Thursday, February 26, 2015

Fats Domino—New Orleans to the Core

Fats Domino and New Orleans are inseparable.  He was born there and nearly died in the disaster that nearly obliterated the city that he knew.  That New Orleans was not the city of Jackson Square, the French Quarter, or even Bourbon Street, the city of tourists and romantic imagination.  His was the city under the levee, the crowded, poverty stricken, and intensely Black Lower Ninth Ward where he was born and spent most of his life.
Antoine Domino Jr. was delivered in his parent’s home on February 25, 1928 by his midwife grandmother.  The family was native Creole—a Black French dialect—speaking family recently arrived from rural Vacherie, Louisiana.  Most of their neighbors settling in the then relatively newly developed section of the city were likewise country folk and had a culture distinct from Blacks of longer residency in the city—the mix of former Freemen and liberated slaves who had given rise to the city’s legendary Jazz culture.
The rural Creoles brought their own musical traditions built around a stew of influences including Cajun dance music, field chants, country blues, and Anglo white hillbilly music.  It was lively and melodic with a driving rhythm.  The extended Domino family was quite musical.  Antoine Sr. was a popular fiddle player.  Uncle Harrison Verrett was a jazz guitarist. 
Young Antoine picked up the parlor piano and by his teen years was pounding out a mean stride style and entertaining at community gatherings.  It was at just such an event in 1947, a big neighborhood barbeque, where bandleader Billy Diamond first heard him and offered him a job with his Solid Senders, the house band at the Hideaway Club.  During this extended gig Diamond hung the moniker Fats on his rotund young piano pounder, an obvious tip-of-the-hat to Fats Waller.
Domino was soon not just playing the piano but composing and singing his own songs, increasingly fronting Diamond’s band.  By the late ‘40’s he was on his own with a small combo.
In 1949 Domino was signed by producer Dave Bartholomew to Los Angeles based Imperial Records, a major label specializing in Rhythm and Blues, country, and Tex-Mex music.  Bartholomew built up a substantial stable of New Orleans artists for the label and became Domino’s personal producer and creative collaborator.  Together they assembled a tight band led by Fred Kemp and featuring a strong sax sound behind Domino’s piano.  It was a fresh, new sound.
In 1950 Domino’s The Fat Man became a No. 1 R&B hit spurred by sales of more than 10,000 copies in its first week out in the Big Easy alone.  The song featured Domino singing over a strong back beat with a stripped down strike piano style, a four piece sax section, and Fats scatting wha wha in two choruses.  Sales of the song remained strong and by 1953 reached one million units.  Music historians consider The Fat Man one of the first true rock and roll songs.
In collaboration with Barholomew Domino had five gold records for Imperial before 1955, but remained unknown to most white audiences.  That changed with the release of Ain’t That a Shame.  It was his first cross over to pop hit, but sales of his original version were hurt by Pat Boone’s hasty release of sanitized and toned down cover.  Boone built his career ripping off Black artists like Domino, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry and was resented by all of them.

Blueberry Hill in 1956 was a cover for the 1940 song by 1940 Vincent Rose, Al Lewis, and Larry Stock which had previously been recorded successfully by artists ranging from Glenn Miller to Gene Autry to Louis Armstrong.  But after Fats Domino, those were forgotten.  It sold more than 5 million copies in its first two years and shot to No. 2 on the Top 40 and remained No. 1 on the R&B list for 11 weeks.
That ushered in years of fabulous success.  By 1963 he had laid down 60 singles for Imperial, 40 of them charted hits on the R&B and Pop charts.  He appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and his musical performances were featured in two 1956 movies Shake, Rattle & Rock! for poverty row studio American International and The Girl Can’t Help It with Jayne Mansfield, Tom Ewell, and Edmond O’Brien for 20th Century Fox which turned out to be one of the most influential of all of the rock and roll movies of the mid ‘50s.  Domino also became one of the first rockers to have success with the release of an LP.
Most artists of humble background quickly left their old neighborhoods and built mansions on the right side of the tracks, country estates, or moved to posh digs in Los Angeles or New York.  Not Fats.  He had no desire to leave the Lower Ninth Ward.  He built a large, comfortable home there, surely the most impressive residence in the neighborhood where he was surrounded by his extended family and friends.  There he and his wife Rosemary raised eight children.
Domino continued to score big into the early ‘60’s with songs like Walkin’ to New Orleans and My Girl Josephine.  But then in 1963 Imperial was sold to outside interests.  He had been intensely loyal to the label and to his production partner Bartholomew and had frequently turned down lucrative offers to move to bigger labels.  But he was uncomfortable with the new management.  “I stuck with them for as long as I could,” he said, “but then they sold out.”
Domino signed a new deal with ABC-Paramount Records.  The experience was not a happy one.  He could not work with Barholomew because of the producer’s contractual obligations to Imperial.  The label insisted he record in Nashville with producer Felton Jarvis and a new arranger Bill Justis.  They wanted modernize and brighten Domino’s sound.  They added countrypolitan choral backups and even strings to his driving, stripped down sound.  Audiences were no more thrilled with the product than Domino was.  He recorded 11 singles for Paramount and only one, Red Sails in the Sunset made the pop charts.  After two years he left the label in 1956.
The Beatles and the British Invasion were changing the face of rock and roll and leaving behind its pioneers like Domino.  Fats recorded for other companies. Mercury, Bartholomew’s small independent Broadmoor label, and Reprise.  The records, singles and albums, achieved niche market successes, but mainstream Pop success was mostly behind him. 
There was a spike in interest in his music by younger fans when The Beatles and other British acts cited his influence on their music.  Paul McCartney wrote Lacy Madonna in Domino’s style as a sort of tribute.  Fats must have recognized it, because in 1970 he covered it in a Reprise single, which was his last charted hit.
Through the ‘70’s Domino played the oldies circuit of state fairs, festival, and reunion reviews.  But he grew tired of the road and announced in 1980 that he would not leave New Orleans again.  The royalties from his many hits—more charted records than any artist of the classic rock and roll era except Elvis Presley—were enough to support him comfortably in his home.  Besides, he said, he couldn’t get good food anywhere else.
Domino was serious about his pledge.  He could not be lured away even when inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or an invitation to perform at the White House.  He did play around his home town including annual turns at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and some of those Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood bashes like the one at which he was first discovered.
In 1987 he was honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.  And in 1998 he actually agreed to go to Washington to allow President Bill Clinton to drape a National Medal of the Arts around his neck.  In 2004 Rolling Stone rated Domino No. 25 on a list of the 100 Artists of all Time.
Despite the accolades, Domino lived happily retirement.  Then tragedy struck.

Fats Domino's flood ravaged Lower Ninth Ward Home.

He was warned to evacuate his home before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August of 2005.  But his wife Rosemary was in poor health and he decided to try to ride out the storm in his sturdy home.  Unfortunately, the levee broke and the whole Lower Ninth Ward was devastatingly inundated.  Domino’s home was flooded and all of his belongings, including a lifetime of career memorabilia were destroyed.  For three days Fats and his family were considered missing.  Many presumed them to be among the dead, perhaps to be discovered later as bodies bobbing in the water.  Someone scrawled “RIP Fats” on the shell of his home and photos were shown on national TV.
Luckily, a Coast Guard helicopter had plucked them to safety.  With most communications out, Fats had been unable to contact family members or business associates.  He was located among the refugees and taken to Baton Rouge where an LSU quarterback took the family in where they slept for some days on the couch and floor.  The family resided in Harvey, Louisiana during the long process of restoring his home and office which began in January 2006 and took years to complete.
To prove he was alive and to raise money for New Orleans musicians wiped out by the storm who had fewer resources than he did, Domino released Alive and Kickin’,  an album of material recorded in the ‘90’s in early2006 to benefit Tipitina’s Foundation.  By 2007 the Foundation was operating out of a trailer next to Dominos restored office.  Fat’s devoted much time and energy to the project.
Yet the staggering costs of restoration of his own home taxed even Domino’s resources.  He was also too ill to perform for some time, having to take a pass on his annual appearance at the Jazz festival in 2006.  National musicians rallied to raise money to help restore his home. 
He was visited by President George Bush who presented him with a replacement for his Medal of the Arts and his Gold Records were replaced by the RIAA and Imperial Records catalog owner Capitol Records.

Fats endures.

Fats Domino became a symbol of the city he loved as it struggled—and continues to struggle to this day—to recover from the devastating blow of the hurricane and the loss of much of its population, including many of his Lower Ninth Ward neighbors.  On January 12, 2007, Domino was honored with OffBeat magazine’s Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual Best of the Beat Awards held at House of Blues in New Orleans. Mayor Ray Nagrin declared it Fats Domino Day. An all-star musical tribute followed.
Later that year on May 17 Domino felt well enough to take the stage for the first time since the storm and performed a rollicking set to a packed house at Tipitina’s, the legendary New Orleans music venue that inspired the foundation.
Since then Domino has been showered with more honors and support, but lives quietly with his family in his beloved city.  He is 83 years old.

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