Antoine Domino Jr. had what I would call a therapeutic personality. He made ya feel good. He made everyone feel good. He had “the gift.”
Beyond fancy technical skills, beyond good-looks and sex appeal — beyond all the shock and awe we associate with our rock ‘n’ roll stars, there is something more compelling and crucial: the ability to transmit joy to people and make them feel that joy. That ability is a gift and it is one only bestowed on certain artists. Fats Domino had that shit in spades.
His records jump out of the speakers and demand that you feel good for the next three minutes. His piano was a party-making machine. Out of the harder-edged barrelhouse blues style, Fats developed a boogie piano approach whose main objective was to get toes tapping and asses shaking. His feel was infectious — it rocked and rolled. Elvis transmitted sex. Little Richard, outrageousness and liberation. Chuck Berry, freedom and electricity. Jerry Lee was downright terrifying.
Fats was pure joy.
And he pre-dated all of those other legends. Fats was out playing dive bars in the 9th Ward of New Orleans as early as 1947 and scored his first signature R&B hit, “The Fat Man,” in 1949. He hit the charts five years before Elvis and Little Richard broke through and kicked off that new commercial craze called “rock ‘n’ roll”.
Fats didn’t change his style to suit this new genre label the DJs were using — he just kept cranking out one undeniably great Fats Domino song after another, making all the black and white kids dance, scoring a practically countless number of hits in the process. To Fats, it was all just music. Call it blues, R&B, funk, country, soul or rock ‘n ‘roll — whatever ya call it, if it feels good and moves the people, laissez les bon temps roulez. As that other great giant of New Orleans music, Louis Armstrong, said, “Anything you can tap your foot to is good music.”
Like with so many great rhythm-and-blues artists, especially those from New Orleans, there’s a darkness to Fats’ music at the edges. There’s a feeling that perhaps outside of the frame, or just beyond the nightclub doors, life is hard. One of his most affecting performances is on the stately classic “Walking to New Orleans”, where Fats finds himself so many miles from home, with a hell of a lot of road to walk. His vocal is sublime — sad, but determined to make it back to that great city, and the magic therein.
During Hurricane Katrina, Fats was helicoptered from his rooftop to safety and lost all the contents of his home. Many thought he had died in the storm. But on the other side of Katrina, there were still Fats Domino concerts, and his records blared throughout the city he loved so much. He had the gift, and he gave it to New Orleans for 89 years.
Sometime in the 1980s Fats decided to stop touring overseas, and eventually, not anywhere outside of New Orleans. When asked why, he said simply that he couldn’t find any good food outside of NOLA.
Every time I sit down at my piano bench and look out at a crowd of stressed and world-weary individuals looking to get together and feel good for a few minutes, I try to manufacture some little bit of that Fats magic. I’ve learned so much from the guy, but it could never be enough. There’s only one Fats Domino. And when, one day, the rock ‘n’ roll age has permanently faded, when a new flood has come, people will still want to feel good, people will still NEED to feel good. And Fats will still be there with rings on every finger, and plenty of thrills for us all to find.