Explores USA music



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.







In his career Dwight Yoakham has sold 25 million CDs. That is a lot of whatever they use to make CDs. For those who are curious it is polycarbonate plastic. It has to come from somewhere. Dwight Yoakham is the type of country singer who might worry about what the production of his CDs has done to the environment. When he first appeared in the UK, Yoakham did an interview with the Guardian newspaper. He astonished the British journalist by insisting that country music had left wing roots.   His music, Yoakham claimed, would include social protest. He was sympathetic to ordinary people and their plight. He understood that society was unfair and loaded. As the years and the millions of CDs have passed by, the politics of Yoakham have either changed or been avoided. The guitars on his records also became louder. The albums of Dwight Yoakham honoured Buck Owens but also had enough rockabilly to provide jukebox hits. Mixing country music with rock and roll was important. In a strange way the approach of Yoakham has ensured that the legacy of Elvis Presley has continued in modern country music.

If There Was A Way was the title of the fourth album by Dwight Yoakham.  More than the previous three albums from Yoakham it revealed the influence of Elvis. It also suggested similar ambition. The country music roots are obvious on several tracks but the slick engineering ensures a distance from the past. The rockabilly that complements the polished country music is almost hard rock. There is nothing wrong with this. Yoakham covers various bases and spreads his appeal. Elvis did the same on his album Elvis Is Back.   Amidst the variety Yoakham honours and remembers his true hero, Buck Owens. The track Turn It On, Turn Me Up and Turn Me Loose is a worthwhile and effective tribute.  The surprise on the album is Nothing’s Changed Here, which evokes the easy on the ear country tunes and ‘rockaballads’ that Elvis did in the sixties. An obvious comparison with Nothing’s Changed Here is the Elvis interpretation of the Don Robertson song What Now, What Next, Where To. The smooth ‘rockaballads’ of Elvis have never been popular with rock critics.   It did not, though, deter Dwight Yoakham. On If There Was A Way he may strengthen the beat but he acknowledges what some Elvis fans prefer to forget.


The last two songs of the album If There Was A Way differ from the rest because they can be interpreted as political. Let’s Work Together began life as a rhythm and blues single by Afro-American musician Wilbert Harrison yet Yoakham includes it on a country album. The political message is not laboured and can be ignored by those not inclined to ponder left wing politics but a blues song sung by a country musician implies a belief in racial integration. The title implies cooperation rather than competition, American individualism it is not. Dangerous Man has the same lyrical flexibility as Let’s Work Together. It has political intent that can be sidestepped. Yoakham restricting his political concerns to the last two songs on If There Was A Way invites comparison again with the album Elvis Is Back. Despite the  pitch for wider appeal Elvis used the last two tracks to remind his audience that he was still committed to the blues. This was a deliberate ploy because he tried to do the same on his next album. The intention was compromised, and one of the blues tracks was removed and replaced by a film song. Today the intention of Elvis feels like a failed attempt at integrity. Yoakham may have been attempting something similar with the last two tracks of his fourth album and he may have also been remembering Elvis.


If There Was A Way was released in 1990.   Dangerous Man is the penultimate track. The song exists as a warning about someone. The words suggest more than they explain. The first two lines tell us that this person is dangerous and has ‘blood in his plans’. We also discover that most people do not realise this. This dangerous man acts like a friend but ‘it’s just pretend’. Yoakham could be talking about deceitful lovers or rabble-rousing politicians.  The dangerous man in the song has the ability to convince others that they think the same as him. But Yoakham understands this ability only exists because the dangerous man ‘runs a crooked game.’ This is an important assertion. Bad people acquire power and have the ability to be popular and persuade and seduce others. The argument is supported with detail. This dangerous man will pretend to be ‘your friend’. Yoakham refers to the vain words and empty promises of the dangerous man.   This leads the listener to the best lines in the song. We are told that the message from the dangerous man is loud but ‘it ain’t meant to be clear’. This dangerous man hides his past. Although his hands are stained with unsavoury deeds the dangerous man will ‘wash them with your tears’. Dangerous Man was not selected as a standout track from the album If There Was A Way. The track was not released as a single but then neither were the blues tracks from Elvis Is Back. Earning a living and letting people know what you think are different ambitions.


In 1990, when Dangerous Man was recorded, the Republican Party was pursuing neoliberal economics and preaching neoconservative values. These two aims are, of course, incompatible. Neoliberalism promises constant change and that denies adherence to the tradition espoused by neoconservatives. Because neoliberals are often neoconservatives, this contradiction may have been what Yoakham was referring to in Dangerous Man. ‘His message is loud but it ain’t meant to be clear.’ Yoakham appeared alert to the inconsistencies of the dangerous and powerful. What was happening to politics in 1990 felt chilly to many people, and the song appeals to those who feel their paranoia is justified. The President of the USA in 1990 was George H Bush. We all knew that he was on the side of the rich and powerful but he lacked the qualifications to qualify as the dangerous man in the song. He rode the train of neoliberalism. He was not the engine driver. By the time George H Bush arrived the train was unstoppable. In 1990 the song by Yoakham was interpreted as a general slur against many men. Since then we have witnessed the success of Donald Trump. The song Dangerous Man has become personal. Whatever Dwight Yoakham feels about his personal career, and success usually leaves some self-hatred, he should not hesitate to give himself full marks for farsightedness. Move over Woody Guthrie. Dangerous Man may just be the most prescient song in country music. As a character description of Donald Trump, and as an analysis of the phenomenon Trumpism, the song is word perfect.


Dangerous Man describes what has been happening since 1979, the lies that have been told to ordinary people. Since then the rich have become richer. Money has been transferred to them from those who are not rich. American voters were deceived by powerful men and women who pretended that they thought the same as ordinary people. The rich lied that they wanted to be friends. Working people struggle on less and they are now facing terrifying futures. The electorate of the USA has responded to hardship and plumped for Trump. They think he is different.   Mixing half-truths about enemies and friends the new leader of the American people has told ‘the right things about the wrong people’ and vice versa.  Yoakham argued that this was how dangerous men operate. He is right, of course. Racism has allowed the powerful to tell the right things about the wrong people, to confuse virtue with privilege.

At the moment many Europeans are not sympathetic to Americans. They see a narcissistic clown able to persuade a multitude of idiots. Rather than condemn Americans we Europeans need to be sympathetic. All nations are built on myths. The United States suffers because its myths are only recently established and have not had time to be filtered and refined by history. They were also developed at the same time as modern media became powerful. National myths fed by movies and glamour are bound to be hysterical.  The myths behind the nations states of Europe have been purified by history, a few wars and some dull films. Although the majority of the British population somehow believe in both equal opportunities and the Royal family our absurdities are not so obvious.

Donald Trump

Even the dangerous man is entitled to some sympathy. Donald Trump is a man shaped by his privileged role in commerce and the market. He has operated in a world that lacks any sense of reality. Financial markets value companies without understanding whether they are profitable or not. Because growth is important to debt-laden economies and profit margins, rich businessmen dismiss the destruction of the only hospitable planet in the Universe with a mere shrug. No wonder Donald Trump is unable to utter an articulate sentence or read from an autocue screen without making the prepared text sound like gibberish. They are all crazy in his world. Dwight Yoakham was right; this man is dangerous. Yoakham is entitled to plaudits for prescience, and right now it would help if Yoakham could write a follow-up and make it a hit. The truth, though, is that Donald Trump is not the only dangerous man. They existed before him. And from the world that spawned him more are already being groomed on how to tell lies and pretend.

Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including Horror Pickers a collection of film criticism. His latest novel Choke Bay is available here. 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.