Rock Music Followed Where Fats Domino Led

by Kevin Burton

   There is a case to be made for Fats Domino as the main creator of rock and roll, but he rarely gets that credit, or even gets into that conversation.

   Yesterday we began to look at why that might be, what causes rock historians to not give him full credit as a pioneer (“Domino Overlooked, Ain’t That A Shame?” April 5)?

   Some possible explanations:

   “By lore, rock and roll is supposed to be wild rebellion and Fats Domino wasn’t wild or overtly rebellious,” wrote Billboard Magazine after Domino died in 2017.  “Over the decades, this light touch would lead to the perception that Domino offered nothing but good cheer.”

   His choice of musical instrument was also a factor for later historians.

   “When Fats Domino was on his hot streak in the 1950s, the piano was as prevalent in rock and roll as the guitar,” Billboard wrote “During the 1960s the six string would unseat the 88s as the main rock and roll instrument.”

   You can illustrate this change with the song “I Hear You Knockin,” a hit in 1955 for Smiley Lewis. The song was written and produced by Domino collaborator Dave Bartholomew.  You could easily mistake it for a Domino song, the twelve bar blues format, the driving beat and the piano triplets all in place.

   It’s not until the vocal comes in with Lewis’ thinner voice that you know for sure it’s not a Domino tune.   

   Welsh singer Dave Edmunds covered the song in 1970. Gone are the piano triplets, in is a heavy guitar that better fits what some people think of as rock and roll. The Edmunds version went to number 4 on the Hot 100. 

   “Whereas Lewis’s original recording is a piano-driven R&B piece with a 12/8 shuffle feel, Edmunds’ version features prominent guitar lines and a stripped-down, straight-quaver rock-and-roll approach,” read the song’s Wikipedia page.

   Even the way he played piano shielded Domino from the very brightest of lights.  Domino never had onstage antics like Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis.  “That highlights a reason why Fats Domino doesn’t get the credit he’s due,” Billboard wrote. “He didn’t perform tricks at the keyboard and he didn’t rush the tempo, so he didn’t command attention.”

   “He embodied ease, a quality that contradicts the conventional wisdom of what rock and roll is.”

   “But at the outset of his career at the start of the ’50s, there were few musicians recording music as fearless as Fats,” Billboard wrote.

   The Billboard Book of number one hits begins its history in the week of July 9, 1955 with Bill Haley and the Comets’ Rock around the Clock. But by that time Domino already had twelve top 10 R&B hits, beginning in 1949 with “The Fat Man’ which fits my definition of rock and roll.

    “The Fat Man,” isn’t only his debut single but, by many measures, the first recording that could be called rock and roll,” Billboard wrote.

     “’The Fat Man” feels like rock and roll because it discards its blues roots and emphasizes and focuses on its barreling rhythm. Like all the great New Orleans pianists, there’s a roll to Fats’ rhythm but he leans hard into his boogie-woogie, creating the big swing that would be called rock and roll several years later,” Billboard wrote.

  “What they call rock and roll now is rhythm and blues. I’ve been playing it for 15 years in New Orleans,” Domino said in 1957.

   “His records and tours brought together black and white youths, unifying them under the banner of music and what was starting to become known as rock and roll,” wrote Mick McStarkey in Far Out Magazine.  “The appreciation of his music played a considerable role in the cultural breakdown of segregation in the US.”

   “What distinguished these early sides is the rhythm, how Domino pushes the groove by leaning into the left hand that’s pushing out the bass line.  He creates a rhythm, that’s heavy but has air, which is a key to rock and roll. It might be hard but it’s light on its feet,” Billboard wrote.

   “Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis Little Richard The Everly brothers and Elvis himself assimilated this lesson, letting their music swing even when it’s manic,” Billboard wrote.

   “And if the second generation of rockers that surfaced in the 60s started to straighten the beat, Domino’s influence was still palpable,” Billboard wrote. “The Beatles in particular were acolytes, with Paul McCartney going so far as to write a valentine to the Fat Man in the form of “Lady Madonna,” a song so much in Domino’s wheelhouse he wound up covering it in 1968.”

   “Fats placed a premium on feel, particularly how rock should also roll. Domino was solid as a rock, keeping his beat steady and making sure his solos always circled back to their foundation,” Billboard wrote.

   “Most rock and roll of the subsequent decades followed Domino’s blueprint, adhering to a relentless groove even when the solos and singing turned manic.”

   “Fats was the first musician to make the backbeat as hard and undeniable as steel. Without him none of the mad music that followed, whether it was Elvis Presley, the Beatles, seems conceivable.”

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