(Pictured: this is Fats Domino and not, as the original caption says, Fats Dimono. You can trust me.)
Since the death of Fats Domino earlier this week at age 89, I have been trying to remember precisely when I first heard his music and that of the other icons of the 1950s, but I’ll be damned if I can remember.
American Graffiti, which came out in 1973, was the first introduction many kids my age got to 50s music in general and certain icons in particular: Fats, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly were all heard in the movie. The 1950s nostalgia wave swept into TV while American Graffiti was still in theaters with the January 1974 premiere of Happy Days, which used Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” as its original theme song. I have written elsewhere of a suspicion that TV ads for K-Tel oldies compilations might have introduced me to some artists of the 50s I didn’t otherwise know. I can’t say if, or how many, of rock’s founding fathers were in the oldies library at WLS and other Top 40 stations during the 1970s, although some certainly must have been. When I was a little baby DJ, the syndicated radio show Sunday at the Memories taught me a lot. Host Ray Durkee revered the music of the rock ‘n’ roll era, and I soaked up his enthusiasm while I board-opped his show.
But beyond that, specifics about where and how I first heard Fats Domino and other stars of the 1950s are lost to me.
Domino’s collaborations with producer/bandleader Dave Bartholomew were among the most significant records made by anybody anywhere. Their first big hit, “The Fat Man,” rose to #2 on the Billboard R&B chart in 1950, and is said to have sold a million copies. In 1952, Domino’s first #1 R&B hit, “Goin’ Home,” crossed over to the pop chart. When rock ‘n’ roll exploded in 1955, he was there with “Ain’t That a Shame,” the first song George Harrison learned to play, and one of those records that used to be engraved on the DNA of everybody with a radio—as were “Blueberry Hill” and “I’m Walkin’,” which hit in 1956 and 1957 respectively.
(Fats wasn’t the first to record “Blueberry Hill”; it actually went back to 1940. Many kids my age first heard it, or heard about it, on Happy Days, where it was used as shorthand for gettin’ lucky: when talking about their dates, Richie and his friends would sing, “I found my thrill . . .” whether they had or not, in the bragging way of adolescent boys then and now.)
My favorite Fats Domino records both made the pop Top 10 in 1959: the piano-bangin’ “Whole Lotta Loving” and the slower-cookin’ “I Want to Walk You Home.” But by then, his run of monumental hits was nearly over; his last Top 10, “Walking to New Orleans,” came in the summer of 1960, although he made the Top 40 12 more times before the end of 1962. He changed labels after that, splitting with Bartholomew and recording in Nashville. (The latter change didn’t serve him well.) His final Hot 100 hit was a terrific version of “Lady Madonna,” which did two weeks at #100 in September 1968. In 1980, Fats recorded “Whiskey Heaven” for the Clint Eastwood movie Any Which Way You Can, and I remember playing it on KDTH. He released albums throughout the 80s and 90s, mostly live discs (the last one in 2003), and in 1993, he made a Christmas album. The last thing most people heard about Fats before his death this week was of his 2005 rescue in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He rode it out at home in New Orleans, losing all of his possessions in the process.
Of the most iconic stars of the 50s, only three are still alive now: Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Don Everly, all in their 80s, and we all hope they’re taking good care. But as me mourn Fats Domino, let’s rejoice that Dave Bartholomew is still among us. This Christmas Eve, he will celebrate his 97th birthday.