Another week, another great entry from Michael Gray’s imminent Bob Dylan Encyclopedia. This time, it’s Fats Domino. (The book also has a great photo of Fats, and of Leonard Cohen, last week’s subject. No pic of Dave Stewart, though – sorry about that.)
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-naive 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 colour 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 flattop haircut. This, unique to Domino in the 1950s, became fashionable among young black males in the US and UK 30 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 11 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 Domino 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—August 3, 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.