born in nightclubs, this story is no exception.
“In 1949, Dave began working as an A&R man for Imperial Records, leveraging his wide musical network in New Orleans to find, arrange and back new talent. He was directed to a small nightclub where he found Fats booming on piano,” Lauro explains. “And these two gentlemen, with completely opposing personalities, who wrote and worked differently, needed each other to become a chart-topping whole, to become a force in the business.”
Fats and Dave were “Lennon/McCartney-type collaborators,” according to Lauro. Most often, they were quietly credited together on the band’s rolodex of hits. Fats consistently brought “sweet, amazingly focused style and form” while Dave, known as “the Chief,” brought disciplined perfectionism as a “tough task master that would organize and arrange Fats’ simple tunes with blaring horns, giving songs their drive.”
Together with their band and entourage, including road manager Billy Diamond, drummers Earl Palmer and Cornelius Tenoo Coleman, guitarists Walter “Papoose” Nelson and Ernest McLean, and saxophonists Alvin “Red” Tyler, Lee Allen, Herbert Hardesty, Buddy Hagens and Samuel Lee, Domino and Bartholomew liberated the sound of rhythm and blues, which the world received as rock ’n’ roll. Simultaneously, their music also helped to push racial integration across the U.S.
“Young people didn’t care if a musician was black or white, they wanted to be in the crowd, experiencing joy,” Lauro says. That same New Orleans rhythm-and-blues sound simultaneously traveled around the world and provoked other young musicians, like the Beatles, who would eventually usurp the sounds of their heroes.
The Big Beat: Tales of the Fat Man and the Birth of Rock ’n’ Roll will have its world premiere as the New Orleans Film Festival’s closing night film on October 23. Tickets are available at neworleansfilmsociety.org.