Part of Us, Still

There was a time when Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” was bred into the DNA of music fans. You couldn’t help knowing it. The record was one of several that symbolized what the 1950s sounded like, it was anthologized everywhere, and as a result, people who hadn’t been born when it was a hit could sing along with it, or the first line, in perfect Fats Domino cadence: “I found my thrill . . . .” (In the 70s, on the TV show Happy Days, it was shorthand for gettin’ lucky, or the promise of gettin’ lucky.)

“Blueberry Hill” is not universally familiar anymore, though. Oldies radio left the 50s behind a long time ago, and 50s music is no longer a staple of that great cultural leveler, the wedding reception playlist. So it’s doubtful that your average person under the age of 30 would know “Blueberry Hill.” For those of us who do know it, the song is so closely identified with Domino that it’s surprising to learn that A) he wasn’t the first to record it and B) he wasn’t the last, either.

“Blueberry Hill” was a rage in 1940, with several versions charting. The one by the Glenn Miller Orchestra, with that high, sweet saxophone sound that is quintessentially Milleresque, featured vocalist Ray Eberle and went to #1 on the charts of that era. Versions by Kay Kyser and Russ Morgan also charted, and it was recorded by many other jazz and pop acts during the 40s and 50s. It would also have been in the repertoire of the hundreds of dance bands around the land that never got a sniff of a recording studio. So “Blueberry Hill” was a highly familiar song when Domino gave it his rollicking New Orleans swing in 1956. His version opened the door for rock ‘n’ roll acts to record it, and many did during the late 50s and in the 1960s, including Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis (whose version is a direct lift from Domino’s) Pat Boone, Little Richard (whose version is entirely his own), and Duane Eddy (whose version is as twangy, and awesome, as you’d expect). The only other version of the song to chart in the rock era came while Domino’s version was a hit: a 1949 recording by Louis Armstrong.

But as time passed, new versions of “Blueberry Hill” became scarce. It’s on the 1970 Led Zeppelin bootleg Live on Blueberry Hill (hear it here), and the Beach Boys released a version in 1976. A version I didn’t know until recently—but one I really like—is by Bruce Cockburn, from his 1999 album Breakfast in New Orleans Dinner in Timbuktu. Margo Timmins of Cowboy Junkies takes a verse on a performance that’s like no “Blueberry Hill” you’ve ever heard before.

4 responses

  1. When I became enamored of the early days of rock ‘n roll as a youngster, “Blueberry Hill” was as good as atop my list of faves, and you can thank Cunningham and company for both my general and specific passions. With all due respect to Glenn, Satch and all that came before, the Fats version is Western-civilization-CliffsNotes definitive. Plus, it led to one of my favorite celeb appearances in a commercial. Let’s all shake with the Fat Man! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dj7El7-IH_E

  2. My familiarity with “Blueberry Hill” during my early college days led me in early 1973 to my first Fats anthology, a two-LP set on United Artists. And that brought me to ‘The Fat Man,” “I’m Walkin’,” and about twenty more of Fats’ records, including “I Hear You Knockin’,” which I only knew at that time from Dave Edmunds’ cover. It didn’t take right away, but the anthology was part of the process that led me to become the record and music geek that I am. Thanks, Fats! Good post . . .

  3. it’s interesting just how many long of tooth songs got dusted off in the rock and roll era, all for the sake of THE HIT. Doo-woppers did it frequently (Heart and Soul, Blue Moon etc) and the British Invasion fell back on it as well (I’m Henry the VIII, Ain’t She Sweet, P.J. Proby’s Hold Me).

    And wasn’t your mind blown when you found out the origin of Ram Jam’s “Black Betty?”

  4. […] this week, my pal jb, proprietor of The Hits Just Keep On Comin’, reminded his readers of a (sometimes sad) truth. Musical memory is […]

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