Cold Fury

Harshing your mellow since 9/01

“What’s the connection between Puccini, Neville Chamberlain and David Bowie?”

Why, Fats Domino, of course.

Like his fellow protean rockers (Chuck) Berry and Bill Haley, Antoine Dominique Domino Jr was way too old to be a teen idol. Born the youngest of eight children in a Louisiana Creole family in 1928, he had three-and-a-half grades of education and then went to work for the local iceman. At the age of ten, a jazz-mad brother-in-law taught him to play the piano, and by fourteen he was pounding the ivories in local bars. The bandleader Billy Diamond nicknamed Antoine “Fats”, partly because of Fats Waller (composer of our Song of the Week #115, “Ain’t Misbehavin'”) and partly because he ate a lot, so it seemed to be the general direction in which he was trending.

The most consequential meeting of his professional life occurred in 1949, when he was introduced to the A&R manager of Imperial Records. Dave Bartholomew was almost a decade older than Fats, a trumpeter and tuba player who had worked with the Jimmie Lunceford band (of which, as longtime readers will know, I’m a great admirer). Like many of the founding figures in rock’n’roll, he knew how to jump, jive, wail and swing – which it is not altogether clear the second-, third- and fourth-generation rockers do. Bartholomew and Domino took an old New Orleans tune from the Twenties, Drive ‘Em Down Hall’s “Junker Blues” and rewrote the lyrics. The original text, as its title suggests, was all about drugs:

Some say I use a needle
And some say I sniff cocaine
That’s the best damn feeling
That I’ve ever seen…

Etc. In Bartholomew and Domino’s hands, the Junker became “The Fat Man”:

They call me The Fat Man
‘Cause I weigh two hundred pound
All the girls they love me
‘Cause I know my way around…

One notes that 200lbs is positively svelte these days, but Fats was only 5’5″. “The Fat Man” sold a million, and was, to its creators’ way of thinking, just a good rhythm’n’blues song. Subsequently, to the many rockologists of the late 20th century, it would be regarded as one of the first rock’n’roll records. The transformation of “Junker” to “Fat Man” was, consciously or not, extremely shrewd: same good-time energy, Fats’ distinctive rhythm, but out with all the needles and snorting, in with a genial, affable persona of potentially huge crossover appeal. Domino on piano with the Bartholomew band – guitar, bass, drums, saxes – was a defining sound of the early rock years. For a Fat Man, Domino did a lot of walking – “Walking to New Orleans”, “I Want to Walk You Home”, “When I’m Walking (Let Me Walk)” and, of course, “I’m Walkin'” – an irresistible slab of energy that always reminds me of the late Roger Scott, a terrific disc-jockey on Montreal’s CFOX and then London’s Capital Radio, who loved that record and was the guy who introduced me to it. “I’m Walkin’,” “Ain’t That a Shame”, “Blue Monday” and most of the other Fats hits were written by Domino and Bartholomew.

But the biggest hit of all was not – and, indeed, Dave Bartholomew objected strongly to Fats even recording it.

It’s another completely brilliant Steyn music post. Which by now means I shouldn’t even need to suggest that you read it all.

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"America is at that awkward stage. It's too late to work within the system, but too early to shoot the bastards." – Claire Wolfe, 101 Things to Do 'Til the Revolution

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