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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008


Today I'm wishing the great Fats Domino a very happy 80th birthday (not in person, though as it happens I did once meet him, in London, 30 years ago; he was wearing a lemon-yellow suit and a forlorn expression, possibly brought on by having to be interviewed by music journalists).

When the paperback of The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia comes out on Tuesday April 15, it will include this newly-updated entry on Fats, which takes into account his temporary disappearance and lucky rescue after Hurrican Katrina struck his hometown of New Orleans. It'll go like this:

Domino, Fats [1928 - ]
Antoine ‘Fats’ Domino, born 26 February 1928, became the most successful New Orleans big-band R&B million-seller of the long era between 1955 and the early 1960s: a man who gave us hit after huge, endearing hit, with a fat, simple sound and a warm, much-imitated faux-naïve voice that built many memorable self-penned songs into mountains on the music landscape.

One of the creators of rock’n’roll, and by far the biggest-selling rhythm & blues artist of the 1950s, his originality was such that these labels don’t quite fit him. Nor was he anything so flimsy as pop, yet his records often crossed onto the pop charts, so that while he was crucial in breaking down the musical color barrier, he was too mainstream and popular to retain credibility as a blues singer. He brought a new, heavy back-beat to white ears, yet trailed old-fashioned jazz-band habits behind him. Out in his own uncategorisable stratosphere, Fats Domino sold astonishing quantities of records much loved by blacks and whites alike, until that point in the 1960s when a new black consciousness rejected all the pre-soul stars, and white consciousness shied away from hit-singles artists and the suddenly embarrassing, unhip simplicities of 1950s music. Fats seemed further away in 1970 than he does now.

In the classic photos, Fats Domino’s head is a perfect cube, thanks in part to his trademark flat-top haircut. This, unique to Domino in the 1950s, became fashionable among young black males in the US and UK thirty years later. (In Chronicles Volume One, Dylan, describing how he envisages some future rap star rising to artistic greatness, writes that it will be someone ‘with a chopped topped head’.) In Guy Peellaert & Nik Cohn’s book Rock Dreams, Domino is painted at home, in a pink stage suit but grinning into the casserole his tired wife Rose Mary is stirring. His eight smiling children surround him, and Fats is saying ‘Clean living keeps me in shape... and New Orleans home cooking.’

He never was master of the bon mot, but he was one of the few true giants of post-war American popular music. No-one sounded like him, yet when you ask who he influenced, the answer is everyone.

The second number he ever recorded was ‘The Fat Man’ (named after a radio detective), which sold 800,000 in the black market and gave the 22-year-old the first of his many Gold Discs. In 1955 came ‘Ain’t It A Shame’ (aka ‘Ain’t That A Shame’): and though Pat Boone’s cover topped the pop charts, Fats’ original chased it, the blackest sound that had ever hit the Hot 100, and the no.1 R&B side for eleven weeks.

So great was his reach that it was he who taught white pop fans about idiosyncratic flexibility in lyrics - particularly in rhymes - through odd emphasis (later a Dylan trick) and odd pronunciation. These were specific lessons Dylan must have picked up from Fats Domino.
In his ‘Good Hearted Man’ (1961) he manages, by his accent and his disregard for consonants, to make the word ‘man’ rhyme with ‘ashamed’: no mean feat. Dylan not only walks this forward so that in 1965’s ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’ he can rhyme ‘hers’ with a laughing ‘yours!’ but then runs with it to score a previously undreamt-of goal by rhyming ‘January’ with ‘Buenos Aires’ in 1981’s ‘The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar’.

In 1961 Fats Domuno issued a record called ‘Rockin’ Bicycle’ - but, delightfully, he sang it as ‘Rockin’ Bi-sic­­-l’, and its lyrics included nifty formulations like ‘If we don’t be in front we’ll be right behind’, and ‘Let ’em take the bus / ’n’ leave the ’sic-l to us.’ There’s plenty of evidence in Dylan’s work of this Domino oddity of emphasis, too: as for instance, in ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’, to achieve the rhyme of ‘half-sick’ with ‘traffic’. In ‘Jokerman’, in the 1980s, when Dylan comes to rhyme ‘scarlet’ with ‘harlot’, well, any other white person would do it straight - would maximise the rhyme by sounding both as ‘-arlutt’. Dylan sings ‘scarlett’ and then snatches a full rhyme by singing ‘harlett’ to match!

Domino also comes up, maybe accidentally, with the pathetic use of bathos, which again is something that Dylan has used. ‘Fell In Love On Monday’ (1960) includes this hilarious couplet: ‘Her hands, were soft, as cotton / Her face, could never, be forgotten.’

All these winsome characteristics can be found in abundance in this great artist’s earlier work too: on the big hits like ‘Blue Monday’, ‘Blueberry Hill’ (which Domino didn’t write but makes utterly his own), ‘I Hear You Knockin’’ and ‘My Blue Heaven’ (or as Fats has it, ‘Mah, Blee-oo, Heavon’). Of course, all these things were in the great tradition of idiosyncratic pronunciation exemplified in black song from the beginning of time, but we encountered them first from Fats Domino.

GLEN DUNDAS’ Tangled Up In Tapes Revisited, 1990, says that Fats Domino’s early ‘Please Don’t Leave Me’ (so early - the start of the 1950s - that his voice was an octave higher than later on) was among the songs Dylan rehearsed in Woodstock in September 1965. Decades later - 3 Aug 1988 - Dylan ventured a very Fats Dominoid version of ‘I’m In The Mood For Love’ in concert in Hollywood. It also emerged in the 1990s that Dylan sang the same song on the Basement Tapes in 1967.

Then with Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, which echoes many records of the period in which Fats Domino was in his pomp, it’s natural that we should encounter Fats himself once more. The first vocal remark of the album, ‘I’m walkin’’, is the title of one of Domino’s greatest hits. Of course it’s also a very anonymous remark, but that doesn’t stop us remembering that Fats Domino whispers behind Bob Dylan many times down the years. It’s impossible that Dylan should sing that phrase without being conscious of its Fats connection. Especially since one of the spiritual homes of Dylan’s album is New Orleans, which would not be the same place without Fats Domino, the most famous epitomiser and greatest populariser of New Orleans R&B. Everyone knows too that all his classic and hit recordings were made there and he names this, his hometown, in his lyrics - not least in the case of his big 1960 hit ‘Walking To New Orleans’. In Dylan’s line ‘I’m goin’ down the river, down to New Orleans’, then, it is hard not to hear an allusion to Domino’s early classic ‘Going To The River’.

Elsewhere on Time Out Of Mind we encounter the Domino title ‘Sometimes I Wonder’, and the allusion that seems the most subtle yet the most certain: namely, the line from ‘’Til I Fell In Love With You’ where he sings that he’s ‘thinkin’ about that girl who won’t be back no’ mo’.’ This ‘who won’t be back no’ mo’’ echoes in every way - the attractively bouncy distribution of the syllables, the accent on that ‘no’ mo’’, the mournful tone, as well as the words themselves: all these recreate Fats Domino’s singing about the girl who ‘won’t be back no’ mo’’ - and left a note to say so - in another 1960 hit song ‘It Keeps Rainin’’. One of the girls Dylan is thinkin’ about who won’t be back no mo’ cannot but be the one on Fats Domino’s great record. And you can bet that her hands were soft as cotton.

At Brixton Academy, London, on November 23, 2005, Dylan unexpectedly performed Fats’ hit ‘Blue Monday’, three months after Fats’ home was one of those destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Fats had always lived in the badly-hit 9th Ward, and was himself thought missing for some days. He was rescued by Coast Guard helicopter.

Moved by the widespread expression of concern for his welfare, he responded by making a new album, Alive and Kickin’, donating its proceeds to the Tipitina’s Foundation, dedicated to preserving and restoring New Orleans’ musical culture. The title track of the album offers as endearingly simple, as faux-clumsily direct a lyric as any of Fats’ classics, opening like so: “All over the country, people wanna know / Whatever happened to Fats Domino? /… I’m alive and kickin’”.

(A follow-up fund-raising album, a tribute to Fats by various artists, including Dr. John, NORAH JONES, B.B. King, WILLIE NELSON, Randy Newman, Irma Thomas, TAJ MAHAL, TOM PETTY & THE HEARTBREAKERS, Toots & the Maytals and NEIL YOUNG, was released in late 2007. There was no contribution from Bob Dylan.)

[Fats Domino: ‘The Fat Man’, New Orleans, 10 Dec, 1949, Imperial 5058, LA, 1950; ‘Ain’t It A Shame’, NO, Feb 1955, Imperial 5348, 1955; ‘Let The Four Winds Blow’ c/w ‘Good Hearted Man’, NO, May 1961, Imperial 5764 (London-American HLP 9415, London), 1961; ‘What A Party’ c/w ‘Rockin’ Bicycle’, NO, Aug 1961, Imperial 5779, (London-American HLP 9456), 1961; ‘Fell In Love On Monday’, NO, Dec 1960, Imperial 5734, 1961; ‘Blue Monday’, NO, Feb 1955, Imperial 5417, 1955; ‘Blueberry Hill’, LA, Jul 1956, Imperial 5407, 1956; ‘I Hear You Knockin’’, NO, 4 Nov 1958, Imperial 5796; ‘My Blue Heaven’, NO, Dec 1955, Imperial 5386, 1956; ‘Please Don’t Leave Me’, NO, 18 Apr 1953, Imperial 5240, 1953; ‘I’m In The Mood For Love’ c/w ‘I’m Walking’, both NO, 3 Jan 1957, Imperial 5428, (London American HLP 8407), 1957; ‘Walking To New Orleans’, NO, Apr 1960, Imperial 5675, 1960; ‘Going To The River’, NO, Dec 1952, Imperial 5231, 1953; ‘Sometimes I Wonder’, NO, Feb 1951, Imperial 5123, 1952; ‘It Keeps Rainin’’, NO, Dec 1960, Imperial 5753, 1961. The Imperial sides are all CD-reissued in the $200 8-CD box-set Out Of New Orleans, Bear Family BCD 15541, Vollersode, Germany, 1993. Beware cheap imitations.
There is one fine post-Imperial Domino LP, the self-produced Sleeping On The Job, NO, 1978, Conmedia, Germany (Sonet SNTF 793, London), 1979, plus the less gutsy but welcome Alive and Kickin’, nia, US, 2006. Various Artists: Goin’ Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino, Vanguard, US, 2007.
Dylan quoted from Chronicles Volume One, p.219.]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Michael

I know this is off topic, but I see your old mate Al Kooper is playing the Holmfirth Picturedome on April 13th. Any chance of seeing you in the mosh pit?

12:03 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Ha Ha!! One of my oldest friends grew up in that valley and lived in Holmfirth for many years. But neither he nor I will be there to see Al "Compo" Kooper. My friend will be in the Forest of Dean and I (along with Sarah and Digby) will be in France.

Still, no doubt Al will be pleased to find that his visit coincides with publication of the first paperback edition of The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, and will be reading the slightly amended entry on himself with keen appreciation.


10:57 am  

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