Today is Fat Tuesday, and we have a perfectly apropos post courtesy of G. Bruce Boyer. For our continued Black History Month coverage, Mr. Boyer has given Ivy Style an exclusive piece on Fats Domino. Although the artist didn’t get hip to Ivy duds as other musicians did during the heyday, he was a popular fixture in campus concerts, and, well, Mr. Boyer happens to dig his music. Domino died last October at the age of 89.
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I’d never been a big fan of The Fat Man even though I grew up listening to his music. He was enormously popular in the second half of the 1950s with hits such as “Ain’t That a Shame”, “Blue Monday”, “I’m Walking”,, “All By Myself”, and covers of “Blueberry Hill”, “Red Sails in the Sunset”, and “Jambalya”.
The covers were, I thought and still feel, a particular mistake. You simply can’t hope to better Louis Armstrong’s version of “Blueberry Hill” or Hank Williams “Jambalya”, or even Joe Turner’s plaintive take on “Red Sails”. I suppose the Fats Domino New Orleans sound, with its pounding repetitive piano nicely reverberating against Fats’ southern, lackadaisical lilt was an innocent pleasure that had a simple house-party beat for dancing. But the formula was pretty basic. It’s music that just sort of rolls along without any excitement or drama. The dance “The Stroll” was invented for such music, and it was just as repetitive and slickly mediocre, a bit mindless and devoid of any real merit.
On the other hand, I can tell you with certainty that seeing Antoine “Fats” Domino in person was something else altogether. There was a particular night at the Rajah Theater in Reading, PA in the hot summer of 1956 I’ll never forget. It was a Rhythm and Blues Show starring Fats and his band. The opening acts included a Doo Wop group from Philadelphia I’d always had a soft spot for, The Turbans – and yes, they did wear turbans with their shiny mohair suits. They were something of a one- hit- wonder group, but that hit – “When You Dance”, which was released in 1955 and reached #3 on the R&B chart – was worth the price of admission alone.
The other warm-up group was entirely forgettable, and then there was a brief intermission while Fats’ band set up on a darkened stage. I should have pointed out earlier that The Rajah was an old-fashioned vaudeville theater with a proscenium stage the apron of which jutted out towards the audience in a wide sweep across the front of the house.
So when the house lights dimmed and then the stage lights flashed up as the band wailed into a blisteringly fast-paced version of “I’m Walking”, the thrill was palpable. This was a seven-piece band plus Fats on piano: the drummer was center stage commanding a large kit of sparkling majesty; flanking him were the guitar and bass; Fats himself was extreme stage right, to emphasize that he was just a member of the group. But fanned out across the jutting apron were the four sax players: alto at stage right and baritone at stage left, with the two tenors honking away in the center. They were all attired in matching electric blue gabardine zoot suits. It all hit you like an atom bomb, and the crowd exploded. This was rhythm ‘n blues New Orleans style.
The saxes blared and roared red in syncopation as the musicians swayed easily back and forth rocking from one foot to the other to the beat, waiting for the climax of each number when they’d lift their horns up and out, the bright brass flashing in the spotlights. The zoots were a blur of blue lightening-charged neon ecstasy, Fats’ splayed hands pumping and pounding away, the guitar picking the piercing top notes and wailing away over the stomping, screaming horns, the drums and bass righteously laying down a pulsating backbeat. I, and the three friends I was with, had somehow gotten into one of the side boxes that night, and as we looked down on the action I thought my heart would stop. The whole audience seemed to be levitating, raptured up in the frenzy of surging sound.
On the way home in the car there was a profound and unaccustomed silence among the four of us. We were all re-living the performance in our minds, aware that we had seen somewhat unexpected greatness. I wouldn’t have put this performance in the same category with James Brown, Little Richard, or Jerry Lee Lewis, but there was no question in my mind that evening that I had misjudged the Fat Man, and that he should be accorded a place in the seminal history of New Orleans rhythm and blues. — G. BRUCE BOYER
Greatest Hits: Walking to New Orleans (Capitol)
They Call Me the Fat Man (Capitol)
Live from Austin TX (New West Records)
Early Imperial Singles 1950 -52 (Ace UK)
Vol – 2 Imperial Singles (Ace UK)
Rock ‘n’ Rollin’: This is Fats Domino (Collectables)
King of New Orleans Rock ‘n’ Roll (Proper Box UK)