The Joyful Legacy of Fats Domino
The late great musician always leaves you smiling with songs like “Blue Monday.”
It’s much easier to sit and listen to Antoine “Fats” Domino than it is to explain just why he was so wonderful. What he did was subtle, a skill few care about in these less-than-subtle times. The man who made some of the sneakiest, happiest music ever produced has now snuck off to another place. Losing him will be less painful if you remind yourself his songs are always going to be around. An authentic American voice, like that other great New Orleanian, Louis Armstrong, Fats moved mountains and influenced the culture with deceptive ease.
A typical Fats Domino song was often happy, like “I’m Walking,” but even if the topic was heartbreak, as in a song like “Ain’t That a Shame,” you could still feel a lift. Fats was closely associated with bandleader and producer Dave Bartholomew. They wrote together and made a wonderful team; in their heyday they were never far from the Top Ten. The only artist selling more records back then was Elvis Presley, and more than once he said that without a doubt Fats was the true King of Rock and Roll. He was was a benign and in no way typical star. He took the small fortune he made back to the neighborhood he grew up in, where he lived in a fairly modest mansion with his wife and children. He did like to keep a little cash on him — it’s reported he paid for three cars with what he had in his pockets, including a $135,000 Rolls Royce.
Fats’ joyfully mangled diction was his signature. He sounded like no one else on the radio, but a lot like his neighbors. John Kennedy Toole’s great farcical novel about New Orleans, Confederacy of Dunces, explains why so many people in a town that far south sound like they have more than a hint of New Yawk in their drawl. It starts with European immigrants, German, Italian and Irish. When you add in bits of Creole, African/American, Acadian from Nova Scotia (the source of the word “cajun”) you get something called the “Yat” dialect, as in “Where y’at?”
New Orleans, home to many great guitarists, is, was, and probably always will be, a piano town. It’s been coughing up virtuosos like Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, Professor Longhair and James Booker for a long time. Fats listened to all of it as a kid and learned quickly. He was so obsessed with piano his mother had to move him and it out to the garage to get a little peace. The New Orleans style of boogie-woogie Fats mastered was not easy. To play it as well as he did and still be able to sing with his level of nonchalance was even harder. On top of that, he was also a great showman, gleeful in the way he attacked the piano, sometimes pushing it around the stage with his ample belly.
The Big Easy is widely recognized as the birthplace of Jazz. Fats and a few of his hometown contemporaries had a lot to do with the creation of Rock and Roll. Starting early in his career at The Dew Drop Inn, any Fats gig was an instant party. While others like Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry sent messages of rebellion and sex with their music and dance moves, Fats threatened no one and just did his thing.
One of the many sterling examples of what Fats did so well is this hit from 1956, “Blue Monday.”
Blue Monday how I hate Blue Monday
Got to work like a slave all day
Here come Tuesday, oh hard Tuesday
I’m so tired got no time to play
Here come Wednesday, I’m beat to my socks
My gal calls, got to tell her that I’m out
‘Cause Thursday is a hard workin’ day
And Friday I get my pay
Saturday mornin’, oh Saturday mornin’
All my tiredness has gone away
Got my money and my honey
And I’m out on the stand to play
Sunday mornin’ my head is bad
But it’s worth it for the time that I had
But I’ve got to get my rest
‘Cause Monday is a mess
© Dave Bartholomew
I never heard the the phrase “beat to my socks.” I wish I could steal it. Lyrically, there isn’t much here, but the little bit you get is choice. Like a tasty pot of Jambalaya, all the other stuff has long boiled off. There’s much to learn from lyrics this tight, but the main lesson might be: Always try to have Fats Domino sing your words — they just sound better. If you’ve heard him sing The Beatles’ tribute to him, “Lady Madonna,” you’d probably agree he stole it right back. Hearing him croon, “See how they “roaw-ah-in,” adding syllables and vowels no one else would dream of, you understand why the boys emulated him.
The gift many great artists share is a dead certainty about who they are and what they will or won’t do. After Domino’s initial success started to fade, there was pressure from the record company to update what he did. He never bothered; what could they offer him? He was already Fats Domino and he could make anything sound happy.