Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Rick Coleman's Blue Monday-Fats Domino Bio

I briefly blogged about Rick Coleman’s biography of Fats Domino back in May, 2006 which I would subsequently review in Jazz & Blues Report (August 2006, issue 285). That was one of my earliest blog entries here, but since this excellent biography is available in paperback, it is worth bringing to folks attention once more. I note that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame honored Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew's contributions this past fall. This book should not be hard to locate.

by Rick Coleman
(DA CAPO 2006)

Antoine ‘Fats’ Domino is one of the most significant performers of the last half of the twentieth century, yet because of his easy-going persona and his rather quiet life outside of performing, his contributions to blues and rock’n’roll have not been given their due. This biography by Rick Coleman, who authored the booklet for the Bear Family box set of Domino’s Complete Imperial Recordings, is twenty years in the making and hopefully will result in Domino being recognized as the pillar of modern American music that he is. The fact that Fats is unappreciated perhaps reflects a certain Eurocentrism that marks much of pop music writing and rock media that inflates the importance of popular, but derivative rock artists at the expense of true music innovators. After all Lynard Skynard is in the Rock’N’Roll Hall of Fame, but the much more original Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson is not.

Domino is a private man and somewhat shy, despite his ability to thrill audiences when performing. Coleman traces his biography and development as a musician in the context of the times including his father’s move to the Ninth Ward area, then a relatively rural area near the Industrial Canal, to the horrible events around Hurricane Katrina which devastated Domino’s home that was still on the same tract of land his father had purchased decades before.

Domino grew up in one of the most remarkable musical cities this country has ever had. Coleman traces its history, including the infamous history relating to segregation of the races which is invaluable in understanding Domino’s impact, not simply on music but in bringing people of different backgrounds together. Given the general easy going image of Antoine ‘Fats’ Domino, one is likely to be surprised when reading this about the riots his live performances often engendered. These riots were most often the result of those who objected to whites and blacks attending an event together, and even worse in the racist eyes of many, dancing and socializing together.

Influenced by Amos Milburn especially, Fats Domino was one of the greats in a long-standing New Orleans piano tradition. Roy Brown’s Recording of Good Rockin’ Tonight, is the earliest shot in the musical revolution of modern rhythm and blues that generated rock and roll. From when he went in the studio and cut his speeded reworking of the traditional New Orleans song Junker’s Blues as The Fat Man, Domino had a recording career that for about a decade and a half outsold anybody except for Elvis, and his music inspired performers including Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, John Lennon and countless others.

Coleman traces Domino’s recording and performing career as well as the major events of his personal life, but without focusing on scandals and then continues when Domino had ceased to be a major recording artist but remained a powerful live attraction on the oldies circuit and in Las Vegas. From when he first traveled to Europe in the mid-sixties, the adulation he received overseas led to regular tours there. And furthermore the level of his music remained consistently high. There is plenty of material here that was unfamiliar to me. I was not aware that of the many Domino-Bartholomew compositions, Domino’s chief contributions were the lyrics and the basic music, which Bartholomew worked and elaborated on. Also, I was not aware that Bartholomew generally played a very limited role in Domino’s live touring as we are given the details of the various persons who were members of the band and some of their foibles as well as musical contributions. But names like Earl Palmer, Roy Montrell, Herb Hardesty, Lee Allen and other names familiar to rock’n’roll and R&B collectors are part of this story as is label mate Rick Nelson.

Coleman has put together an impressive work that is long overdue. There is a factual quality of much of this, but again that is partly the result of Domino’s own private nature. He is best when describing some of the recordings and performances and there is a thorough list of sources although a list of recordings would have been very welcome here, or at least a listing of available recordings. But this is simply a small quibble on a most impressive work about a true Giant and Legend.

I must confess that I do not remember if I purchased this or received a review copy from the publisher.

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