Dec. 10, 1949: The day Fats Domino taught us to rock ‘n’ roll
Imperial Records honcho Lew Chudd was looking for fresh young talent when he came to New Orleans in 1949. Local bandleader Dave Bartholomew delivered it, in the form of a 21-year-old kid who met those qualifications and then some. They called him Fats, and he rocked and rolled before “rock ‘n’ roll” was even really a thing. Two months after Fats Domino recorded his debut single, titled “The Fat Man,” on Dec. 10, 1949, it was a bona fide hit — and gave America what some music historians argue was the first rock ‘n’ roll song.
Domino, who turns 89 on Feb. 26, has slowed down in recent years, retiring to a reclusive life surrounded by friends and family in his Lower 9th Ward home. His last live public performance was on “The Today Show” in 2007, when he performed “Blueberry Hill.” Still, he remains one of the city’s most beloved musical icons.
- The title of “first rock ‘n’ roll song” is open to debate. Along with “The Fat Man,” other contenders include Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88,” Jimmy Preston’s “Rock the Joint” and Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Strange Things Happening Every Day.” Most agree, however, that if “The Fat Man” wasn’t the first, it was certainly one of the first.
- “The Fat Man” was recorded at Cosimo Matassa’s legendary J&M Studio on Rampart Street, with Bartholomew producing.
- That recording session marked the start of a beautiful relationship between Bartholomew and Domino. In the decade that followed the release of “The Fat Man,” 40 of their singles charted on Billboard’s R&B Top 40. Seven of them reached No. 1.
- Accompanying Domino on the song were drummer Earl Palmer, bassist Frank Fields, guitarist Ernest McLean and sax players Herbert Hardesty, Clarence Hall, Joe Harris and Alvin “Red” Tyler.
- “The Fat Man” borrows heavily from the 1940 song “Junker’s Blues” by Champion Jack Dupree, another New Orleans pianist.
- In a decidedly surreal moment at a 2010 charity event, none other than Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sang his own rendition of “Blueberry Hill,” a song popularized in 1956 by Domino.
- When The Beatles played a concert in New Orleans in September 1964, one of their priorities was to meet Domino, one of their major musical influences — which they did, in a “backstage” trailer at City Park Stadium.
- In 1999, a plaque was installed on the North Rampart Street building that housed J&M Studio — now a coin-op laundry called The Clothes Spin — noting its place in music history.
- In 1986, Domino was part of the inaugural class of performers inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The list of musicians influenced by Fats Domino is a seemingly endless one, from Randy Newman to Bob Marley and from Led Zeppelin to The Beatles. Starting with “The Fat Man” — and continuing with “Ain’t That a Shame,” “Blueberry Hill,” “Walking to New Orleans” and any number of others — Domino pushed the distinctive sounds of New Orleans’ dive bars and juke joints into the living rooms of Americans, white and black alike. In the process, not only did his music both preserve and advance the New Orleans sound, but it served as a unifying cultural force in the tumultuous 20th century — a fat legacy, indeed.