The legendary musician Fats Domino died today at the age of 89.
Ten years ago, Fats Domino traveled to New York City for the first time in over two decades. As Charles Young explained in a Rolling Stone piece at the time, Domino had largely stopped touring and even performing at all, playing only occasionally in his hometown of New Orleans. As shy as he was legendary, “talking to people he doesn’t know” ranked “near the top of his list of least-favorite activities.”
“Most stress of all is probably talking to strange people with notebooks,” Young wrote. When Young finally works up the nerve to take out his notebook and ask Domino “the secret of writing great songs,” the reticent musician replied, “Bein’ lucky.”
“Lucky” wasn’t how you’d describe Domino at that time, since Hurricane Katrina ruined his beloved home in New Orleans. His occasional attempts at touring hadn’t gone well and, as New Orleans Times-Picayune writer Keith Spera reported in 2007, his friends felt the octogenarian musician had grown more forgetful since the storm. Nevertheless, some of those friends rallied around Domino and coordinated the trip to New York, inviting Spera along to document it.
Spera’s piece is cobbled together from his updates from the road and, fittingly for his New Orleans audience, talks about Domino as though his reader already knows and understands him. Young’s takes a wider view for a broader audience. Both are well-worth a read for anyone looking to remember the musician who at age 21 recorded a song that was, as Young writes, “one of the first and biggest steps toward” rock and roll.
When he was twenty-one, in 1949, he recorded a song called “The Fat Man,” which he and his producer/writing partner, Dave Bartholomew, reworked from a tune called “Junker’s Blues” on the theory that singing about being fat was more commercial than singing about being a junkie. Antoine changed his name to “Fats,” and the song became a huge hit. It was also, strangely, not jazz. With its rollicking beat and thunderously repetitive pop sensibility, it was something else. It was, in hindsight, rock & roll, or at least one of the first and biggest steps toward it.