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(Credit: Franklin & Marshall College)

Music

The crazy 'race riot' that broke out at a Fats Domino concert

Fats Domino is perhaps the most underrated artist in rock and roll history. Very much put on a pedestal by those in the know, namely the white adherents that gave the blues a rebirth in the early 1960s, Domino’s legacy is incredible, particularly for someone who seems to be so absent in current discussions regarding the birth of “this thing” they call rock ‘n’ roll.

Despite his mammoth impact on music, 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. One would argue that this is maybe because, after 1970, his recorded output was sparse, owing to the ironic way that those who were his disciples were the ones now gaining the plaudits, causing interest in his own work to plummet. Life can be so cruel.

Of course, it is not outrageous to say that the likes of Berry and Waters were perhaps the two most influential musicians in 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. This point comes regardless of his recording career stalling by the dawn of the 1970s.

A brilliant man by all accounts, and said to have been one of, if not the most successful rock ‘n’ roller of the ’50s, his music was also iconic for another reason; the way that it helped to cross the segregated line between white and black listeners. His listenership was a mixed one, and, considering that 1950s America was a place ruled by Jim Crow and the violent de facto implications of segregation and racism, this was massive.

Not only was an African-American one of the decade’s biggest and most successful artists, but the way that Americans of every walk of life bought his records was a significant thing. Showing both the bold forward steps he made – and how they were only within the limited boundaries available to him at the time – was the release of his hit ‘Ain’t That A Shame’ in 1955.

The song crossed the lines of segregation; however, ultimately, the racial and social mores still trumped his heroic efforts. A milder version of the song hit number one when it was released by Dixieland singer Pat Boone, owing to the conservative and racist attitudes of many in white America. This was ’50s America, after all. 

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If you’ve ever seen the film Suburbicon, you’ll know exactly what the essence of the time was like. Furthermore, this was 1955, and to put things into perspective, in August that year, 14-year-old African-American, Emmett Till, was notoriously lynched by a group of grown men for allegedly offending a white woman in her family’s grocery store. 

In this way, Domino’s contribution to alleviating racism was necessary and pioneering, but also rather small when considering the larger picture of American society at the time. A great example of this came on November 2, 1956, in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

A typical Domino concert of the time, it featured a sold-out crowd that was comprised of black and white. A fight broke out though, and things got quickly out of hand. The police were called, and they ended up tear-gassing the unruly crowd. This caused a stampede of audience members trying to escape the gas, and was labelled by the press as a “race riot”.

In short, it wasn’t, but given the spirit of the time, this was definitively a race riot. During the melee, Domino and two of his band members jumped out the window to avoid being caught up in it, and were slightly injured in the process. 

This wasn’t the first or the last riot that broke out at a Fats Domino concert either. Over his career, four major riots occurred at his show. This makes him the artist to have clocked up the most amount of riots during his career, more than The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. 

These occurred “partly because of integration”, according to Domino’s biographer Rick Coleman. “But also the fact they had alcohol at these shows. So they were mixing alcohol, plus dancing, plus the races together for the first time in a lot of these places.” 

Indicative of the time, Fats Domino‘s career was both made and inhibited by the racist social mores of the day. Aside from his critical work within rock ‘n’ roll, the steps he made in easing social tensions were marvellous, even if they were restricted by de facto and de jure rules. Progress always has to start somewhere. 

Watch a short clip featuring the Domino discussing the riots below.