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Interview: Fats Domino (Part 1)


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Last Wednesday I was in New Orleans for the Wall Street Journal to interview Fats Domino. You'll find my conversation with rock's creator on the “Leisure & Arts" page of today's Personal Journal section. Or go here. The interview was something of a coup, since the early rocker rarely grants interviews. I can tell you that those close to Fats, including his loving family, are wonderful, loving, soulful people who are rightly proud of their city and their most famous and beloved living artist. [Pictured: Fats tapping out his famed beat on the back of my hand. Photo by Haydee Ellis]

Next Monday, Fats, 82, will be honored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with his long-time collaborator Dave Bartholomew, 89, for their contribution to the music 61 years ago. For those not in the know, Fats and Dave [pictured below] were the first to transform r&b into what quickly became known as rock 'n' roll. Fats' 1949 recording of “The Fat Man" for Imperial Records has been credited as being the first pure rock single. Before we argue about how far back r&b goes (to the late 1930s), there's actually a pointed difference between r&b and rock 'n' roll. Without getting   technical, Fats and Dave's sound combined piano triplets with a backbeat that emphasized the second and fourth beats. Once Fats started racking up hits with that sound and beat beginning in 1950, success followed rapidly, making him rock's first wealthy superstar in the early 1950s.

Of course, with success comes imitation and adaptation. Such was the case as Bill Haley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly all began to incorporate Fats and Dave's money-making beat into their own songs. Elvis regularly referred to Fats in public as “the real king of rock 'n' roll." Just how popular was Fats? He sold more than 110 million records and had 66 pop hits (two more than the Beatles while they were a group). There were even more hits if you include his hits on the r&b chart. Fats and Dave wrote the words and music to many of those hits, and the pair became rock's first successful singer-songwriting team. Fats was among the original 16 legends inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, and his recording of Blueberry Hill is #18 on the NEA's Songs of the Century list, just above Kate Smith's God Bless America and just after Duke Ellington's Take the A Train. Dave, meanwhile, penned more than 400 songs, including Elvis' One Night. [Photo of Fats Domino and Elvis Presley in the late 1960s]

Fats' big hits include Ain't That a Shame, I'm in Love Again, Blueberry Hill, Blue Monday, I'm Walkin,' I Want to Walk You Home and Walkin' to New Orleans.Many were million sellers and united black and white teens in segregated dance halls across the South in the 1950s. While virtually all public places had “colored" entrances and facilities, radio could not be segregated. You turned the dial, and there was the music. Songs either moved you or they didn't, and Fats' foot-tapping hits were wildly appealing to millions of listeners, becoming a powerful unifying force.

For me, meeting Fats was a special moment. As we shook hands (they are thick and strong, like a boxer's), I couldn't help but think that here was the guy who started rock 'n' roll. But his accomplishments transcend the beat. Just one look at a Fats Domino YouTube clip makes you realize that this guy had (and has) enormous charisma. His smile can melt ice. During our interview, when his eyes narrowed and that grin stretched across his face, I couldn't help but feel the same glow that swept over teens so many years ago. I can't think of anyone else I've met with that kind of instant wattage, kindness and sincerity.

Fats and I spoke at the Mahalia Jackson Theater, where New Orleans' Early Childhood & Family Learning Foundation was honoring him and others with a lifetime achievement award. The foundation staged a concert extravaganza last Wednesday night that included the Louisiana Philharmonic, Dr. Michael White, Ellis Marsalis and Germaine Bazzle. Fats clearly was excited by all the kids running around, especially as they rushed up during intermission to seek his autograph. Fats obliged and signed every piece of paper put before him. “You gotta make kids happy," he said to me.

Interestingly, Fats' role as an accidental integrationist in the 1950s wasn't of primary concern to him at the time. Yes, at many of those events, Fats said, he and band members had to dodge bottles as fights broke out among those who didn't like seeing black couples and white couples on the same dance floor. But Fats said he wasn't crusading while performing. He said was too busy singing and having fun spreading the gospel of his New Orleans beat.

As was the case with my earlier interviews for the Wall Street Journal with Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, I always learn something new from my in-depth research and conversations. With Fats, what was instantly clear is that music is first and foremost entertainment and that its purpose is to make listeners have a better understanding of themselves and life's possibilities. As Fats said to me as we were leaving, “Seeing people happy just makes me happier and happier." Not to get all Hairspray, but it's fascinating to hear first-hand that rock 'n' roll began as music meant to create neutral space for teens and to let them have fun, free from the constrained and entrenched belief system of their parents. Teen music is still like that today.

Tomorrow, how I spent my time in New Orleans and my lunch with Dave Bartholomew and his son Don.

JazzWax tracks: The best, most reasonably priced, remastered set of Fats Domino's singles is the two-CD Fats Domino: The American Chart Hits (Jasmine). You'll find it here.

JazzWax note: To learn more about the Early Childhood & Family Learning Foundation and to make a donation, go here.

A special thanks to Hank O'Neal, Eric Paulsen, Haydee and Steve Ellis, Phyllis Landrieu, Adonica Domino, and Don and Ron Bartholomew.

JazzWax clips: You can't fully understand the power of Fats Domino unless you see him in action. This is music when jazz, r&b and rock all intersected and the music was just fun.

Here's Fats on the Ed Sullivan Show in November 1956 singing Blueberry Hill. Sullivan hid Fats' backup band behind a curtain to limit the number of black musicians TV viewers would see on stage. Sullivan also had Fats stand at the end to show audiences and advertisers that Fats was no threat. Despite Sullivan's wound-tight sensibilities, Fats bristles with joy, love and innocence.

Here's Fats in 1986 from the Austin City Limits concert singing Blue Monday...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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