Impressions: Remembering Fats Domino in New Orleans

Words and photos by Lemar Arceneaux

This past Wednesday, November 1, the life and career of Fats Domino were celebrated in a traditional New Orleans style. A massive second line strolled through the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, ending at Domino’s former home. The house, with a banana-yellow facade and the initials “FD” above one door and a neon sign with Domino’s name over another, was itself a perfect representation of Fats’ emphasis on style and standing out.

Domino, born Antoine Dominique Domino Jr. in February of 1928, passed away on October 24th, ending an era in American music. Fats was your favorite singer’s favorite singer. Even if you are not familiar with his work, I guarantee you that he was an inspiration to some of your most-loved musicians. During the later years of racial segregation, a very difficult time for Blacks in America, Fats used his chops as a way out, helping to desegregate (for a time, at least) popular music with universal hits like “Ain’t That a Shame” and “Blueberry Hill.” Although I’m certain there were still some individuals who would have rather seen him hanging from a tree, he managed to catch the attention of the masses and sell millions of records during this dreadful time. This is part of what makes his legacy so amazing.

Not only was Domino an amazing musician, but he was always fun to look at. His black and white brass band hat, rings, and hair became iconic, and will not be forgotten. Despite Fats’ world-renowned fame, he chose to reside in the Ninth Ward until his final days. In fact, some media outlets even declared him dead in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina led to the devastating floods there. 

New Orleans was where Fats gave birth to his uniquely syncopated style. Of course, the style and pattern that Fats laid down helped bring about the birth of rock and roll. What’s more, Domino’s 1959 hit “Be My Guest” is sometimes considered the starting point for ska. Listen to it here, and judge for yourself. It’s a well-known fact that ska led us into rocksteady, reggae, dancehall, and just about all present-day Jamaican music. What fewer people know is that ska has its roots in New Orleans, and the first wave of American soul and R&B led by Fats Domino. In those times when very few Jamaican artists had the opportunity to record music, it was the tunes of American stars like Fats that you would hear on sound systems in Jamaica. However, his music in particular seemed to resonate the most. I personally remember watching an old Bob Marley interview where he mentions Fats as one of his early inspirations. As a New Orleans native and reggae aficionado this was very important to me. Even Elvis Presley himself called Fats “the real king of Rock N Roll.” Although I’m not much of an Elvis fan, I thought the significance of him making that statement might be something you’d want to take into consideration.

Fans of reggae music will also note Yellowman‘s classic version of “Blueberry Hill.” Years earlier, in 1965, Millie Small, the teen who took ska worldwide with “My Boy Lollipop,” released an entire album of Domino songs. In 2007, Vanguard Records produced Goin’ Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino. It’s telling that iconic Jamaican acts Toots and the Maytals and Skatalites both make appearances on this album, along with household names like Elton John, Paul McCartney, Tom Petty, Willie Nelson, Lenny Kravitz and Neil Young, and modern acts like Corinne Bailey Rae and Norah Jones. This just goes to show the endless impact that Fats has made on popular music. Do your ears and soul a favor and listen to some Fats today. Thank you Fats Domino, may your soul Rest In Power.

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