American music

FATS DOMINO

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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.’

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

 

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BONUS ELVIS PRESLEY CHALLENGE

DONALD TRUMP

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There is doubt in Europe. The paranoid reckon a Fascist demagogue will soon be in the White House and that this is a new dark day for Western Civilisation. The more measured believe Trump is no more than a motor mouth salesman who is obliged to overcommit on delivery to unrealistic customers.  And all of us are remembering that the American people have form. In the Promised Land they elect movie actors and body-builders to high office. Introspection follows rage, and we are obliged to think of our own absurdities Boris Johnson and Silvio Berlusconi. But the peoples of Europe do not only think. We can also be emotional.

Some years ago I had lunch in London with a literary agent. He was from Boston.   In the conversation it became clear that he had less regard and respect for the American South than me. Years later I watched an episode of The Sopranos and heard Tony the head honcho dismiss the American South as Elvis Country. At that moment I remembered that refined lunch in London.   I am from the North of England and curious about the Deep South to the extent of even being loyal to its people. I am aware of its faults and of the history of racism but I also value its culture, black and white. Music plays a part but there is also literature, writers like William Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell and Eudora Welty.   The Deep South has and had racist divisions but within those divisions there appeared to exist communities that allowed the ordinary to share mutual respect.   So it seemed. When I was young, I imagined an oppressed people who had dignity. Neither was I repelled by the story of bank robber Dillinger and the support he received from ordinary folk. The loyalty shown to the bank robber by outsiders was impressive, and I admired the defiance of those who understood their paltry inheritance in a loaded economic system. No doubt I was a confused young man. More important than my romantic invention was the Southern music that helped me fill a life. The music of the American South had heart and was free of pretension but it also existed as evidence of working class worth. The South had its bigots but nobody could deny the potency of blues, country, gospel, soul music and rock and roll.

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Much has been said about soft power being important to American dominance in the world. Hollywood was important but there were also all the ordinary working class Southerners who picked up a guitar and had decent tonsils.   People will argue about the respective merits of the individual musicians but nobody can deny the importance of Elvis Presley to the soft power of the USA. And, when he wilted, there were other American musicians who inspired Europeans. No doubt there are people in Boston and New Jersey who listen to Elvis and music from the American South but to them Elvis will promise less than he did to his British fans. There existed enough of those fans to let him change how we related to our own history. The British became curious about the man and his homeland and wanted to understand what had made possible something as exciting and confident as rock and roll and rhythm and blues. And, although some of us were shocked by the racism and lynching of the Deep South and never really cared for the excess patriotism , we also responded to Lucas Beauchamp the proud and independent black man in Intruder In The Dust, the patient tolerance and humanity in To Kill A Mockingbird and the responsible sympathy for the oppressed and vulnerable that was evident in The Night Of The Hunter.

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So today there are people in Britain who are disappointed by the American Presidential Election. And perhaps we have no right because, of course, we are also flawed. We must not forget Boris the piffled buffoon. But the Brits who have large record collections or used to work in record stores devoted to American music have heavier hearts than they did at the beginning of the week. There is a view that the world has become a more frightening place since Trump but I am not so sure. The world was frightening anyway. Whatever he does will consist of no more than making a bad situation worse because it has been bad and getting worse since Thatcher and Reagan.

I understand that the victory of Trump required more than the votes of the white working class in the South. Well before Trump, the selfish and not very bright rich proved they were without standards. His election tells us nothing new about the powerful and the affluent. But forget them for a moment, Elvis Country was solidly behind Trump, and that is what will disappoint those Europeans who spent a large part of their lives in record stores. The resentment and difficult circumstances of working class Americans are recognised.  The same justified misgivings about the future of ordinary working people exist in Europe. Yet the same people who feel let down by the American economy were the ones who ushered in Reagan, neoliberalism, restrictions on trade unions and tax cuts for the rich. All of it made the ordinary people of America poorer, and guess what? Those who are suffering from the medicine want more spoonfuls.

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Trump claims that he will create jobs and pay decent wages, which I hope is the main reason working class Americans voted for him, but anyone who can do a simple jigsaw should realise he is an unlikely saviour. In his acceptance speech Trump promised that his great economic plan would double growth. This is economic illiteracy. Does he mean he intends to double the annual rate of growth or that in a thousand years the rate of growth in the USA will have doubled? To be credible the sentence needed more and somewhat obvious words. What is certain is that the rich will pay less tax because they will utilise his advocated low rates of corporation tax to avoid paying income tax. Investment will reduce because excess profits will be taken out of businesses. Because money spent on research and development is tax free, higher corporation tax encourages investment and expansion yet without it Trump will somehow double output and create jobs.   Well, best of luck. And anyone who can build a wall across the breadth of America without immigrant labour is a better man than me.

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For all the mistakes of the past and the blemishes in European politics the truth is that Trump is a blot on a country whose ordinary people redefined the culture of the rest of the world.  The decline of Elvis that tarnished his career haunts those Brits who used the same record stores as me.  And they and me are disturbed by the success of Trump. Millions of Americans have voted for an inarticulate ill-mannered 70 year old who dies his hair blonde, has such compassion for his countrymen and women that he pays no taxes on his fortune, admits that he introduces himself to women with a grope, and who is married to a walk around mannequin who looks like she should be his granddaughter. Elvis continued to wear his white jump suit after he had put on weight, and after that he was identified with tack. Trump is like the white suits. He is embarrassing and has brought undiscovered tack to American politics. His appearance and personality will ensure for the fortunate that his reign has comic appeal. The not so lucky may struggle to maintain a sense of humour. They need a sense of irony at least because many of them have decided they can endure an even more lopsided economy. Those Britons who used to fill independent record stores will also be gloomy. No doubt the music and literature will turn us around so that we can be positive again about a unique culture that helped us become adults. We will make excuses for ignorance, as we have done in the past. At that point someone will say there is a reason for working class anger in the American South and that when Elvis visited Nixon perhaps he had a point about the Beatles being smug know-alls. But even then we will be mystified as to how and why Elvis and the ordinary people of the United States ever thought that Nixon and Trump were on the same side as them.

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Howard Jackson has had five books published by Red Rattle Books. His latest book Choke Bay is now available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the other books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.