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By Ben Sandmel
If Mount Rushmore ever adds on a “Founding Fathers of Rock Music,” section, look for New Orleans pianist and singer Fats Domino to be prominently featured. Domino has profoundly influenced the popular music of the past 60 years, ever since his first hit, “The Fat Man,” scaled the national R&B charts in 1950. Domino differed distinctly from his seminal rock colleagues – including Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis in one important sense. During an era when rock was considered subversive, threatening, and far too overtly sexual, Domino maintained a virtually asexual persona and stage presence that did not seem the least bit rebellious.
Domino’s repertoire also included adaptations of such sentimental Tin Pan Alley songs as “Blueberry Hill” and “Red Sails In The Sunset.” Domino put his own stamp on these numbers with such signature touches as piano triplets and warm, subtle crooning. His keyboard work left a strong stamp on both South Louisiana swamp pop and Jamaican ska music. Domino’s vocal style also reflected the New Orleans-Caribbean connection because his thick Creole accent suggested, at times, that he spoke English as a second language. Domino’s ancestors were rural plantation workers from French-speaking Creole communities in Louisiana’s River Parishes, upstream from New Orleans. Relocating to the city’s lower Ninth Ward, they continued to maintain many trappings of country life while also absorbing urban music. Domino learned piano from his cousin, Harrison Verrett, and after that his rose to fame rather quickly. Trumpeter, songwriter, producer-arranger and bandleader Dave Bartholomew, who heard Domino playing in local bars, arranged a meeting with Lew Chudd, head of the major national label, Imperial Records. Chudd signed Domino to Imperial, and Bartholomew produced “The Fat Man,” a sanitized version of “The Junker Blues,” by New Orleans blues pianist Champion Jack Dupree. This hit marked the start of a long and productive relationship between Domino and Bartholomew, thanks to both of their prodigious talents and the innovative expertise of audio engineer recording Cosimo Matassa. A succession of top ten records followed, including “Walking To New Orleans,” Blue Monday,” “Ain’t That A Shame,” “I Want To Walk You Home,” “Blue Monday,” “I’m Walking,” and “I’m Ready.” As a result Fats Domino stands just behind Elvis Presley as early rock’s top-selling recording artist. (Such terminology is somewhat imprecise, however; as Domino commented in 1956, “Well, what they call rock ‘n’ roll is rhythm & blues, and I’ve been playing it for fifteen years in New Orleans.”) Domino further increased his already impressive sales through appearances in the films “The Girl Can’t Help It,” “Shake, Rattle and Rock,” “Jamboree,” and “The Big Beat,” and national television performances on programs hosted by Dick Clark, Ed Sullivan, Perry Como, Dick Clark, and Steve Allen.
Domino’s peak success occurred between the late ’40s and the early ’60s, an era now known as “the Golden Age of New Orleans rhythm & blues” in recognition of its intense creativity. Domino’s talented peers included Shirley & Lee, Smiley Lewis, Lloyd Price, Irma Thomas, Professor Longhair, Allen Toussaint, Ernie K-Doe, Lloyd Price, Art and Aaron Neville, Huey “Piano” Smith, Lee Dorsey, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, and Frankie Ford, among others.
When records by Domino and these colleagues raced up the charts, many major record companies decided to record in New Orleans to capture the intangible hit-making qualities generated by the city’s studio musicians. (These accompanists included drummer Earl Palmer, guitarist Justin Adams, and saxophonists Alvin “Red” Tyler, Lee Allen, and Herbert Hardesty.) Musicians such as Little Richard, who was not a New Orleanian, were nonetheless sent…