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Fats Domino: The most underrated artist in rock and roll history?

Fats Domino is perhaps the most underrated artist in rock and roll history. Very much rated by those in the know, namely the white adherents that gave the blues a rebirth in the early 1960s, Domino’s legacy is incredible. However, despite his mammoth impact, for some unknown reason, he seems to get overlooked in favour of the more iconic rock ‘n’ rollers such as Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry.

Of course, it is not outrageous to say that the likes of both Berry and Waters were perhaps the two most influential musicians on the development of rock ‘n’ roll, aside from the long-deceased Robert Johnson, but Domino’s effect on its development was massive, and this is why his absence from many discussions is a puzzling one.

After learning his craft in the bars of New Orleans as a teenager, Domino signed to Imperial Records in 1949, and it was this that set him on his path to greatness. His success preceded the ‘British Invasion’, and with his contemporaries such as Berry and Waters, he created the sound of the ’60s that was about to change popular culture forever and give the music industry its ‘Big Bang’.

Showing just how huge Domino was (musically), the 1949 hit he and Dave Bartholemew penned, ‘The Fat Man’, sold over one million copies by the onset of 1951 – an incredible achievement for the era. In fact, ‘The Fat Man’ is cited by many as being the first definitive rock ‘n’ roll record.

After this, he assembled a band that at different points featured the likes of the saxophonist’s Herbert Hardesty and Alvin ‘Red’ Tyler, the bassist Billy Diamond and the drummer Earl Palmer. Furthermore, he hired his trusted bandleader, Fred Kemp, who would be his second in command for years to come. With this solid foundation, Domino and Bartholemew would go on a hit writing run over the next fourteen years.

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The interesting thing about Domino is that he was so much more than solely a bluesman. He even crossed over into the mainstream with the release of ‘Ain’t That A Shame’ in 1955. A man clearly adept at fluidity, his records crossed the segregational line that was the cultural definer of the day in America, but unfortunately, in some ways, the racial and social mores still trumped his efforts.

A milder version of the song hit number one when it was released by country singer Pat Boone, owing to the segregationalist attitudes of many in white America. Regardless, Domino was still one of the era’s most successful artists. Chuck Berry claimed in his memoir that by 1955 Domino was said to be earning $10,000 a week from touring.

Imperial Records was sold in 1963, and consequently, Domino left the label. “I stuck with them until they sold out,” he said in 1979. Of the 60 singles he released for Imperial, 40 were top ten hits, a remarkable feat.

After his departure from Imperial, he moved to ABC Paramount Records that year; due to his new label, his collaborative work with Bartholemew was over, and he continued to record steadily until around 1970. In 1965 he also moved to Mercury Records, but this didn’t matter as his career was slowly winding down.

Much of this was to do with the fact that those he had inspired, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones et al., were now the day’s biggest stars. They had taken the formula of Domino and his contemporaries and repackaged it for the next generation.

Fats Domino performing live, February 24, 1962. (Credit: Franklin & Marshall College)

In a strange way, one could argue that Domino’s reluctance to heed the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll was perhaps what added to Berry and the like surpassing him in terms of status. In 1957 he famously said: “What they call rock ‘n’ roll now is rhythm and blues. I’ve been playing it for 15 years in New Orleans”. Of course, this was true. It’s just Berry seemed to miss the point. It was a new generation of blues adherents who had grown up listening to Domino and, inspired by him, formed this thing called rock ‘n’ roll.

The way in which he managed to cross the stark segregational lines was nothing short of astounding. Although racism still ruled with an iron fist, as the Boone record shows, Domino’s efforts in dispelling racism between the youth was pioneering.

His records and tours brought together black and white youths, unifying them under the banner of music and what was starting to become known as rock ‘n’ roll. The appreciation of his music played a considerable role in the cultural breakdown of segregation in the US. Furthermore, it helped to bridge racial divides in places such as the UK and Western Europe.

There is nothing more indicative of Domino’s legacy than what occurred during Elvis Presley‘s first sold-out concert at the Las Vegas Hilton on July 31, 1969. Domino just so happened to be in the audience of 2,200 to watch Presley strut his stuff. At the press conference after the show, a journalist referred to Presley by his nickname ‘The King’, and Presley swiftly gestured to Domino, who was watching on.

“No,” Presley said, “That’s the real king of rock and roll.” Elvis didn’t stop there either. He continued: “Rock ‘n’ roll was here a long time before I came along. Let’s face it: I can’t sing like Fats Domino can. I know that.” He appended that Domino was “a huge influence on me when I started out”.

Aside from Presley and the ‘British Invasion’ bands, Domino has also been a huge influence on disparate artists such as Norah Jones, Willie Nelson and even Jah Wobble. Showing just how far his influence reaches, his tendency to accentuate the offbeat in his rhythms, such as on his classic rocker ‘Be My Guest’, was a defining influence on the development of ska.

Even today, Domino’s great influence can be found in many different musical realms, and this was his true genius. Although at the time he didn’t necessarily accept the pioneering strides his music was making, this didn’t matter, as everybody who lapped up his records has been quick to cite him as an inspiration. Duly, his music lives on vicariously through the works of others as well as the innumerable classics he recorded.

There will have been many times you’ve listened to Fats Domino and not been aware of it. Your favourite musicians favourite musician, it’s about time the mainstream woke up to the pioneering brilliance of Fats Domino.

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