This post is one of a series honoring Black History Month.
February 26 was the birthday of Antoine “Fats” Domino (1928-2017).
It always seemed like Fats’ association with rock and roll was more an accident of timing than anything else. Apart from the blatantly sexual insinuations of “I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill”, Fats’ sound is more of a Big Easy Boogie Woogie feeling — it lacks the aggressive, manic tempo and attack of Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Elvis. By comparison to those guys, Fats sounds lazy and sleepy, but (I hasten to add) incredibly pleasant. I had a greatest hits compilation of his when I was a teenager and I especially loved him because the songs are really easy to sing. If I can carry the tune, you know it’s easy. That downright democratic accessibility was part of its appeal, but of course the other part is that distinctive local, New Orleans voice and instrumentation — that’s what people loved about him.
Fats was associated with more songs than people tend to remember: “Ain’t That a Shame” (1955), “My Blue Heaven” (1956), “Blueberry Hill” (1956), “I’m Walkin'” (1957), “Whole Lotta Loving” (1958), “I Want to Walk You Home” (1959), “I’m Gonna be a Wheel Someday” (1959), “Walking to New Orleans” (1960) — among others. I was too young to experience them when they came out — but they played half of these easily on Happy Days. In 1968 he even covered several Beatles songs, although “Lady Madonna” was the only truly sensible fit.
I was among those who were frantic when no one could find him in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. That to me was the ultimate national disgrace. It was beyond horrible to lose all the people we did lose, but for a few days there it seemed like Federal incompetence had also resulted in the death of a national treasure.
When we made our pilgrimage to NOLA in 2015 we saw his piano, damaged and dirtied from the flood, in a museum:
Fats also helped wash away prejudice. My mother, a thoroughly racist working class woman, ADORED Fats Domino. In fact it’s pretty impossible for me to hear his songs without hearing her singing along. The work of younger generations is to manifest what ought to have been a simple formulation all along: you don’t get to love the cultural product of a people without loving and respecting and caring about the people themselves, too. Or you can, but to do so is pretty monstrous. It’s not a small thing. It’s the biggest thing on earth.