When Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005, much was made of the fact that the worst-hit neighborhoods were those inhabited mostly by poor blacks. But as the news unfolded, a specific question bounced through the country concerning one particularly rich and famous resident of the Lower Ninth Ward: "Where's Fats?"
To be sure, not everyone knew Fats Domino was still alive in 2005. The 77-year-old musician had made relatively few appearances in recent decades, especially outside New Orleans. His numerous hits seemed to belong to a distant era. Though his seminal importance to rock and other forms of popular music had made him one of the original inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and despite having dominated the charts for a chunk of the last century, Antoine "Fats" Domino seemed to have been, if not forgotten, relegated to the sidelines of music history.
Katrina briefly shone the national spotlight on Domino as nothing had since President Bill Clinton awarded him the National Medal of the Arts in 1998. But Rick Coleman's biography of the star, Blue Monday (now out in trade paperback), should play a more permanent role in preserving Domino's legacy than any award or honor (or national disaster). It's a fairly well written, densely researched account of the long and colorful life of one of popular music's most influential and original talents.
In his Prologue, Coleman makes this very cogent point:
Historians…love to romanticize the stark noncommercial purity of downtrodden delta bluesmen in a commendable attempt at black cultural appreciation that nonetheless seems to rationalize the ghettoizing of many of rock 'n' roll's more direct black fathers and mothers – the creators of rhythm & blues – into a historical no-man's land. Thus, there has been vast documentation of the blues, but so little research on rhythm & blues that even major figures have disappeared into shadow. It is not a good sign of the preservation of African American heritage when by far the most popular r&b artists of the 1940s and the 1950s, Louis Jordan and Fats Domino, are today little known to most people.
The book makes a major contribution towards redressing that injustice.
Race is a huge part of the story. From the relative cultural comfort of the 21st century it's easy to remark on how music has helped "bring us together." We forget how recently the Civil Rights movement spawned violence in many parts of the country, and we may not be aware of how much racial prejudice music and musicians suffered during Fats Domino's heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, and even into the 1970s.
Domino's band often couldn't get lodgings in the cities where they played. "They could buy gas at service stations but couldn't use the restrooms." Once audiences had started to mix, nervous promoters canceled concerts. Penetrating the pop (as opposed to the r&b) charts, even after it became possible for black artists, remained very difficult for many years. Though his music was relatively unprovocative (as compared with Little Richard's, for example), riots attended a number of Domino's concerts as white and black youths tried to dance together in the same halls.
"In stark contrast to his later image," Coleman writes, "adults once…considered Domino a public menace…Domino's shows were ground zero for racial integration." Almost half the crowd was white at Alan Freed's "Rock 'n' Roll Jubilee Ball" in New York City in January 1955. The lineup, including Domino, was all black, and indeed, Coleman reports that "over a year after Elvis Presley's ascendance, the three major rock 'n' roll package tours were eighty percent black with all black headliners."
Coleman's greatest contribution with this book – even more than his documenting of Domino's life – may be his detailed recounting of the nationally touring shows that featured Fats and other stars before and during the Civil Rights movement. "Before children were integrated in schools," he writes, "the music integrated their souls." Scholars and the public can learn much from the story of how music has helped unite a fractious society.
Rhythm & blues sowed the seeds of integration even in virulently racist areas. There was a curious turnabout, as whites now felt the bondage of both the ropes that [literally] segregated them away from the dance floor and their own repressive moral dictums, as they enviously watched the blacks dance.
"The most important thing about my music is the beat," declares Domino, and Coleman has much to say about the abstract quality of European classical music vs. the physicality of the Africa-derived music that blacks had danced to for centuries and that flowered spectacularly in New Orleans in the 20th century. (New Orleans even got its nickname, the Big Easy, from musicians who knew it as a place where they could find work easily.)
"Emphatic rhythms, which were unheard on pop radio in the early 1950s, hijacked the hit parade within a year after Domino unleashed the monolithic 'Ain't That a Shame' in 1955," Coleman says, more or less accurately. I think he gives short shrift to the beat-heavy, big-band swing music of the 1940s, a trimmed-down version of which is quite evident in early R&B. But the fact that I feel justified in making such a criticism indicates how deeply Coleman delves into musicology in a book that is ostensibly a biography. The subtitle, Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock 'N' Roll, could have just as accurately (if less poetically) been The Life, Work and Times of Fats Domino.
The Italian-American engineer and studio owner Cosimo Matassa recorded rock 'n' roll's first anthem, Roy Brown's Good Rockin' Tonight, in New Orleans in 1947. Two years later Domino recorded "The Fat Man" – a tamed reworking of "The Junker's Blues," a song about a dope fiend – at Matassa's studio, and it became the first of his 35 Top 40 hits. Matassa also recorded Ray Charles, Dr. John, Little Richard, and many other important artists, and Coleman correctly shines a light on the Italian-American engineer's critical contributions, as well as those of Domino's songwriting partner, arranger, and bandleader, Dave Bartholomew, and Lew Chudd, the record entrepreneur whose Imperial Records brought Fats's music (and Ricky Nelson's, interestingly) to the masses. He also gives the important radio DJs and concert promoters of the time their due, but Domino, Bartholomew, and Chudd form his story's most essential triumvirate, and Fats himself comes through clearly as a brilliant entertainer, a musical innovator, and a shy, flawed, but in many ways admirable human being.
Coleman is good at describing to the non-musician what makes music do what it does. Maybe that's because Fats was good at it too. "'I used to play most all of my piano,' says Domino. 'That's how I got that rock 'n' roll. Everybody used to use the 4/4 beat. Then we did that one-two-three – that added to the rhythm. The first song I recorded in 1949; that had the backbeat." Coleman also repeatedly references Domino's piano triplets, which have been ubiquitous in pop ballads ever since. And he backs up his claims for Domino's influence by calling on a veritable cavalcade of stars. Paul McCartney took time off from recording Sgt. Pepper to attend a rare Domino concert in England. Elvis Presley made a point of calling Domino the real king of rock 'n' roll. Leonard Cohen says Fats's version of "Blueberry Hill" is his "all-time favorite song." Art Neville: "Fats could burn a piano, and Fats had a vocal sound that everybody loved. I ate, drank and slept Fats Domino." Bob Marley: "My earliest influence in music comes from Fats Domino time." And on and on. Point made.
As if to counterweigh the arc of Domino's hugely successful career as a musician (and indirectly as an anti-apartheid campaigner), Coleman is also forced to write of the many members of Domino's retinues and bands who died of drug overdoses or met other sad and premature ends. Death after death confronts the reader, who eventually learns that as a group, black musicians who tried to take their music to the masses during the age of segregation paid a far steeper price than exclusion from restrooms or pop charts.
In spite of his repeated personal losses, Fats Domino forged on. How he reacted to these events, we must infer from third-person reporting. The book doesn't get deep into its subject's psyche. The author had access to Domino and many of the important figures in his life, but the star remained (and remains) a very private person. It will be up to future biographers to determine, if they can, whether Domino simply isn't much of a soul-searcher, or is just intensely private. Coleman describes Domino's flaws (philandering, gambling, excessive drinking) but doesn't give us much sense of the star's own perspective on them. One gets the feeling that despite Coleman's access, he wasn't able to crack the shell.
Given that limitation, he's still given us a crackling good story. Fats Domino's influence should never again be obscured or downplayed. Equally important, his "big beat diplomacy" helped set the races on a path towards peace that continues to this day. As Coleman so aptly puts it, "America, which in prior centuries had figurately cannibalized Africa, was now suddenly shocked to discover it was what it ate."