Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Remembering Big Easy Icon Fats Domino on Mardi Gras—Focus on Black History Month 2021

The official banner for this year's pared back Mardi Gras.

It’s Carnival, celebrated around the world as a last hedonistic spasm before dour Lent begins tomorrow, Ash Wednesday.  In America Mardi Gras is traditionally celebrated in many cities including St. Petersburg, Mobile, and Galveston but is most deeply identified with New Orleans where it has been celebrated since the mid-18th Century and with parades and floats since 1830.  The revelry became more intense and spread out over the entire time between the end of lysergic Christmas season and lent with the most dazzling street revelry on the final night.  But after last year when Mardi Gras in the Big Easy became the first super spreader event of the Coronavirus pandemic, officials have shut down party with Puritan zeal.  The bars of the French Quarter have been closed for days, Bourbon Street and other entertainment strips have been blockaded, parades and masquerade balls have been canceled, a curfew is in place, and police will roam the streets to break up any defiant gatherings.  Music, always as much a part of the celebration as throwing beads and flashing breasts, will be by Zoom and YouTube.

Today is the perfect time to remember one of the greats of New Orleans music, Fats Domino.

Fats Domino and New Orleans were inseparable.  He was born there and nearly died in the disaster that almost 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.

Fats Domino as we remember him.

Fats Domino and New Orleans were inseparable.  He was born there and nearly died in the disaster that almost 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 a native Creole—a Black French dialectspeaking 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 playerUncle Harrison Verrett was a jazz guitarist. 

New Orleans Lower 9th Ward Creole cottages and street scene in the 1950's.

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 & 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.

Fats Domino and his sax-heavy band pioneered pre-guitar combo Rock and Roll.

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 in the Big Easy alone.  The song featured Domino singing over a strong back beat with a stripped down stride piano style, a four piece sax section, and Fats scatting wha-wha in two chorusesSales of the song remained strong and by 1953 reached one million units.  Music historians consider The Fat Man one of the first true rock & 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 ShameIt 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.

Fats Domino and his producer/collaborator Dave Bartholomew listen to a play back in the Imperial Records studio.

 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 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 & roll movies of the mid ‘50s.  Domino also became one of the first rockers to have success with the release of an LP.

A lobby card for low budget independent American International Picturer's 1956 Shake, Rattle, and Rock!.  The film heavily featured Fats Domino and was a Drive-in movie hit which helped introduce White teens to the new Black music sound.

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 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 to 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 companiesMercury, 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

Fats Domino's last charted hit was a cover of the Beatle's Lacy Madonna which Paul McCartney had written as an homage to his stride piano style.

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 more records than any artist of the classic rock & 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.

Fat Domino's comfortable but modest Lower 9th Ward home in 1979.  He nearly died in it during Hurricane Catrina and lost almost all of his career memorabilia.  Photo by my old friend Michael Gaylord James

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 Top 100 Artists of all Time.

Despite the accolades, Domino lived happily retirement.  Then tragedy struck. 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 listed as 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 early 2006 to benefit Tipitina’s Foundation.  By 2007 the Foundation was operating out of a trailer next to Domino’s 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 W. 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 Domino in the favorite Fire'man's cap he wore to rare public appearances after Hurricane Katrina nearly destroyed his whom and almost cost him his own life.

Fats Domino became a symbol of the city he loved as it struggled.  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 was been showered with more honors and support, but lived quietly with his family in Harvey, Louisiana across the river from New Orleans while he awaited reconstruction of his beloved home and community. But he never made it back to the Ninth Ward.  He died in Harvey on October 24, 2017.


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