2020-01-22 23:09:53 UTC
Like a sudden storm appearing on the horizon as the sky grows dark, the calm tranquil day is about to be upended.
You see it in the distance, you feel it in your senses before you actually hear it, but once the wind and rain starts you can hear nothing but those sounds until that storm ends and even then you’ll hear echoes of it still ringing in your ears long after it passes.
In New Orleans, where hurricanes are an all-too frequent destructive force of nature, the names of these biggest storms are well known. They’re the ones that uproot trees, knock down buildings, breach the levees and flood the streets, leaving a path of utter destruction in their wake. They’re life-altering events in every conceivable way.
The storm now coming into view would be a musical one rather than meteorological, but it was perhaps even more powerful than any Category Five hurricane that whipped through the Crescent City. For while those had a very centralized impact that would soon fade into memory, the one touching down now would shake up the entire world for years to come.
Standing On The Corner
In August 1969, after nearly a decade long sabbatical from live performing, Elvis Presley made his return to the stage for a series of sold-out concerts in Las Vegas and during the circus-like press conference to kick off the event he posed for pictures with an artist just seven years his senior but who to many there must’ve seemed as if he was a relic from another lifetime ago.
Though he’d been performing regularly to packed houses in Las Vegas for a number of years himself, this man was no longer viewed as a contemporary artist, having scored one final Pop Chart hit the year before which barely scraped the listings for two weeks at #100, his first to even do that well in four years.
But while the focus of the media was on the still youthful looking Presley, tanned, fit and full of swagger, Elvis admonished the reporters who asked him about reclaiming his mythical throne as he steadfastly insisted that the man next to him was the REAL King Of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Despite this sincere proclamation nobody there paid it, or the artist this statement referred to, much mind and soon after Antoine “Fats” Domino slipped away unnoticed by the throngs.
But two decades earlier the twenty-one year old Fats Domino unleashed a hurricane of rock ‘n’ roll onto the world and for the next fourteen years scored more hits and sold more records than anyone NOT named Elvis Presley.
In a society where there never seems to be any shortage of accolades or acclaim for transformative figures in popular culture, Fats Domino, arguably the greatest – certainly the most consistently great – rock artist of the 1950’s, the only one to be just as dominant commercially when the market was entirely black as when it had a massive influx of white listeners, saw himself be gradually pushed aside until in some quarters he was reduced to little more than an afterthought when recounting rock history.
But if he never quite ascended to the throne as Presley argued was his due, Fats Domino wasn’t that far from wearing the crown for better part of his career.
When Dave Bartholomew was hired by Imperial Records to lead their company into the rock era in late 1949 he was undoubtedly the right man for the job. A talented musician and arranger who recently scored a Top Ten hit himself as an artist, the ambitious Bartholomew was looking for a challenge that being a performer alone couldn’t give him.
To succeed at this role though he’d need good artists to carry out his vision and preferably to contribute something of their own to the emerging style. New Orleans certainly wasn’t lacking in the talent department and so after first grabbing Tommy Ridgley and Jewel King for a late November session, Bartholomew took Imperial owner Lew Chudd to The Hideaway Club to check out a 21 year old pianist who was making plenty of noise around town.
Fats Domino was arguably not even the centerpiece of the band playing that night, not in a traditional sense anyway. Its leader was sax player Billy Diamond, while the primary vocalist was Little Sonny James. Meanwhile Fats’s brother-in-law, Harrison Verrett, a veteran musician twenty years his senior who had taught Domino the names of the keys on the piano when Fats was just a kid starting out, was sitting in that night as well, but there was no question who the STAR was. The short (5’5”), rotund kid behind the keyboard who played with a heavy left hand and a flashy right was the one who got the crowd jumping and shouting each night.
Bartholomew had seen Domino before, in fact he reputedly kicked him off stage when he tried sitting in with his band at one point, but now Dave went up to him and asked if he’d sing a number himself. Fats obliged, tearing into The Junker’s Blues, a Champion Jack Dupree song that would ultimately be transformed by Domino and Bartholomew in a few days time.
You probably know the rest of the story… Chudd offered him a contract, Domino conferred with Verrett who wisely told him to demand songwriting royalties rather than sell his tunes to the company outright and Chudd agreed. Barthomolew, knowing the intrinsic power of that particular song when performed by Domino, decided to re-tool it for their needs, writing new lyrics to what had been a song about drug addiction. A week later on December 10th they went into the studio where over the course of six hours they proceeded to lay the cornerstone of a musical empire.
But what’s remarkable about it all isn’t the story of his “discovery” or the fortuitous convergence of principals at that specific time, or even the meteoric rise that followed – all of those are at least familiar tropes in music history – but rather the fact that in his very first studio date every single component that Fats Domino would become known for was already firmly in place and fine-tuned to perfection on The Fat Man, arguably the single greatest debut record in the entire history of rock ‘n’ roll.
They Call Me The Fat Man
It’s one thing to have your first record be such a perfectly distilled example of your abilities, but it’s another thing altogether to have the first sounds heard on your first record be so explosive that it can’t help but capture your attention the instant it begins to play.
The Fat Man opens with an extended intro showcasing Domino’s skills on the ivories, 24 bars of pounding piano that creates such an unstoppable rhythmic drive that it might as well have been delivered via a rocket launcher. The bass and drums, though kept well in the background, are adding to a controlled din that’s absolutely intoxicating. If they merely kept this up for two minutes and released it as an instrumental it’d still be a great record.
After such a riveting intro you’d think – especially at the time when the name on the label was a mystery to those buying it – that there’d be no way that the arrival of anybody’s vocals could match what’s already been heard, let alone improve on it, but Fats Domino wasn’t just anybody. His voice is higher pitched than it’d be a few years down the road but the honeyed accented Creole drawl makes an immediate impression on your ears.
It’s the sound of youthful – hopeful – energy being unleashed in a once-in-a-lifetime shot at the brass ring, or so it must’ve seemed at the time, and rather than be awed by the setting he confidently introduces himself to the nation, leaving no doubt as to who he was and what he was all about by stating it in no uncertain terms in the very first stanza:
They call, they call me The Fat Man
‘Cause I weigh 200 pounds
All the girls they love me
‘Cause I know my way around
Domino’s voice is so infectious that it practically beckons you to follow. In the first of a thousand brilliant decisions by Bartholomew over the course of their partnership, his lyrics serve as a form of self-advertisement for Fats allowing them to immediately establish his name and persona in a way that was unforgettable to anyone listening, forging a personal connection that would have tremendous long term dividends.
But words on a lead sheet only work if those involved can properly deliver it and it’s here they all prove their mettle and then some.
I Know My Way Around
The vocals actually take up only a small part of the record, 45 seconds all told, a little more if you toss in Fats’ imitating a mouth harp (”Wah-WAAAAAH, Wah-Wah”) during the first break, but the lyrics they paint this picture with are so vivid that if you close your eyes you can envision yourself standing next to him on the corner of Rampart and Canal Streets seeing the Creole beauties as they stroll by.
Fats’ sells this beautifully, the eagerness in his voice balanced by the laid back cool vibe he tries to project so as not to betray his inexperience. Even when he brags about all the girls loving him it’s hard to find it off-putting when his tone remains so appealing, and so you simply take it as a slight exaggeration done with a self-effacing smile. Throughout it all he sounds so natural, so completely comfortable on mic, that it’s hard to fathom he was only occasionally taking vocals on the bandstand around town at this point.
But as invigorating as his singing is, the band is matching him step for step with some of the tightest and most ferocious playing we’ve yet encountered.
At times other great rock performances from this era have seemed like the producers were simply able to capture a really good take of a song on tape, lightning in a bottle in other words, but The Fat Man sounds like it was designed to be a RECORD.
Hearing this blasting out of your speakers and knowing Dave Bartholomew was still a novice producer when this was cut provides all the evidence you’d need to predict a long and rewarding career behind the controls because already he understands just what the difference is between an energetic performance that lives in the moment and a brilliant record that lives forever.
Everything about this arrangement speaks to his mastery of transforming the first scenario into the second, where no matter how many times you spin this it loses none of its excitement. Dave zeroes in on establishing a churning rhythm, doubling up instruments to play the same parts to add to the power while judiciously – and selflessly – cutting away any extraneous fat, namely his own trumpet, knowing it would only get in the way.
Instead the other horns, Red Tyler and Herb Hardesty most impressively, but with two others beefing up their parts, playing a circular rhythm that differs in pace and emphasis from the piano and drum rhythm that hold down the center, keeping everything constantly moving – insistently and impatiently – until you’re swept along with it. Even more telling is the fact that Dave doesn’t give ANY of the horns a solo, something which was all but standard on rock songs at the time, for New Orleans rockers in particular, especially when a horn player himself was running the session and had some of the best on their respective instruments ready and waiting.
Instead he gives a second solo to Fats himself on piano, letting him churn even deeper to forcibly drag you along with him if for some unearthly reason you haven’t gotten up and started dancing already. He’s also adjusted the levels on the other instruments this time around, giving much more prominence to the bass during this solo than had been afforded on the intro. Here that bass is right in your ear, doubling Fats and making the bottom so deep that it virtually assures that the sick, the lame and the dead will all be rising to get into the groove they’re laying down.
To spread some credit around, it’s also notable that Domino’s not playing a boogie, as you’d think he’d be, but instead is just switching the root note which locks the rhythm into place until you’re utterly hypnotized. It’s purposely monotonous in construction which makes it all the more galvanizing in its execution as he and the others play with an intensity that – if not for the joyous sounds they’re producing – would be almost frightening in its power.
I’m Going To Stay
There’s no suspense today in the outcome of this of course, both when it comes to our grades as well as how it achieved its iconic status in general, but I doubt there was much suspense at the time either. One listen to this and you had to know it was a hit.
The Fat Man took off in New Orleans as soon as it was released, pouring out of every jukebox and radio in the city and it quickly spread nationally, reaching the #2 spot in Billboard, eventually surpassing a million copies sold, though tellingly that was less than 1% of Domino’s total sales over his career, which is the obvious second point to be made about this new peerless team being forged on the studio floor – their staying power.
This wasn’t some fortuitous moment that happened to get preserved for posterity, it was the building blocks of a partnership that would endure for a lifetime. Even now, seven decades from the month in which it was released, it sounds no less electrifying.
Dave Bartholomew and Fats Domino didn’t invent rock ‘n’ roll – we know that much, as we’ve reviewed nearly seven hundred songs that beat them to the punch chronologically – but they unquestionably advanced rock ‘n’ roll by leaps and bounds as soon as they got together.
This record unveiled the sound of the future, a musical hurricane captured on tape which would ensure that rock ‘n’ roll would not only survive in the 1950’s but thrive in it and ultimately define it.
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT: 10/10