Few artists embodied the innocent release and ecstasy of early rock & roll like Fats Domino. He was the music’s first piano wizard and a huge influence on generations of musicians, from fellow Fifties icons like Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard to future New Orleans soul stars like Dr. John and Allen Toussaint, to rock-era piano men like Billy Joel and Elton John. “That innocence is there in his music,” Dr. John wrote in a tribute when Rolling Stone named Domino one of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. “He’s a good man, and people respond to that goodness.” The effortless easy-rolling freedom of songs like “Whole Lotta Loving,” “I’m Walkin'” and “Blueberry Hill,” the ticklish intimacy of “I Want to Walk You Home” and the cool heartache of “Ain’t That a Shame” still resonate more than 60 years after they were hits. Though his chart success dried up in the 1960s, Fats Domino still sits smiling and vibrant, at the center of everything wide open and fun about American pop music.
This rollicking two minutes and 37 seconds exploded out of New Orleans as a mix of Delta blues melody and boogie-woogie piano, of sexual energy and free-floating flights of jazz-touched vocal fancy, of Domino’s hard-pounding piano rhythm and a young Earl Palmer’s steady backbeat – in essence, one of the first rock & roll records in existence. As Langdon Winner writes in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, this tune, recorded in 1949, is a “poorly disguised version of the old barrelhouse standard ‘Junker’s Blues,'” but Domino imbues it with quick gait and lascivious lyrics that turn the lament about being chained to drugs into a beaming, libidinal boast that turns Domino into the original Overweight Lover on his first 10-inch single.
Domino scored his first R&B Number One with this forlorn cut, a farewell to a troublesome lover co-written with Alvin E. Young. “Goin’ home tomorrow/Can’t stand your evil ways,” he sings against a hard-swinging half-time blues groove. “When you’re around me/I’m full of misery all day.” The song was later covered by Little Richard, Dr. John and Percy Sledge, among many others.
In the summer of 1955, “Ain’t That a Shame” became Domino’s first pop smash, after a string of R&B hits. Pat Boone’s whitebread cover (which Boone allegedly wanted to be titled “Isn’t That a Shame”) reached Number One, but as Jerry Wexler put it, “Fats Domino is still the thing. Who cares about what’s his name with the white buck shoes?”
“Blueberry Hill” was first recorded in 1940 by several artists, including Gene Autry and Glenn Miller. But Domino drew on the 1949 Louis Armstrong version when he had run out of material at a session. Producer Dave Bartholomew thought it was a terrible idea but lost the argument. Good thing, too. It ended up being Domino’s biggest hit and broadened his audience once and for all. As Carl Perkins later said, “In the white honky-tonks where I was playin’, they were punchin’ ‘Blueberry Hill.’ And white cats were dancin’ to Fats Domino.”
If “Ain’t That a Shame” announced Fats Domino’s arrival, “I’m in Love Again” secured his place on the charts. The two-minute declaration of love, set to a springy saxophone line and Domino’s bluesy piano playing, was the singer’s first big-time hit: It spent 18 weeks on the chart in the spring of 1956 and made it up to Number Three. Its upbeat melody and heartfelt lyrics (“Yes, it’s me and I’m in love again/Had no lovin’ since you know when”) resonated through rock & roll, as Bill Haley and his Comets, the Upsetters (featuring Little Richard) and Ricky Nelson, among others, covered it. It also remained a staple of Domino’s concerts well into the 2000s.
Domino sings the working man’s blues in “Blue Monday,” a song written for Smiley Lewis by Domino’s frequent collaborator Dave Bartholomew. Domino’s version remains faithful to the original, though his charming delivery makes the R&B cut feel even more youthful and celebratory, especially as he hits the song’s end where the protagonist leaves the work week behind to go “out on the stand to play.” Domino turned the song into a hit, blazing a trail for R&B records to break through to the mainstream pop charts. He performed it in the classic film The Girl Can’t Help It the same year it was released. According to Domino’s biographer Rick Coleman, “Blue Monday” was the singer’s favorite song.
The flip side to “I’m in Love Again” was a revved-up rendition of the pop hit “My Blue Heaven,” which was originally a Number One hit for Gene Austin when it came out in 1927. But where the original was an easygoing love song soundtracked with a little piano and clarinet, Fats Domino cranked the tempo, added a backbeat and sang it with an upbeat optimism. You can hear the importance of Domino’s performance – which stayed on the chart for 13 weeks and made it up to Number 19 in 1956 – in Frank Sinatra’s recordings of the tune. In 1950, the Chairman crooned it as a swingin’ jazz number but by 1960 when he redid it, it wasn’t quite a rocker but it had a brisk pace and the closest thing to a backbeat found on any Sinatra tune.
Fats Domino was the pinnacle of his commercial career when he cut “I’m Walkin'” on January 3rd, 1957, with drummer Earl Palmer, bassist Frank Fields and saxophonist Herb Hardesty. “Blueberry Hill” and “Blue Monday” where still on the charts and all over the radio. Domino wrote the tune with his longtime collaborator Dave Bartholomew, but this one had more of a country flavor than his recent hits. Bartholomew said he knew the song would be a hit when he called in a couple of children from the street to come in and hear the song in the studio. They immediately started dancing. “The only record I ever really felt that we had a big hit on was ‘I’m Walkin’,” Bartholomew said. “You put the clarinet in and you got traditional jazz. You got Dixieland.” The was an enormous hit, and took on a new life at the end of the year when Ricky Nelson played it on The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, introducing it to a whole new audience. It also launched his own career as a teen rock star.
Fats needed cooling, and he wasn’t fooling. Aside from a title that would be cribbed a decade later by a certain British hard-rock act, this Domino-penned nugget offers pure hand-clappy joy, plus kissy noises in the chorus. It sounds effortless, which it apparently was: A New Orleans newspaper reporter happened to watch Domino and his band, led by longtime collaborator Dave Bartholomew, record “Whole Lotta Loving” over six quick takes one November day. “When things go right,” Domino said immediately afterwards, “I can make records all day.”
Domino – like Buddy Holly – was the rock originator who knew how to pour some sugar on his rhythmic fire. The innocence and devotion of this song, a piano stroll about taking a stroll that went to Number Eight, is absolutely overwhelming. How devoted is the singer? He doesn’t just want to walk the song’s subject home, he hopes he can keep walking her right down the aisle. At the one-minute mark Fats makes his plea so simply and universally, it’s impossible to deny: “I want to hold your hand.” Across the Atlantic, Lennon and McCartney were taking notes.
Louisiana songwriter Bobby Charles grew up in Abbeville, Louisiana, and worshipped Fats Domino from the first time he heard one of his songs as a teenager. According to a possibly apocryphal story Charles liked to tell, he met Domino when he came to town and the pianist invited him to New Orleans. Charles told him he had no way of getting there since he didn’t have a car. “Well,” Domino supposedly sad, “you’d better start walking.” From that kernel, Charles wrote “Walking to New Orleans” in just about 15 minutes. Dave Bartholomew added a lush string section when Domino put it down on tape, helping turn it into a huge hit. It’s been covered many times over the years, but the most emotional rendition was performed by Neil Young in 2005 at the React Now benefit for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
This Hank Williams song had become an instant standard – after Williams took it to Number One in 1952, Jo Stafford quickly followed with a sappy pop version that made it to Number Three. Jerry Lee Lewis subjected it to a whole lot of shaking in 1956, but it wasn’t until Fats took hold of it in November of 1961 that anyone actually connected to New Orleans had a go. In his hands it goes from a novelty song to a fully felt description of a life well lived – you could say Fats Domino’s entire career had been dedicated to big fun on the bayou. Over a horn section that swells and kicks, Fats lays down a steady-rolling rhythm that clears space for one of his most relaxed vocals, near to crooning. A B side to “I Hear You Knocking,” his cover went to Number 30. The following year came Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, but Fats was there first.