The Fat Man

Here in Moscow we celebrated one of the most enduring legends in rock’n’roll history. Our monthly tribute concert was dedicated to the one they still call the Fat Man.

I booked the Great Pretenders to perform at the concert on 12th March. Regular readers of this column will remember my articles about them and the key members of the group. For example my column last month focused on the band’s leader, Sergey Kuteynikov. Suffice to say they put on a storm of a concert and did justice to the Man we were celebrating. Some of the photos you can see were taken at the event. As always at the Esse rock’n’roll concerts we organise, the show included a rock’n’roll dance class run by yours truly.

Fats Domino was born and raised in New Orleans. His family was relatively poor, but his father was a well known musician in the local neighbourhood (he played the violin). Despite all the fame and fortune he subsequently achieved, Fats still lives in the same neighbourhood in New Orleans, albeit his abode is, ahem, rather more palatial than that of his humble beginnings.

There’s an amazing but true story of an event that happened to him in one of his first jobs as a teenager. He was working in a factory and while there he had an industrial accident which severely damaged one of his hands. He almost lost several of his fingers and it was some time before he could utilise the hand at all. But it was his sheer determination not to want to spend the rest of his life working in a factory or doing similar manual work, which inspired him to conquer this physical “mountain” which was in the way of his future musical career. As one of Rock’n’Roll’s greatest ever pianists, the rest as they say, is history.

He began his music career in 1947 when a local bandleader Billy Diamond hired him to play piano in his band. Domino’s first name was Antoine, but Diamond gave him the nickname “Fats” which stayed with him for the rest of his life. It was an obvious choice, given his physique. Diamond said the other reason was that Domino’s style of playing reminded him of 2 earlier piano Greats, Fats Waller and Fats Pichon.

A crucial event occurred early on in his career. While working for Diamond, his talent caught the eye of another local bandleader named Dave Bartholomew. Bartholomew persuaded a friend who worked for a record company to arrange Domino to cut some studio recordings. The record company was Imperial Records, soon to become a household name in rock’n’roll. Bartholomew co-wrote the songs with Domino, as well as acting as his record producer. The partnership with the hugely talented Bartholomew was to last most of Domino’s career and certainly throughout his most successful period. Without this partnership there is no doubt Fats would never have become the mega-star we all know about today. The duo’s first big hit was “The Fat Man” in 1950. It was an iconic record. Some still claim it to be the first ever rock’n’roll record, which would make it iconic indeed. Have a listen for yourself on youtube and see what you think. Remember we’re talking 1950, 5 years before the dawn of rock’n’roll. For me and most other devotees, Bill Haley’s 1955 “Rock around the Clock” is truly the first ever number which was undeniably r’n’r. As an aside, here in Moscow we celebrate every year the Birthday of Rock’n’Roll. And sure enough, we hold a big concert every April to commemorate it, April being the month that “Rock around the Clock” was released all those years ago.

Interestingly, after such a big hit with “The Fat Man” in 1950, things went quiet for Fats for a while after that and he had to wait some time 

before he really hit the big time. It finally came at the genesis of the rock’n’roll revolution in 1955. His first mega-hit was “Ain’t that a Shame” and classics followed such as “I’m in love Again”, “Blueberry Hill”, “I’m Walkin” and “Blue Monday”. Again it was Bartholomew that was instrumental in this success. He ensured that the material Domino used was the type that would sell well in the mainstream market. Before 1955 Domino already had a big following in the Black rhythm’n’blues market. Bartholomew recognised the huge potential and fame that was to be had if that success could be transferred to the much bigger white mainstream audiences. And the material Bartholomew crafted for Fats was indeed tailor-made for this. Domino’s music quickly gained tremendous popularity nation-wide. It was accepted by all sections of society, since there was nothing threatening or rebellious about it. Where Jerry Lee and Little Richard were wild and crazy, while Chuck Berry was the opposite of a clean cut innocent and Elvis shocked the older generation with his on-stage gyrations, Fats Domino’s style was the kind that not only young people but all generations could safely adopt. For example, “Ain’t that a Shame” and “Blueberry Hill”, whilst classic rock’n’roll numbers, were hardly likely to offend anybody. During this period of youth rebelliousness which was a key element in rock’n’roll’s popularity amongst many of the teenagers, Domino was the last person who could be seen as a “social threat” or to be encouraging juvenile delinquency. Similarly he was one of the most sought after Black performers on American TV at that time, for the same reasons i.e. he was unthreatening to all social groups and all generations.
Of course it also meant that Domino was never going to receive the same kind of adulation and loyalty from the young rock’n’roll generation of the 1950s, such as they gave to Elvis, Jerry Lee, Little Richard and Chuck Berry, etc. But Domino and Bartholomew were more than happy with the sales of their records, which compared well with any of the other rockin’ icons.

The personal relationship between Domino and Bartholomew was a fascinating one. Without Bartholomew’s influence, as already advised, Domino would never have been such a huge success. But there was tension between them throughout Domino’s career. Bartholomew was constantly aggrieved, as he felt he never got the recognition he deserved for Domino’s stardom. As the years rolled on after the golden era of the 1950s, they often still teamed up for musical ventures. It seems clear they recognised the crucial role of each other in their successes, even if it was marked periodically with acrimony and conflict. Bartholomew was later to claim that “Fats didn’t do any of the music. All of the music – the arranging and everything – was done by me.” Domino disputes this, “Dave mostly did the arrangement to the music, but I wrote most of the things.” Fortunately for Rock’n’Roll, the huge egos of both of these men did not prevent them working together and coming up with some of the greatest songs in rockin’ history.

Those of my generation will remember the important role of Radio Luxembourg in pop music, before the advent of the likes of Radio One and later on subsequent private radio stations. Until the mid-1960s, Luxembourg was a crucial factor in determining the popularity of individual pop artists in the UK. And they consistently supported Domino’s music, which helped to consolidate his following in the UK. Curiously he didn’t tour the UK until 1967, by which time his super-stardom was waning somewhat, but he still managed to pull in good crowds to these UK concerts. Of course the fifties had been his golden period and it was from that time on that his records became known the World over. He continued to perform for many more years and attract crowds, but inevitably as the 50s rock’n’roll era became more distant, in like measure so his mega-stardom was never to be as it was during that magic time.

Of course when you think of legendary rock’n’roll piano players, 2 immediately spring to mind, Fats and Jerry Lee Lewis. In fact they were good friends and over the years there was some musical collaboration between them, plus they would hang out together. They had a common social interest, in that they were both very heavy drinkers, so hanging out together invariably meant getting totally drunk. Unlike Lewis however, Domino was more of a professional and his drinking impacted less on his performances. Jerry Lee was the wild crazy banana of rock’n’roll, whilst Domino was more of a professional. That said, Domino was not perfect: His drinking caused him to be late for some shows. On the odd occasion he didn’t turn up at all, for the same reason.

It was not only alcohol, Domino was also a womaniser. By 1960 his wife Rosemary had had enough of it, in addition to her being fed up with his drinking. She also cited cruelty as being another cause for the split. She filed for divorce and a legal agreement was drawn up with the terms of the separation. It became big news, especially as the financial details of the agreement quoted figures which were unheard of in a case involving a Black family at that time. This was another indication of just how successful and famous Domino had become. But despite his errant lifestyle, there clearly was real affection between Rosemary and Fats, because shortly afterwards she withdrew the separation legal suit. And fair play, the two are still living together after all these years in their palatial New Orleans mansion, along with some of their children and grand-children.

The Fat Man is now not far off being 90 years old, which means that unlike other rock’n’roll icons such as Elvis, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, etc., he’s a survivor. And the evidence from those who’ve known him personally is that he’s a genuinely nice guy. So here’s to the Fat Man, a real rockin’ legend !

Richard Hume