“Well, I wouldn’t want to say that I started it (rock ‘n’ roll), but I don’t remember anyone else before me playing that kind of stuff.” – Fats Domino
Antoine Domino, Jr. was perhaps the most relaxed guy ever to be a rock star. Elvis’s pelvic gyrating, Little Richard’s glitzy preening, Chuck Berry’s showy duck walking, Jerry Lee Lewis’s acrobatic piano pounding are all part of the lore and legend of early rock ‘n’ roll.
Fats did none of those things. Instead of engaging in wild activity that energized crowds to frenzy, Fats played his piano and smiled a lot. And he killed his audiences just as effectively as any of the above greats. If the man from the Big Easy could be said to have a shtick, it would be that he himself was the big easy: laid back, relaxed, chill, wonderfully musical in a way that made being musical seem – well, easy.
Domino’s influence on the musicians who came after him was enormous. Paul McCartney has said in interviews that he was trying to write a Fats Domino song when he wrote “Lady Madonna.” Randy Newman has said that almost every song he writes begins as a Fats Domino style New Orleans shuffle.
The easy going Domino sold over 65 million records in his career and had 23 gold singles. If he didn’t invent the music we call rock ‘n’ roll, he’s in the conversation. His first hit single, “The Fat Man,” came in 1949, a year after Wynonie Harris’ “Good Rockin’ Tonight” and two years before Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88.” (Some purists will argue for Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s 1946 recording “That’s All Right,” the song that exploded into the public consciousness only after being recorded, largely by accident, in 1954 by Elvis Presley; nevertheless,Fats is in the ur-moment of rock conversation, and his claim is bolstered by the fact that “The Fat Man” became the new music’s first million seller.)
His string of hits includes the now considered classics “I’m Walkin’,” “Ain’t That a Shame,” “Blue Monday,” “Walkin’ to New Orleans,” and his biggest hit, “Blueberry Hill.” Through it all Fats cruised along in his relaxed style.
As is widely known, Fats lost almost everything in Hurricane Katrina. It is a tribute to both his stature as an artist and his universal belovedness that his lost National Medal of Arts was replaced in a personal visit from George W. Bush and his gold records were replaced by RIAA and Capitol Records within a year of their loss.
So let us remember Fats as he’d want to be remembered – singing his great songs and playing his piano for an adoring crowd.
First up, one of the seminal songs in the history of rock, “The Fat Man”:
And here he is in his prime on the Ed Sullivan show doing “Blueberry Hill”:
Finally, if you have PBS Passport access, you can also see Fats perform “I’m Ready” with sixties icons The Byrds.
Well done, Mr. Domino. Walk on….