Fats Domino died on October 25, 2017. He was 89.
Fats was the pioneer of rock and roll. People who came of age after 1954 forget this. Actually, my generation never knew it. “The Fat Man” was released in December 1949. It eventually sold a million copies. But it did not sell to the likes of us in 1950. It was not called rock and roll in 1949. It was called race music. It did not get onto pop music radio. From the day I heard it in 1956 at age 14, when I worked in a West Coast record store, I thought it was the best rock and roll song I had ever heard. I was already a huge fan, but that song blew me away. Only with “Lady Madonna” did he come close to meeting that original standard. That was in 1968.
There is irony here. “Lady Madonna” was a cover record. It was a Beatles original. At long last: a black guy doing a cover for white guys. Pat Boone launched his brief top-40 career by doing a cover record for Fats. (Yes, it really sounded as bad then as it sounds today. Age blurs our memories.)
There were a few black groups from the old rhythm and blues market who had hits in 1954 and 1955, but they faded fast. Fats didn’t. He just kept getting more popular. He was second only to Elvis by 1960 in terms of record sales. Over his career, he sold 65 million records.
Americans come of age in musical eras. Sometimes, they span two. Someone who was a freshman in high school in 1952 listened to Johnnie Ray, Eddie Fisher, Doris Day, and Rosemary Clooney. So did his parents. By the end of high school, he was listening to Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, Bill Haley and the Comets, Johnny Cash, Buddy Holly, and Elvis Presley. His parents were not. Four words describe his father’s opinion: “Turn that thing down!”
This was a monumental shift in musical taste, and also in finances for the music industry. My generation was the first to have enough disposable income to create a separate subculture: movies and music. Teenage popular music of the second two-thirds of the 1950’s has survived in golden oldies collections. The music of the first third has not. It was gone by 1960. “Your Hit Parade” was a TV show targeting our parents. The regular cast of singers sang popular songs of the previous week. They dared not sing rock and roll. Their audience would have turned to a different channel. The man of the house would have gotten off the sofa, walked all the way to the TV, and turned a knob. Then — get this — he had to walk back to the sofa. Unimaginable today. The show went off the air in 1959. Our parents no longer listened to pop music. That was fine with us. We no longer lived with our parents. We went to college, or work, or into the Army.
The came the great bland gap: 1961 to 1964. The next two musical eras took place. In 1962, a 15-year-old got a taste for the Beach Boys — #100 out of 100 — but nothing else has survived. The Beatles hit America’s airwaves in late December 1963, and they took over the following February.
Fats kept rolling along. He was signed to play the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas in 1962. His fans were now allowed to gamble. So was he. He lost $180,000 in the first two weeks. In today’s money, that was $1.5 million — after taxes. He was paid $6,500 a week. He stayed 15 years. There was an audience to come to hear him.
I never got to see him in person. He was the only pop singer of my youth I ever wanted to see.
And then there was this — 1986.