November 9, 2017 | by Andrew K. Lau
I’m deviating slightly from the usual here; instead of a record from the trash pile of my former place of work, this one is from my parent’s collection. As with most non-music obsessives, their modest collection eventually ended up in the basement as the necessity for having them around faded. Despite being relegated to the darkest recesses of the house, some of these LPs carry a large amount sentimental value. That’s no surprise. This one came to my attention years ago after my dad recited the opening line to me while we were standing in the den of the house where I grew up (and where they still live): “They call me the fat man, cuz I weigh 200 pounds / And the girls they all love me because I know my way around.” The idea of my lean, 6’ 3” former Rugby/football player, outdoorsman father reciting these words is a rich one, but his face lit up at the self-effacing yet still boastful lyrics. “Isn’t that great?!”
I was soon down to the basement looking to see if the record was still there. It was. I took it upstairs and played it continuously. Of course, I was already familiar with Fats Domino’s work, but hearing 12 songs as a whole, and not just as a single squeezing through the radio, was a new, welcomed experience. By the end of the day, Rock and Rollin’ with Fats Domino had been absorbed into my growing collection, and I don’t think I even asked if I could have it. I just kinda took it.
Anyway, my pops loved a well-written, clever lyric, another favorite of his being this bizarre line from Little Willie John’s “All Around the World”: “Grits ain’t groceries, eggs ain’t poultry, and Mona Lisa was a man.” Interestingly, “All Around the World” was released in 1955, which may’ve been the same year as Rock and Rollin’ with Fats Domino was released, thereby making that year an important transitional one when R&B molted into rock ‘n’ roll. I say “may’ve” because there’s some dispute as to just when this Fats Domino record was originally released. Some have it coming out in November under the title of Carry on Rockin’ possibly in Europe on the London label, while another source has it coming out the following year as Rock and Rollin’ on the American imprint Imperial. Either way, it’s Domino’s first record for the latter, the company with which he would make his most well-known material.
For its first few years, rock ‘n’ roll was made by musicians using the local influences from their surroundings: Macon, St. Louis, McComb, Tiptonville, and Tupelo. With his rolling boogie-woogie piano and clear vocal delivery, Domino added New Orleans to the list. Sift away the top layers of R&B from his work and you’ll encounter whiffs of Afro-Cuban, Creole, and Dixieland. Once Domino found success, other New Orleans talents soon followed: Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Huey “Piano” Smith, Allen Toussaint, Lloyd Price, Lee Dorsey, Dr. John, James Booker, and Professor Longhair. Some of them were absolute freaks, others quiet and refined, and a few possessed both aspects of these artistic measures, which further underscores just how diverse and nutty that city was and remains.
One of the talents that preceded Domino was pianist Champion Jack Dupree. In 1940, he recorded a song called “Junker’s Blues” about a down-and-out drug user. Domino and his creative partner, co-writer, arranger, and producer, David Bartholomew, reworked the song into “The Fat Man,” replacing the original’s gritty subject matter with a completely different worldview for the protagonist, one that would be forever associated with Fats (good natured, funny, with a winking double entendre so commonplace in lyrical imagery for the time). This was in 1952 just as the mere idea of rock ‘n’ roll was dawning and, with it, Domino and Bartholomew helped create another vastly important blueprint for generations of musicians to follow.
“The Fat Man” acts as the perfect opener for the record; his voice and piano dominate as the primitive recording techniques make everything else sound like a wash behind him. This isn’t necessarily a deterrent but rather a unique aspect to music of this mass and velocity recorded at that time. Hearing it delivered through the wonders of vinyl makes it even more remarkable sounding. My parents copy (an original pressing with the maroon Imperial label) is in so-so shape, the platter itself made of that brittle, 1950’s s vinyl and therefore more susceptible to scratches. But, as any record nerd will attest, scratches have a way of enhancing the experience. (Or, at least, that’s what we like to tell ourselves.) These are old, perfect transmissions from another world where rock ‘n’ roll was only a vague idea, a possible extension of R&B.
Side one mostly betrays the opening track’s joyous romp and downshifts into the more moody themes of Domino’s material at that time; a whole lot of lovelorn, woe-is-me scenarios — “Tired of Crying,” and “You Said You Loved Me,” for example. His piano playing is the backbone to each of the songs and, at times, is even steadier than the drumming, which is saying something considering the possibility of legendary Earl Palmer sitting behind the kit. Creating a new sound wasn’t easy.
The real stand-out aspect is Domino’s penchant for wah-wahs and woo-woos delivered in a smooth, unfaltering falsetto voice, far removed from his usual gentle and syrupy tone when singing words. One of the record’s best tracks, “Please Don’t Leave Me,” opens with a “woo woo”; “The Fat Man” has a falsetto “wah-wah” after the first verse. It’s a catchy effect and keeps the listener’s mind from traveling too far from the song. It also signals how Domino, with his perfect hair and sharp-lined suits, both retained and easily referenced the whimsical styles so evident in other New Orleans musicians. The aforementioned Clarence “Frogman” Henry made a name for himself out of vocalized gymnastics particularly in his signature song, “I Ain’t Got No Home,” where he effortlessly swings from clear falsetto to ridiculously low, tuneless notes. (“I got a voice and I love to sing / I sing like a girl, and I sing like a frog / I’m a lonely boy and I ain’t got no home…”) It’s all in the name of being true to oneself, as well as keeping the show going when one is playing to some of the more demanding Louisiana audiences.
Everything but the opening track was recorded in 1955 in a studio more suitable for what these musicians wanted to commit to tape; the songs intent and drive come alive with the clarity and the residual exuberance is infectious. Backbeats are solid and accompanying instruments are far clearer, particularly in “I’m Going to the River.” The limitations of this newly forged genre (and perhaps Domino’s need to slowly push his songwriting boundaries) is evident as well. “Going Home” and “You Said You Loved Me” start out the same way (though the former has an incredible drum change-up leading into the instrumental break). That they were placed back-to-back on side one is the record’s only flaw.
Side two’s material is more upbeat and befits the most from the clarity; these more stomping, up-tempo numbers bring to focus his wonderful voice and lyrical delivery. In “All By Myself,” Domino’s confidence peaks as he emphasizes just the right syllables: “Hey little girl, don’tcha underSTAND / I wanna be your lover man, all by myself….” And again in the next verse: “Meet me in the pub about half past ONE / We’re going out and have some fun / All by ourselves….” The way he punches those italicized words brilliantly highlights two sides of this brand new music: scandalous and innocent. There are points when his rich, deep voice becomes as dominant as his piano style and is captured perfectly; this is especially evident in “Poor Me” where his vocals saturate the recording tape. The verses are delivered acapella after the band stabs at the down beats:
Woke up this morning…
Where my loved one used to live...
She ain’t there no more, pooooor me…
There’s hardly room for anything else and his voice flows out of the speakers taking over the room. With repeated listens, small and unusual elements begin to add to the tapestry. Some songs are given a start/stop tempo for the verses, most famously on “Ain’t That a Shame,” setting up tension that is released during the chorus, a fantastic attention-stealing trick. The mandolin-styled picking of the guitar in “Bo Weeval” is another usual sound, especially considering this song is the most New Orleans sounding number on the record, it’s melody mirroring one of the more famous songs to come out of the city, “Iko Iko,” which had been recorded in 1953. “Don’t Blame It on Me” contains varying time signatures and rhythms: the 1/4 on the verses, 16th beats on the chorus, then everyone hits a 4/4 as the songs leads into the quick sax break before Domino leads the band into the end. Steeped in the Afro-Cuban and Creole traditions, he and Bartholomew push what they already know towards a new horizon.
In the liner notes on the back of the record, which came out after Rock and Rollin’, an uncredited writer sums up Domino’s legend early:
There’s a new name they talk about in New Orleans today, a young chubby happy-go-lucky gent they call Fats Domino. They’re happy for Fats beyond the fact that he’s a native of the city but even more so happy because Antoine Domino personifies the performer of this generation. [sic] ‘Fats’ they say, ‘won’t ever grow like a weed or be tall as a building but he’s strong as the Mississippi and he’ll be around just as long.’
That was written over 60 years ago and “they” had no idea what the kid would do or how long this rock ‘n’ roll would last. Fats Domino had a run at life better than most, even surviving the calamity of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He was not just respected as an influential musician, he was an ambassador for one of the world’s most iconic and musical cities. I have the benefit of hindsight to contradict the writer above and suggest Domino was, in fact, tall as a building; not physically, of course, but in personality and in influence. With his recent death, along with my dad no longer possessing the ability to recite fantastic lyrics for me due to the ravages of time and age, an extra weight is added to all this yammering. But such emotional attachments to any kind of art form is an unavoidable byproduct.
For the rest of the world, Rock and Rollin' with Fats Domino is one of the first successful rock 'n' roll albums. The record reached a respectable #17 on the Billboard Pop Album charts, "All By Myself" and "Poor Me" were #1 on the Black Singles chart, and "Ain't That a Shame" hit #10 and "Bo Weevil" #35 on the Pop Singles chart. This was a signal in the shifting dynamics in what was popular with the record-buying public and with the kids, and there were a lot of kids throwing money around buying singles and LPs. White America was dubious at best, a little frightened at worst. The success Domino and his contemporaries had within the following year induced a panic for this jittery country, but the genie was out of the bottle. Rock 'n' roll was now a serious form of expression and Fats Domino never stopped smiling. Because, remember: He was The Fat Man, and he knew his way around.