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Celebrating Fats Domino At 80: A Most Convivial Encounter from 1977

Antoine "Fats" Domino, a cornerstone of New Orleans R&B and one of the founding fathers of rock and roll, reaches the august age of 80 on February 26th. We revisit his back pages with this good-humored interview by former underground-press legend Mick Farren, published in NME on April 30, 1977. Barney Hoskyns, RBP Editorial Editor

THE VERY FIRST THING that hits you about Fats Domino is just how small he is. Onstage and in photographs, you get the impression of a huge man dominating an even huger grand piano, the same piano that he can actually set in motion with one flip of his mighty girth. In fact, he's only around 5'4", a short, dapper individual, more cuddly than massive.

The second thing that strikes you is just how wonderfully pleasant he is. In the past, I've not been the only writer to suffer at the hands (and tongues) of some of yesterday's heroes of rock-and-roll. Fats is about as far as you can get from the churlish old rocker living on real or imagined past glories. He's willing to talk and pleased that you want to ask. His personality twinkles like the huge diamond ring on his pinky.

This affability is something of a surprise. Fats Domino started in the music business in 1947. He made his first record, "The Fat Man," for the New Orleans-based Imperial label in 1949. He's been on the road for nearly 30 years. If there's any truth in the rumor that the road turns a man bitter and sour, Fats ought to be as bitter as they come. In fact, quite the reverse is true.

Fats could quite easily be a successful black American businessman, in his stone-colored lounging suit and two-tone casual shoes. The Endless Highway doesn't seem to have left any visible scars on him. He doesn't go in for the screaming chic of Little Richard or Chuck Berry's incongruous tie-dye. Fats Domino has too much dignity. The ring, and an equally diamond-encrusted gold watch, are the closest he comes to going over the top in any way at all.

Fats declines a drink. "I started my diet today." He does have that carefully trimmed-down look of a middle-aged man who's been told to watch his weight or else.

***

IT'S ALWAYS hard to know where to start with a living legend. He has, after all, been playing longer than a lot of the people you're writing for have been alive. The most obvious place to start was at the beginning. Fats Domino's origins are almost a cliché. He talks about them in those flat, matter-of-fact, down-home tones so beloved of white liberals and the makers of TV documentaries.

"We had an old piano back at the house. My father was in a Dixieland jazz band and he taught me to play. I started playing when I was 18 years old. I had a lot of jobs before I started making a living at my music. I worked on an ice truck, delivering ice. In 1947 I joined a local New Orleans band."

After that came Imperial Records. At Imperial Domino worked with producer and trumpet-player Dave Bartholomew. Twenty-eight years later, they are still together.

"We called it rhythm and blues back then. A fellow in New York, by the name of Alan Freed, he used to have a big old show out of the Brooklyn Paramount in New York. I used to hear a lot of those shows on the radio. He called it rock and roll."

The coming of rock and roll as opposed to rhythm and blues brought something else. It meant that a lot of uppity, hillbilly white kids moved into what had previously been an almost exclusive black preserve.

"Ricky Nelson was also on Imperial Records. He did 'I'm Walkin,' which was one of my hits. I cut my version and then, right after, he cut his. He sold a lot of records."

Did you feel ripped off?

"No, not at all. It helped me a lot. I hadn't really got going back then and when he sold all those records with one of my songs, well, I made a lot of money. Of course, it wasn't just the money, I got my music in front of a whole new audience. It don't make no difference whether you're black, white or colored, if you're doing it right. I was glad he did it. I never had no hard times, and I never hit no discrimination."

This is pretty surprising for anyone who's used to black R&B artists who seem determined to recite a catalogue, however justified, of how they were ripped off, discriminated against and generally screwed over when the white kids moved into rock and roll. The next statement, which Fats actually volunteers, is still more surprising. "I think those people did a wonderful job. In fact, I think they did a better job than some of the people who originated R&B, because they really had their heart and soul into the music and I dig them for that."

*** 

IT'S REALLY something of a switch-round to hear that the young Presleys and Ricky Nelsons had more soul than the black guys. But then again, Fats Domino's career has been noted for switch-rounds. One of the most successful of these has been the way, he managed to carve a solid niche for himself in the neon tinsel world of Las Vegas casino lounges. Up until as late as 1970, the big Vegas rooms were considered virtually rock proof. They were the sole preserve of Tony Bennett, Liberace and Frank Sinatra's mates. It was showbiz with a capital everything.

And yet, year after year, all through the '60s, Fats was up there, pumping out "Blueberry Hill" and "Walking To New Orleans," the only rocker in the city where one-armed-bandits rule o.k. Fats seems as surprised as anyone that the polyester suits and blue rinses of the Nevada night should have taken to him so readily.

"At first, it was kind of an accident, I suppose. I went on a two-week trial at the Flamingo, and I stayed there for 17 years. I suppose I was working Casino for six months every year. I'd play Vegas for three months, then I'd play Reno for six weeks and Lake Tahoe for six weeks. It was a good way to make a living. I don't know why it happened that way. I suppose they'd never tried my kind of music before, and they just liked it. It's hard to know what the people who go to Las Vegas will like, they come from all over the country, all over the world, and mostly they come to gamble. The slot machines are going 24 hours a day. Little Richard played out there a couple of times, but he didn't happen. I don't know why.

Fats allows himself a maybe-I'm-just-lucky smile.

***

WITH THE SUBJECT of Las Vegas out of the way, the next most obvious question is how come there, haven't been any new Fats Domino records in such a long time? I once tried this question on Chuck Berry and got a far from polite or satisfactory answer. Fats, however, has nothing to hide.

"I've started writing and recording again because I think I'm with the right company."

United Artists?

"Right. There's already a live album planned that I cut while I was over here..." (By over here. Fats means Germany.) "...And I'm working on some original things that I wrote. In fact, if I get enough time off after this European trip, I'll be through in three weeks."

It'll be a rock-and-roll album?

"Oh yes. There might be a few changes. I'll bring out the bass line a little more, but people will know it's me. Up until now, I wasn't rushing to record. They had me all mixed up with trying to change me, and change my music."

It starts to emerge that Fats was more than a little unhappy about the material he recorded for ABC and Mercury during the Sixties. It's the first time any kind of cloud has drifted across his sunny nature.

"Everybody wanted me to sing other people's style, other people's things, when I just wanted to do my own. ABC tried it. Mercury tried it. All those girl choruses and things, they just confused me."

This is the one time he seems genuinely hurt and resentful.

"I don't know why they wanted me to do all this. Hard rock, ballad songs. I just tried to write songs that stuck close to the rhythm. I don't like too much instrumentation on a record. It covers my voice. I like the words to be clear."

A simple man betrayed by a philistine business?

"I don't know."

Were all those albums bad, though?

"No, some of the stuff was all right. The song I like the best out of that whole period was 'Lady Madonna.' I was told that the Beatles had requested that I should do it. I don't say they wrote it for me, but they said that I should do it because they thought about me when they wrote it."

Fats looks pleased again.

"It was a pretty big thing for me. I liked the Beatles, they were good writers. You could understand what they were saying, more than the rest of the groups."

So you listen to The Beatles?

"Oh yeah."

Who else?

"Lately l've been listening to--what's his name--that little blind fellow?"

Stevie Wonder?

"Right, I guess he's not so little now. I like him a lot. He's made some really good records. The guy I've always dug, and still dig, is Presley. Not many people know it, but he did Vegas, really early after he got started, but he didn't do good at all. I was at the Flamingo then. Later on, in 1970, '71, whenever, he came back for another try. This time he broke it real big. I go up to his room when we're both playing in town. He's always real pleased to see me.

What did you think of Presley's version of 'Blueberry Hill'?

"You know, I never heard it. I heard he'd done it, but I never heard it.

***

IMMEDIATELY after the interview Fats is scheduled to catch a plane. It's getting near time, and although the fat man seems more than willing to talk all afternoon, some of the entourage are starting to glance nervously at their watches.

Fats Domino seems to be into a new lease of life. He's out of the Las Vegas rut and back into recording again. He talks about a possible country album, trying some more Hank Williams songs after he's completed the album of his own material. He seems energetic and full of optimism. He also realizes the potential that Europe holds for him.

"I didn't used to be too bothered about Europe. I was working solid in the States and, to tell the truth, I didn't want to fly. Now I'm just crazy for it. I figure Europe will be seeing a whole lot more of me."

One final question just begs to be asked. How can anyone keep on playing the same songs for close on 30 years? Fats has an obvious answer.

"That's what the people want to hear. They want me to get on stage and play my hits. They like me to keep them close to the records. If I played a whole set of new songs, a lot of people would go away disappointed."

Somebody mentions the recent Jerry Lee Lewis tour, when he treated crowds of rockers to a less than stunning display of laid-back, traditional country music. Fats grins.

"I imagine the people weren't too pleased."

It's confirmed that they weren't. Fats' grin broadens.

"I like Jerry Lee. He's a fine musician."

You get the impression there's an unspoken 'but.' Fats, however, goes straight on.

"As long as the people don't get bored, I don't get bored. I do my best to satisfy the people and that's what counts. They must like it, or I wouldn't still be around."

You can hardly top that as a last line, and anyway, the entourage are moving towards panic. Still smiling, Fats Domino makes a polite, and leisurely exit.

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