There’s always been a special place in my affections for Fats Domino whose music never fails to lift the spirits. It’s especially sad that his death has been announced today – tonight’s movie will be “The Girl Can’t Help It”. In my early teenage years the price of an LP was well outside my spending power but an EP (Extended Play) with 4 tracks playable at 45 rpm was just about affordable. The first EP I ever bought, some 50 years ago, was Be My Guest by Fats Domino. This was my introduction to New Orleans Rhythm ‘n’ Blues and a voyage of discovery that would lead to Professor Longhair, Huey ‘Piano’ Smith, Ernie K-Doe, Chris Kenner, the Meters, the Showmen and Dr John over the next few years. The Domino method of dancing your blues away was an unusual strategy to find favour with one whose dancing days gave rise to rather more mirth than admiration. Two qualities stand out. First, the irresistible rhythms unique to New Orleans and second, the joyous sound of massed horns, for which credit must go to the arranger, Dave Bartholomew (who will celebrate his 99th. birthday on Christmas Eve). Both features became essential parts of the musical vocabulary of Jamaican Ska. Domino was raised in the Roman Catholic church and thus was never exposed to the visceral power of the gospel traditions. Musicologists argue that African musical traditions survived more strongly in Southern Louisiana than anywhere else in America. The rhythms and vocal styles were closer to African originals than elsewhere.
The process whereby African-American music was neutralised and cleansed for a white audience was described to perfection by Chip Taylor in his 1971 recording, (I Want) The Real Thing. The UK music business was very active in this process churning out a succession of records in which the passion and spirit of the original recording was systematically eliminated by a mediocre and enfeebled performer. Domino’s recordings escaped this treatment for the simple reason that their appeal depended entirely upon a quality of delivery and personality that could not be replicated. It was impossible to dilute something so intense and be left with anything remotely worth listening to. The few attempts to cover Domino hits in the UK sank without trace. In the US there’s a role of infamy headed by Pat Boone, Ricky Nelson and Teresa Brewer all of whom profited from hi-jacking Domino material and draining it of vitality.
In New Orleans there was no place for the dark and down-home, hard times, lyin’, cheatin’ and dyin’ crapshootin’ blues from the Delta. There was no great audience for the smooth toned supper club and coffee lounge blues styling of the likes of Nat King Cole. There was a positive, optimistic, up-beat and life-affirming defiance in the air that found expression in a refusal to submit to the iniquity of racial segregation and a denial of the subservience that the white establishment attempted to impose.
Rick Coleman’s biography, Blue Monday, is a fascinating account of the way that Domino’s concerts in the 1950s became the focus of a long sequence of riots and civil disturbance. There was nothing in Domino’s performances to incite the crowds other than the music. The principle provocation came from the police whose heavy handed attempts to enforce racial segregation were calculated to incite resistance. Alcohol fuelled aggression and inter-racial conflict also played a part. The irony of this is that the Domino songbook was exclusively dedicated to good-time music with not a trace of insurrection or subversion.
Domino became one of the great survivors of his generation of R & B performers. Despite the excessive consumption of alcohol and an addiction to gambling Fats continued at the top of his game while his band members and close associates perished in their numbers from drug and alcohol related illnesses. His touring days ended in 1995 enabling him to retire his infamous hot-plate and cooking pot in which he brewed up decades worth of pigs’ feet in creole sauce with which to feed himself and his band. Famously he survived Hurricane Katrina in 2005 at the age of 77 when a rescue boat plucked him and his family from the second floor of his home in the Lower Ninth Ward. He went on to perform at Tipitina’s in New Orleans in May 2007. He retained a reputation for geniality and modesty despite occasional episodes of seriously grumpy behaviour, marital infidelities and a chronic failure to turn up for scheduled appearances.