Domino Overlooked, Ain’t That A Shame?

by Kevin Burton

   The best song I didn’t fit into my Flying Colors series about songs with a color in the title is “Blueberry Hill” by Fats Domino. This is not the first time he has been overlooked.

   His “Blue Monday” did make number 6 on my list, so I didn’t ignore him completely.  But Domino is left out of far too many conversations when the chroniclers and definers of rock and roll talk about its origins and who created that sound that took over the world. 

   “There’s no denying that Fats Domino is one of the artists who created rock and roll,” Billboard Magazine wrote on the occasion of Domino’s death in 2017. “Artists by the dozen acknowledge his influence. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame included him in the inaugural class in 1986, and many of the songs he wrote with Dave Bartholomew are considered standards.”     

   “Yet it’s hard to shake the notion that he’s treated as a footnote, a relic of his era who is tied to his time just as he was anchored to his piano,” Billboard wrote.

   I’m getting a second chance to show Domino some love because he had no fewer than four songs that peaked at number 22. That makes him the king of our 2022 series.

   The first of those four songs was “When My Dreamboat Comes Home” from 1956, the year of Blueberry Hill. It’s a danceable tune with a structure that will remind you of “When The Saints Come Marching in.”

   There was “What A Price” and “What A Party” both from 1961, and “You Win Again” from 1962.

   “You Win Again” and “What A Price” are lover’s laments. “What A Party” sounds like something Lesley Gore might have sung.

   All those songs were before my time and none of them adds much to his legacy.  I want to mention them for the sake of the 2022 series, but quickly move on to more interesting aspects of his career.

   His legacy is large just as he was. But history has shortchanged him, as some of his contemporaries pointed out.

   “There is nothing more indicative of Domino’s legacy than what occurred during Elvis Presley‘s first sold-out concert at the Las Vegas Hilton on July 31, 1969,” wrote Mick McStarkey in the British magazine Far Out. “Domino just so happened to be in the audience of 2,200 to watch Presley strut his stuff. At the press conference after the show, a journalist referred to Presley by his nickname ‘The King,’ and Presley swiftly gestured to Domino, who was watching on.”

   “’No, that’s the real king of rock and roll. Rock and roll was here a long time before I came along. Let’s face it: I can’t sing like Fats Domino can. I know that,” Presley said explaining that Domino was “a huge influence on me when I started out.”

   “Calling Fats Domino an architect of rock and roll almost sounds like faint praise,” said National Public Radio in its tribute.  “Indeed, the amiable country boy from the Lower Ninth Ward, with the help of bandleader impresario Dave Bartholomew and one of the world’s truly legendary gangs of sidemen, dug the hole and laid the actual foundation.”

   “It’s hard to pull together a list of performers influenced by Fats Domino because, seriously, it is not at all hyperbolic to say that Fats, by shaping rock and roll out of the primordial clay, influenced everyone,” NPR wrote. “He came from big-band music, jump blues, boogie-woogie and barrelhouse, and slid into R&B and rock and roll. His dozens of hits, with their signature cheerful, bouncy piano triplets, famously traveled thousands of miles over the airwaves from South Louisiana to Jamaica, where the sound became a building block of ska and reggae.” 

   Billboard called Domino, “rock and roll’s crucial, underappreciated architect. Little Richard said, “He’s the greatest entertainer ever.”

   So why does the rock and roll conversation so often begin with Presley, the Beatles, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry lee Lewis , Buddy Holly and a handful of others, before it gets around to Domino?

   “Fats emerged from an old-school New Orleans piano tradition into a cultural force that would shake the world with atomic-level power, and reverberate through the decades with an ever-rippling exponential influence,” NPR wrote. “But if you asked him about rock and roll, back in the day, he’d shrug off responsibility for the electrifying new movement, saying it was just the rhythm and blues he’d been hearing, and playing, for years.”

   That was part of it, the introverted Domino’s own reluctance to be out in front of the movement.

   Tomorrow we explore other possible reasons, and see how Domino’s influence changed minds as well as music.

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