Crescent City Crooner
Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock 'n' Roll
By Rick Coleman
Da Capo. 364 pp. $26.95
Instead of dying at the height of his stardom, Antoine "Fats" Domino lived on and played on and then was "re-discovered" by the nation after being rescued from a house that had been flooded by Hurricane Katrina. Sometimes the price of longevity is being taken for granted. Sometimes you have to prove yourself mortal, like Buddy Holly, or have a brush with death, before you get summoned into the rock-and-roll pantheon.
Rick Coleman, Domino's first biographer, sets out to secure his subject's place while the man is still with us. After more than a decade spent delving into Domino's life, Coleman laments both the lack of attention the musician, now 78, has received in some recent rock-and-roll histories and the depiction of him in others as a jolly, non-threatening "latter-day minstrel." Coleman makes the case that Domino was a huge influence on early rock-and-roll, his pounding piano technique paving the way for that style's big beat. He also offers plenty of evidence that white adults considered Domino a public menace back then. His shows were "ground zero for racial integration," hardly a forum for the faint of heart.
Since his rollicking debut on the charts, "The Fat Man" in 1949, Fats Domino has sold tens of millions of records. His buoyant piano style and Creole-inflected vocals have captivated people all over the world, including many, like Elvis and Little Richard, who were Fats Domino fans before they turned into legends. The first song John Lennon learned was "Ain't That a Shame" (from his mother, on banjo, no less); the first record that David Bowie bought was "Blueberry Hill." And, as youths, both James Carville and Patrick Buchanan adopted "I'm Gonna Be a Wheel Someday" as their personal anthem. These are just a few of the witnesses for Coleman's case, and the evidence (starting with Domino's incredible run on Imperial Records) bears repeated playback. Rock critic Robert Christgau once compared Domino unfavorably to Chuck Berry because he "looks old," but Domino's playing, featuring those rolling piano triplets and the double-fisted two-beat, will never get tired. The biography also offers up the intriguing theory that Jamaican ska was directly inspired by one particular Fats Domino song, "Be My Guest." One wonders if there is such a thing as "tunnel hearing."
In avoiding the usual rock-and-roll clich?s, Coleman develops some novel and rather distracting metaphors. ("To Art Rupe of Specialty Records, New Orleans was the Southern Cibola and he was a conquistador mining gold records.") But he makes up for them with his wide and deep listening, his archival research and extensive interviewing. The plainspoken, terse excerpts from his conversations with Domino underscore what a private man this expert entertainer is. His wife, Rosemary, is even less drawn to the spotlight and has never gone on the road with him; she's seen Domino perform in public exactly once, in 1947. That Domino was not a saint is made apparent through painstaking accounts of his gambling, drinking and missed shows.
"The Lost Dawn" of Coleman's subtitle refers to the way in which the strong African-American presence in early rock-and-roll recordings and tours gradually diminished and was recast in the public imagination. "Rock-and-roll" has become Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly, with Domino, Little Richard and Chuck Berry often put back in the rhythm-and-blues box. To counter that impression, Coleman nicely summons the glorious heyday of New Orleans as a focal point of African-American hitmaking. The reader is brought into Cosimo Matassa's tiny French Quarter recording studio, where Domino's classics were preserved on the same primitive equipment as Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti," Shirley and Lee's "Let the Good Times Roll" and many more.
Coleman discusses the music business pros who made Domino's recordings nationally available -- such as the pioneering disc jockeys and Imperial's owner, Lew Chudd -- but his narrative always lights up when he's discussing Domino's many musical collaborators. They range from his older brother-in-law Harrison Verrett (who taught Domino his first chords as well as a measure of business savvy) and gifted bandleader Dave Bartholomew (who arranged most of Domino's big hits) to the sidemen who crafted gemlike solos and irresistibly churning rhythms. Through the decades of touring, Domino lost many bandmates to cancer, drugs and car accidents. So many, in fact, that one musician joked that "Fats has killed two or three bands." Domino's losses no doubt heightened his appreciation and desire for all that his neighborhood and city offered. He could cook up countless pots of pig's feet on a hot plate in hotels all over the world but he had to go back to New Orleans to feel at home. ?
Abby McGanney Nolan, a freelance writer and editor, is the author of "Rock 'n' Roll Road Trip."