A Rhythm Pioneer

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The New York Sun

In 1960, the pianist and singer Fats Domino penned the hit song “My Girl Josephine.” Most of us are familiar with the opening line — “Hello, Josephine, how do you do?” — but some of the more interesting lyrics come about halfway through. “You used to live over yonder / By the railroad track,” Mr. Domino sings of Josephine. “When it rained you couldn’t walk / I used to tote you on my back.”

That line seems eerily prescient in light of the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans’s Ninth Ward, where Antoine “Fats” Domino was born in 1928 and still lives. Indeed, Mr. Domino had to be delivered from the waters by his drummer, Ernest “Box” Fontenant, who somehow managed to carry his portly boss on his back, “Josephine”-style.

The story how of Mr. Domino and his family nearly perished in the Katrina disaster begins and ends an excellent new biography of the legendary musician, “Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock and Roll” (Da Capo Press, 364 pages, $26.95), by the Louisiana-based music journalist Rick Coleman. This is the first full-length book about a performer who played a seminal role in the development of American culture.

The major artists in American popular music of the second third of the 20th century generally divide into two types: the blues, country, and “race music” innovators of the 1930s and ’40s who created most of the vocabulary of what later became rock ‘n’ roll; and the pop stars of the 1950s and ’60s who learned and profited from their example. But Mr. Domino, like Ray Charles, is among the very few pioneers of rhythm and blues who successfully made the transition into the rock ‘n’ roll era. In his heyday, Mr. Domino created the ultimate party music: He managed to sound rapturously happy even when he was singing of heartbreak.

Mr. Domino grew up playing the piano, and from the early 1940s, he worked in honky-tonk bars around New Orleans’s black neighborhoods and the French Quarter. Though shy, he was quickly pegged as an emerging talent, and at 21, he was given the chance to lead his own band at the Hideaway Club on Desire Street. Within a few months, the young Mr. Domino was noticed by the city’s press, and also by Lew Chudd, a music-industry veteran who had recently started a label called Imperial Records. Signed to a deal, Mr. Domino teamed up with Dave Bartholomew, a trumpeter, composer, orchestrator, and bandleader who would become his musical director and co-writer.

Their first side, 1949’s “The Fat Man,” was an immediate hit, first in New Orleans and then in black communities all over the country. It showed what Mr. Domino did best, which was to take an older theme — “The Fat Man” was a vintage blues that Champion Jack Dupree had recorded as “Junker’s Blues” — and rejuvenate it with contemporary energy and rhythms. He mixed in the eight-to-the-bar boogie woogie from Kansas City and Texas, along with the shuffle beat then favored by Louis Prima and Louis Jordan.

By the early 1950s, Mr. Domino had perfected the basic beat of New Orleans rock ‘n’ roll: repetitious 16th notes in an insistent triplet pattern.Virtually everything he played, fast or slow, conformed to that motif, which made ballads and rockers alike irresistibly danceable. It was the big beat. Mr. Domino’s best music was harmonically simple too. “My Girl Josephine,” for example, essentially consists of three chords (B flat, D sharp, and F) over and over in the I-IV-V pattern of the blues.

Mr. Coleman argues forcefully that New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, was also ground zero for rock ‘n’ roll; its importance surpassed even the Yazoo delta, where the great bluesmen walked the earth, and Memphis, where Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins put rockabilly on the map. Between Professor Longhair, Smiley Lewis, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Lloyd Price, Huey “Piano” Smith, and later Allen Toussaint, Frankie Ford, Lee Dorsey, the Meters and the Neville Brothers, New Orleans produced as many R&B stars as it had jazz luminaries.

Not only did Mr. Domino’s music bridge the gap between genres, it linked New Orleans to the rest of the world. Indeed, the Domino bands, which were essential to his signature sound, combined the New Orleans parade and brass-band tradition with a jump-band style. Mr. Domino’s sound also spanned multiple generations of American popular music: He was the first artist to rock the Great American Songbook. To this day, people forget that songs like “Blueberry Hill,” “My Blue Heaven,” and “Red Sails In The Sunset,” had a history before him.

“Ain’t That a Shame” was Mr. Domino’s breakthrough single. Recorded in 1955, it was one of the first songs to score with both black and white audiences, marking the beginning of the rock ‘n’ roll era. It’s laid in a simple fourbar ABAB pattern, with the basic hook transpiring around a series of stop-time breaks. Mr. Domino also delivers an easy-to-follow narrative on top of a beat that virtually forces listeners to dance.

Throughout the rest of the 1950s and into the early ’60s, Mr. Domino penned a prolific number of hits, among them “Blue Monday,””Be My Guest,” “Whole Lotta Loving,” “I’m in Love Again,” “I’m Ready,” “I’m Walkin’,” and “The Big Beat.” With somewhere between 65 million and 110 million discs sold, he was the secondmost popular artist of his generation after his close friend Elvis Presley, who said in 1957, “Let’s face it. I can’t sing like Fats Domino can. I know that.”

Mr. Coleman, thankfully, has had total access to his subject, whom he has known personally for decades, as well as other key figures in the Domino story, such as Chudd and Mr. Bartholomew. He makes the case that Mr. Domino is among the most important figures in the development of postwar pop music, and he convincingly shows how Mr. Domino influenced later rock icons such as the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Bruce Springsteen. He also shows that the Domino sound was a major factor in the development of ska and later reggae music in Jamaica.

Mr. Coleman is especially good at detailing Mr. Domino’s leadership in the frantic package tours and all-star shows of the early rock era. He takes us through the years of Mr. Domino’s decline, his sidemen’s drug problems, Mr. Domino’s gambling addiction, and his revival as an elder statesman of rock in the 1970s and ’80s. We also learn about his fiercely independent personality: In 1998, for example, he declined an invitation to meet President Clinton simply because he didn’t feel like leaving New Orleans that night. Unlike most local heroes who became international superstars, Mr. Domino never felt the need to leave his hometown.

When Katrina struck, Mr. Domino’s whereabouts were unknown, even to his agent, for a few days. His house was all but destroyed, and even his gold records were damaged or lost.The New Orleans Harbor Police eventually moored a boat to the second floor of his home to rescue Mr. Domino and his family. Yet even though he was weakened by his Katrina ordeal, he managed to appear earlier this month at the New Orleans Jazz Fest.

In another 1960 hit, “Before I Grow Too Old,” Mr. Domino sang: “I’m gonna go out dancin’ every night / I’m gonna see all the city lights / I’ll do everything silver and gold / I got to hurry up before I grow too old.”

Fats Domino may have grown old, but he certainly did everything silver and gold.

The New York Sun

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