Fats Domino is dead at the age of 89, which means a minimum of two things: 1) New Orleans is about to have the most incredible funeral procession anyone has ever dreamed of, and 2) Anyone who has ever even briefly enjoyed the sound of rock and roll should take a reflective moment to praise his name and good works. There are many many many people more qualified than I am to extol Domino's skills and influence, and I look forward to reading their tributes over the coming days.
It's absolutely true that his songs have a harder time transcending their era than some—due in part to the fact that they have been utterly smothered by the time stamp of countless film and TV placements (how many undercranked "we gotta get this old barn in shape if we're gonna have a dance tonight!" '50s movie montages have been set to "I'm Walkin'"? Better to ask how many haven't).
But it's also true that the marriage of stomp and sophistication, force and grace, on the piano and in the voice, has resonated through the nearly 70 years of popular music since he arrived in the global consciousness. Boogie woogie may not have aged well as an standalone style (though it remains insanely impressive to witness someone playing it right), but it is such a foundational element of the forms that followed it that respect is forever due. From boogie woogie to the Beatles is an obvious jump—not least because they said so every chance they got. But from boogie woogie to boom bap is every bit as direct a connection.
Domino's hits (of which there are a staggering number) deserve a few minutes of your time.
Not to mention the thing of a black man crossing over into the mid-'50s pop charts with an unapologetically lascivious (if essentially friendly) sound.
Many have attributed Domino's success to the perception that among the black avatars of early rock'n'roll, he was essentially benign—not a super freak like Little Richard nor a sexual conquistador-cum-predator like the late Chuck Berry (both of whom were innovators on a grander scale, musically and super-musically). Critic Robert Christgau's assessment, in a review of a 1990 Best Of comp, perfectly captures the grudging respect that Domino has been granted over the years:
"Warm and unthreatening even by the intensely congenial standards of New Orleans, he's remembered with fond condescension as significantly less innovative than his uncommercial compatriots Professor Longhair and James Booker. But though his bouncy boogie-woogie piano and easy Creole gait were generically Ninth Ward, they defined a pop-friendly second-line beat that nobody knew was there before he and Dave Bartholomew created "The Fat Man" in 1949. In short, this shy, deferential, uncharismatic man invented New Orleans rock and roll."
(It may surprise you to learn that the record in question got an A+.)
And also, I would dispute "uncharismatic," except perhaps in comparison to his loose contemporaries—people like Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Jerry Lee Lewis—compared to whom almost everyone seems uncharismatic. And also, though it's not exactly my favorite form on its own, shouldn't inventing New Orleans rock and roll be worth a round of applause? Not to mention the thing of Domino having more hits than nearly any other comparable artist of the '50s, selling over 60 million records and singles.
In the past few years music writers as a plurality have been more ready to acknowledge that hit songs—as opposed to "great" songs—are probably a more useful measurement of what and how music "matters" to the world. It's true that hits can often sound insipid to the cultivated ear, both in the present and in retrospect, but they are also the victors that stick around to write history. Which is to say that it's indisputable that Fats Domino sounds less radical than Professor Longhair—again, most artists do. But, with no disrespect intended to the late, great Mr. Byrd, go into any public space in the world (aside from Tipitina's) and hum a few bars of "Big Chief." Then sing the words "I found my three-ull" and see what happens. That's how you know which artist made a greater impact on the world.
But ALSO, as Christgau points out elsewhere, Domino came from the trouper tradition. He was an entertainer, a working player. The modern conception of musician as "artist" was over a decade away when Domino's first single, "The Fat Man" arrived in 1949 and sold over a million copies. The artist thing was partly constructed as a way for intellectual creeps to justify their profound love of supposedly low music like Domino's, which makes it an unfair, even ludicrous framework to try and cram him into.
Also, the suggestion that he was "deferential" seems to intimate that he should have been more what? Provocative? Confrontational? Obstreperous? It wasn't enough for him to be a gateway drug both to and for Elvis, the Beatles, and hiphop, a black man in the living rooms and car radios of white America? You also expect him to what, take a knee? Domino was a performer. His job description was to play piano and sing while people danced, drank, lusted, and generally let the good times roll. And he did the job so well we remember him all these years later, know his songs, and mourn his passing.
I have two lasting associations with Mr. Domino. The first was in 2006 in his hometown of New Orleans. Several months after the levees broke and destroyed the Lower Ninth Ward, the week of the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, I was taken on a tour of the area. To my astonishment , it looked like the flood waters had receded that day. Houses reduced to kindling, cars suspended in trees, a riot of broken objects everywhere you looked. The utter devastation was, I think, the only thing I've ever seen with my own eyes that actually shocked me, though the locals I met made it clear they weren't remotely surprised.
There were several other small groups being shown the devastation, and I saw one pause for an extra long time in front of a ruined home a block or so away, at the corner of Caffin Avenue and Marais Street. I saw a man remove his hat and bow his head. I asked my tour guide what the significance of the house was. She said it was Fats Domino's house, and that rumors had circulated in the days following Katrina that Domino had been killed—there was even the famous graffito on the outside "R.I.P. Fats. You Will Be Missed."
He wasn't dead. He lived another 12 years, refurbished his home, and moved out to a gated community. But in many people's minds, the possibility that he'd been killed in the flood was emblematic of the destruction that leveled the whole area. To a lot of people, clearly, Fats Domino was a living personification of the Lower Ninth Ward—not just the guy who had put it on the map, but the map itself. It was unforgettable, and forced me to revisit (if not, indeed, to visit) the man's songs, which I had always just associated with Happy Days or whatever.
The other association is much simpler, and only partially to do with Domino himself. When Leonard Cohen was asked for his all-time favorite song lyric, he didn't hesitate before answering "I found my thrill/ on Blueberry Hill." Fats Domino didn't write that song. Larry Stock and Al Lewis wrote the words and Vincent Rose wrote the tune. It has been recorded by Gene Autry, Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Pat Boone, the Everly Brothers, the Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin, Loretta Lynn, Mose Allison, Elton John, and countless others.
But Fats Domino was the voice in Cohen's head. "There’s something in his voice," he told Musician Magazine in 1986. "When you hear Fats Domino singing, 'I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill,' whatever that’s about, I mean, it’s deep."
It really is.
R.I.P. Fats. You will be missed.