Fats died this week. The article below was published in the collection ‘No Money Honey’ in 2013. It is not a hagiography. All the articles in ‘No Money Honey’ were meant to provide thoughts on the phenomenon of Elvis Presley. Nevertheless the piece below might help someone to think a little longer about Fats Domino.
I last saw The Fat Man at Preston Guild Hall in 1973. Later I purchased a Hi Fi and a double album collection of his hits and discovered that his appeal for me had waned more than I had realised. By then I was listening more to people like Amos Milburn and Willie Mabon whom I thought were grittier. Perhaps I had become a snob. His show in 1973 was not a success. The mikes were wired up to loudspeakers that would have been fine with my new Hi Fi but as part of a PA system they were inadequate. The audience soon become restless. ‘We can’t hear Fats,’ someone yelled. ‘I bet you get bloody better PA systems than this in New Orleans, Fats.’
One woman asserted herself. She actually resembled Joanne Dru in the Western Red River. In one scene Dru has to have an arrow removed from her shoulder. Dru refused to cry, and I doubt if she even gritted her teeth. Those who watch the movie may find the scene fanciful but after witnessing the encounter with the woman who took on Fats and his band I am not so sure. She walked up to Walter Lastie who was on drums and said, ‘You’re too damned loud.’ Walter looked at the lady and offered her the drumsticks. I envied him his naivety, his belief that his cool sarcasm would have the last word with a woman from Lancashire. The encounter did not last long. The set continued, and Walter did what he was told and played quietly. After the show I had the opportunity to talk to Fats. He was as benign and as likeable as his records. We laughed about the irony. He was a man who was famous for the percussive impact of his piano and for adding the backbeat to rock and roll but in Preston he had been obliged to play quietly and with drums you could hardly hear.
This particular evening is mentioned for two reasons. What the experts think of as the technical or stylistic breakthroughs often mean little to the people who are gripped by the music. This half-relates to Elvis hating stereo. He did not want his fans sitting in the middle of their music systems and waiting for individual instruments to appear out of a speaker. He wanted the music to land in one piece in the middle of the chest of the listener. Hemingway said of his short stories, ‘I want them to feel more than they understand’, and I believe Elvis felt the same. The technical stuff was his responsibility.
But we cannot ignore the backbeat easily, and this leads to the second reason the evening now dominates my memory. The Rick Coleman biography of Fats Domino* claims that it was the introduction of the backbeat on his great and still compelling single The Fat Man that entitles Domino to be given the credit of creating rock and roll. Coleman regards Fats Domino as the most important figure in rock and roll. He was certainly successful, and Elvis was a keen admirer. In a gesture that never earned him any credit Elvis appeared at his 1969 Vegas press conference with Domino at his side. The Press were there to welcome Elvis back to the stage and to praise. Elvis deflected some of that adoration and introduced Domino as the true King Of Rock And Roll.
I do not think Elvis is right but what do I know. I lost Fats on the way as I did Little Richard yet both were childhood heroes of mine. I found that their music became formulaic, and what makes me an Elvis fan I suppose is my admiration of his diversity. I will, though, concede that Fats was playing rock and roll before Elvis, and if we were tempted to build a bridge between rockabilly and rhythm and blues then the bridge would have to begin in New Orleans. The book, though, by Coleman has made a difference to how I think. Listening to Domino while reading the biography by Coleman, it is much easier to experience the pleasure that had once led me up the M6 motorway to listen to Fats struggle with an inadequate PA system. Like Elvis, the desire to always sell more records compromised Fats. No one, though, can deny either man their great moments, and if there is a better piano note and chord than the trill Fats uses at the beginning of Blueberry Hill, I have not heard it.
The lady who struggles to teach me the Spanish language was talking about England the other day. ‘What is this desire to know the first of everything? You see it everywhere, labels on buildings, everywhere.’ I said something about it being in our culture. I did not mention Elvis to her and the obsession writers have with the beginning of rock and roll. The CD collection The First Rock And Roll Record on the Famous Flames label is a marvellous collection of music that goes as far back as 1916 but the determination to define the key moment of epiphany is misguided. It is as if we believe that its location will give us the ultimate mythic clarity that we must possess. I had the good fortune to listen to rock and roll when it arrived or when it appeared in the British charts at least. I do not remember thinking that Elvis invented rock and roll but I did think he was different and that he had more appeal than the rest. I was a child living in England, and my ignorance meant that for a while I mistakenly believed Bill Haley was the creator of rock and roll. Elvis, though, always had his own mythic clarity, and it gripped me as it did so many. But so did African-American rock and roll and rhythm and blues. The myths, though, were different. Rhythm and blues reminded us of the talent of an oppressed race and it exposed the limitations of its oppressors. Elvis was about the dreams of an individual although it was an individual who could connect to everything – class, race, gender, bohemia, hierarchy and all the rest. Racial discrimination did hold back black talent, and people like Fats Domino were not given credit for their innovations although in the case of Domino he sold a lot of records to white kids. The tilted values of the time must have also affected me in how I assessed individuals. There were so many gifted African-American talents that I saw them as comparable. But there was no white man who sang rock and roll like Elvis. He was on his own amongst white people and he had crossed racial barriers. He had the key ingredient of mythic clarity. He appeared to be a hero.
So Elvis benefitted but his musical ability was considerable, as were his achievements. Rockabilly was a distinct genre within rock and roll, and he played a key part in its creation. There were other examples, too. He had his own epiphanies. He was also a person who could sing it all well. For some reason, this does not always impress others but I was easily convinced by Greil Marcus. Only Elvis, he said, had a talent that could embrace the contradictions of American society. That talent also meant that he could express the complex yearnings within human nature.
Some years ago I climbed Baugh Fell in the Howgills, a range of uplands not that far north of where Fats struggled with an inadequate PA system. The walk allows you to trace the River Rawthay to its source on top of the fells. The first half of the walk accompanies the river. When it is in full flow at the foot of the hills, the Rawthay dramatically forces a wide and fast running sluice through a harsh landscape. After a demanding climb I expected something unusual, a spout or a large pond. Instead, the beginning was no more than damp grass and familiar English mud. I stood on top of the fell and remembered the power of the river I had accompanied earlier. I suspect that if we ever do find the first rock and roll record or the point where it actually began we may discover something a lot more modest and much further away than we imagine. Following the River Rawthay into the uplands required effort. Helping create rock and roll required not just effort but something else. We may overestimate the originality of famous musicians like Fats Domino and Elvis. Fats was, though, special, memorable and loaded with appeal and charm. Add talent, which he had, and we have a man who was exceptional. The degree to which he was different from the rest should never be denied or underestimated.
*Blue Monday Fats Domino And The Lost Dawn Of Rock and Roll, Rick Coleman, published by Da Capo Press.
Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.