There’s no denying the fact that Fats Domino is one of the artists who created rock n’ roll. Artists by the dozen acknowledge his influence, the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame included him in their inaugural class in 1986 and many of the songs he wrote with Dave Bartholomew are considered standards, yet it’s hard to shake the notion that he’s treated as footnote — a relic of his era who is tied to his time, just like he was anchored to his piano.
When Fats Domino was on his hot streak in the 1950s, the piano was as prevalent in rock n’ roll as the guitar. During the 1960s, the six string would unseat the 88s as the main rock n’ roll instrument, but at rock n’ roll’s dawn, there were as many piano pounders as they were guitar heroes. That’s not the case today. Only Low Cut Connie — a Philadelphia-based rock n’ roll band on the make — plays piano-driven rock n’ roll, but Adam Weiner’s onstage antics are on par with Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, two contemporaries of Fats Domino, and that highlights a reason why Fats Domino doesn’t get the credit he’s due. He didn’t perform tricks at the keyboard and he didn’t rush the tempo, so he didn’t command attention. He embodied ease, a quality that contradicts the conventional notions of what is rock n’ roll.
By lore, rock n’ roll is supposed to be wild rebellion and Fats Domino wasn’t wild or overtly rebellious. Over the decades, this light touch would lead to the perception that Domino offered nothing but good cheer, but at the outset of his career at the start of the ’50s, there were few musicians recording music as fearless as Fats. Take “The Fat Man,” the 1949 single which isn’t only his debut single but, by many measures, the first recording that could be called rock n’ roll. Unlike a couple of earlier contenders — Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s 1946 blues boogie “That’s All Right,” Roy Brown’s jumping “Good Rockin’ Tonight” — “The Fat Man” feels like rock n’ roll because it discards its blues roots and emphasizes and focuses on its barreling rhythm. Like all the great New Orleans pianists, there’s a roll to Fats’ rhythm but he leans hard into his boogie-woogie, creating the big swing that would be called rock n’ roll several years later.
“Ain’t That A Shame,” Domino’s first top 10 pop hit, arrived in August 1955, nearly half a year prior to the first smash Elvis Presley single, “Heartbreak Hotel.” In other words, Fats got there first — a fact Elvis readily acknowledged — and he amassed a considerable catalog before he became a rock n’ roll star, but that’s only fair for a musician who began with a string of top 10 R&B hits in 1950, long before rock n’ roll was even a concept. Many of those singles were straight New Orleans R&B but occasionally there would be a glimpse of the insouciance of rock n’ roll, like the 1952 side “Poor Me,” which would’ve been a crossover hit if released five years later. What distinguished these early sides is the rhythm, how Domino pushes the groove by leaning into his left hand that’s pushing out the bass line. He creates a rhythm that’s heavy but has air, which is a key to rock n’ roll: it might be hard, but it’s light on its feet.
Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, the Everly Brothers and Elvis himself assimilated this lesson, letting their music swing even when it’s manic, and if the second generation of rockers that surfaced in the ’60s started to straighten the beat, Domino’s influence still was palpable. The Beatles in particular were acolytes, with Paul McCartney going so far as to write a valentine to the Fat Man in the form of “Lady Madonna,” a song so much in Domino’s wheelhouse he wound up covering it in 1968. As great as it is, “Lady Madonna” carried the suggestion that Domino was an artifact from another time, a rocker who would forever be associated with the fashions of the music’s inception, but his songs proved malleable. Cheap Trick brought “Ain’t That A Shame” into the top 40 in 1979 and classic rockers kept returning to his catalog, with McCartney and Robert Plant covering Fats’ tunes in various contexts over the years.
As frequently as they were interpreted, the songs themselves didn’t matter as much as how the rock n’ roll itself was shaped by Fats Domino’s sensibility. Fats placed a premium on feel, particularly how rock should also roll, but he also hit harder than any of his New Orleans R&B piano peers. Professor Longhair, James Booker and Allen Toussaint all were a bit more idiosyncratic than Fats, playing with the measure and melody, but Domino was solid as a rock, keeping his beat steady and making sure his solos always circled back to their foundation.
Most rock n’ roll of the subsequent decades followed Domino’s blueprint, adhering to a relentless groove even when the solos and singing turned manic. Other cultures zeroed onto the sweetness of Domino’s bounce — ska and reggae is impossible to imagine without Fats’ buoyant beat; “Be My Guest” is the foundation of modern Jamaican music — but Fats was the first musician to make the backbeat as hard and undeniable as steel. Without him, none of the mad music that followed — whether it was Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Stooges, Motörhead or Metallica — seems conceivable, and that’s a heady claim for a musician whose alleged attributes are his friendliness and warmth.