ENGINEER ON THE FREEDOM TRAIN (Fats Domino, R.I.P.)

People argue about the origins of Rock ‘n’ Roll and especially about the “first” Rock ‘n’ Roll record.

People have a thousand ways of making themselves stupid.

As music, culture or anything else that marked the moment when the future diverged from the past, Rock ‘n’ Roll–and, hence, Rock and Roll (think Elvis) and Rock (think Beatles)…and Anti-Rock (think Punk) and Post Rock (think Hip Hop)–began the first time Fats Domino’s left hand, a piano, and a recording microphone were in the same room all at once.

We’ve got an exact date for that: December 10, 1949.

We’ve got an exact place for that: Cosimo Matassa’s J&M studio on Rampart Street, New Orleans, Louisiana.

Where else?

You can go back a whole lot further than the beginnings of the recording industry–and range much further afield than Rampart Street–and find elements of what became Rock ‘n’ Roll (and then all those other things). You can find them all over the timeline and all over the map.

But the train didn’t leave the station until Antoine Domino recorded “The Fat Man” and unleashed it on a half-suspecting, and perhaps more than half-expecting world.

And once the train left, there was no turning it back. When Elvis pulled a then nearly-forgotten Fats into the press conference kicking off his Vegas comeback and introduced him as “the real King of Rock and Roll” he was acknowledging the enormity of Domino’s influence, but also his status as the biggest R&B act of the formative fifties, the real “revolution.”

As the only fifties’ R&B star, in fact, bigger than Elvis.

Time had already forgotten what Elvis reminded everyone of in 1969 (when most of the press present had to be informed of who, exactly, this Fats Domino really was.)

Time forgot again in the long years since, reminded only on those rare occasions when Fats made national news–a presidential honor here, a Katrina-sized flood in the New Orleans neighborhood he increasingly refused to leave there.

Once his passing–today, at 89–leaves the front page, Time will forget again, even if it never stops patting its foot.

Some of the forgetting was his own doing. I never came across any written or video evidence of Fats promoting himself as the Originator. He left that to the likes of Richard and Chuck and Jerry Lee–and the ever-insidious crit-illuminati who listened to them, rather than to Elvis.  Fats himself was more likely to shrug and say rock ‘n’ roll was just something they had been doing in New Orleans since forever.

Maybe.

But you can listen to “Blueberry Hill” being done by someone as great and visionary as Louis Armstrong and then listen to Fats, and decide that his humble take might be disputable.

You can also listen to a real New Orleans rock ‘n’ roll precursor like “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” (perhaps Armstrong’s greatest rhythm record, from all the way back in the twenties) and reach the same conclusion.

Fats Domino was the man who, as singer, songwriter, ivory tickler, drove the Engine that rolled down the track until it couldn’t be stopped. It ended up running straight through the last–and best–cultural explosion “America” will ever know.

Time forgot.

White America forgot.

Black America forgot.

I ain’t forgot.

22 thoughts on “ENGINEER ON THE FREEDOM TRAIN (Fats Domino, R.I.P.)

  1. His Music was part and parcel ( a gift) to my teen-age years. St. Louis has a nightclub named ‘Blueberry Hill’ in his honor. RIP Fats.

  2. Extremely well stated, John. Thank you for combining ingredients and coming up with “race music,” Fats. It’s a bigoted but still apt label — you won that race for everyone who came after.

    Jerry Wexler renamed the style Rhythm ‘n’ Blues, and later still, Alan Freed renamed it Rock ‘n’ Roll; but I’m optimistic that thanks to recording science, history ultimately ain’t forgot, either, that it’s Fats’ Music, and it came from New Orleans. The streets of that city should be paved with shellac.

  3. I ain’t either.
    In my earliest memories of my dad, I am sitting next to him in a ’55 Ford. “Blueberry Hill” is blasting on the radio and Daddy is singing along. When I hear Fats Domino sing, “I found my thrill…” I swear I can smell that car. Heady stuff.

    He seemed a gentle soul. I can almost hear him calling, “All aboard!”

  4. Great piece.

    About 15 years ago, I caught the last few minutes of a Fats Domino concert on PBS. I have no idea when it was recorded, but probably within the previous few years.

    What I still remember most is Fats playing himself off the stage…literally. He was wrapping up the last song, pushing the piano to the side of the stage and playing at the same time. The audience ate it up, and so did I. The man was a tremendous talent. Like a lot of the older rockers, he may not be well remembered like he should, but he’ll still be floating around out there somewhere.

    • I hope so! I think the only bio of Fats is the one Rick Coleman wrote a few years back. It did a good job of emphasizing how much impact Fats had as a performer, especially in the early days (before Elvis) when he was THE attraction on the rock n’ roll circuit. Got himself banned a few places, which is another thing you don’t hear much about.

      But, yes, the music will live…one way or another!

  5. And so we lose another great. One who had almost totally disappeared from public life due to health issues, from what I’ve read. I’ve recently collected all of his hits by buying original singles (the fidelity of those Imperial 45s is often quite good). He is truly one of the founders of Rock and Roll. And yes, Rock and Roll was a large part of THE best cultural explosion, as you say.

    And if it really is the last such explosion we ever have, I’m glad I lived through a good part of it.

    • Wow. Imperial originals….If you’ve got a good system you may, ahem, need to invite me over!

      One interesting note: Of the eleven men who made up the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s original performing class, it’s the three wildest–Richard, Jerry lee and Don Everly–who are still with us. Could of made a lot of money betting on THAT twenty years ago!

      • I do have a very good system,actually. A new, good turntable hooked up to a vintage Sony receiver from the early 1970s that is in excellent condition. Got that paired up with vintage speakers, also Sony, also from the early ’70s.

        Expensive? Yes, but so worth it. Also. once I get a new Digital Audio Converter next week, I’m going to add that to my laptop and then I can do some very sweet sounding Internet broadcasting.

        I’m going to do vintage style shows, as if they were old air checks. Each show will have anywhere from 20 to 30 records that were all on the charts at the same time with what would have been recurrents and some gold mixed in along the way.

          • Best guess right now is that I’ll be uploading everything to Mixcloud, because that covers licensing for performance and publishing royalties.

            If I go that route, everything is easily accessible and each show is a single audio file. Plus, the site is stable; shows I did over three years ago are still
            available.

            The other option is to go through Streamlicensing or Live365. The former is more affordable but there’s a situation going on with them regarding payments, or lack thereof, to ASCAP and BMI.

            The latter is smooth sailing on all fronts but is more expensive and MP3 files are limited to a bit rate of 128 kps, which is something I’m not thrilled with.

            Will keep you apprised.

  6. It’s worth adding that if one isn’t convinced by the music of Messrs. Domino and Penniman that spirituals (gospel music) weren’t among the foremost components of what would become rock ‘n’ roll, even that possibly deaf hypothetical person would be convinced by anything recorded by Ray Charles from 1954 (“I Got a Woman”) through 1959 (“What’d I Say”) — the greater part of his Atlantic period, in other words.

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