June/July/Aug 2007

Ain't That a Shame

Is the music of Fats Domino more interesting than the biography?

Tom Nawrocki


The true pleasure of reading any book on rock ’n’ roll comes less in the descriptions of the music—I’ve long felt that rock bios need to be packaged with a CD, to reinforce or introduce the aural ideas presented—than in the personal excesses, the wantonness, the luxury and degradation, for lack of a better phrase. The gold standard of the genre, Peter Guralnick’s magisterial two-volume biography of Elvis Presley, Last Train to Memphis (1994) and Careless Love (1999), fairly wallows in Presley’s enthusiasms for things that aren’t healthy or kind, like a steady stream of amphetamines, and his revulsion at having sex with any woman who had given birth. Hellfire (1982), Nick Tosches’s barn-burning epistle on Jerry Lee Lewis, makes it clear that the Killer married his thirteen-year-old cousin in large part to ease his crushing desire to abscond with her virginity. “Wherever he went, it seemed, cheap-perfumed thighs parted,” Tosches writes. Lewis becomes an Old Testament figure fueled by equal parts lust and rage, and all this in a book published three years before one of his six wives died under mysterious, still-unexplained, possibly uxoricidal circumstances.

Rick Coleman’s new Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock ’n’ Roll (Da Capo, $16) is different, though Domino himself really isn’t. Fats had his share of vices. Although Domino apparently never succumbed to the lure of heroin, which ended up killing more than one of his band members, he could have drunk a bigger man under the table had he been able to find one, and wasn’t above flashing a roll of hundreds in his old New Orleans neighborhood. During one two-week stand in Las Vegas in 1962, Domino lost $180,000 shooting craps and had to be bailed out by his record company. He liked the ladies; in the early 1960s, he was the target of a paternity suit in Los Angeles that kept him out of that city for the better part of a decade.

But Coleman is not interested in sensationalizing stories like this or even in reporting them down to the ground. He never even finds out for sure whether Fats really was the father of that forlorn Angeleno, although it seems probable. Coleman focuses instead on the gargantuan strides Domino made not just in music but in tearing down the walls of segregation, a monumental and heroic story in itself. He unearths many stories of Domino and his ragtag band on the road in southern cities where they couldn’t eat at restaurants or stay in hotels yet were expected to provide entertainment for the local whites nevertheless. Eventually, Domino became well enough known that the sight of his Cadillac with FATS emblazoned on the back engendered good feelings from local law-enforcement officers who otherwise would have been delighted to force the Negroes out of town.

Fats Domino, 1967

It’s fascinating to see the white world discovering R&B and realizing it liked it: The Fort Worth Press reported as late as 1957, for example, “The house was packed for two performances starring Fats Domino, Negro hepcat.” Julian Bond, later a cofounder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a congressman, and head of the NAACP but in the 1950s a teenager growing up in Pennsylvania, tells Coleman, “There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that southern segregated rock & roll shows in the ’50s exposed white youth to black America for the first time—as did the music over the radio—and if the introduction was to a romantic and stereotyped notion of who black people were, I believe it helped prepare them for the civil rights movement then yet to come.” Domino was more modest about it: “I didn’t even worry about segregation,” he says. “Whoever showed up to hear me, I’d go ahead and play.”

Coleman tries to make the case that Domino has been unjustly forgotten— hard to do when he is a charter member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—but the details of his emergence on the R&B charts and the Chitlin’ Circuit before Presley supposedly invented rock ’n’ roll in 1954 have been largely untold. (By the time Elvis even set foot in a studio, Domino, now seventy-nine years old, had been making records for five years, with eleven Top Ten R&B hits.) But while Domino’s musical legacy is as broad as his waistline, he is painfully shy, which comes across not just in the lack of emotional detail in his stories but in his present-day appearances in Coleman’s narrative, popping in with incredibly mild commentary here and there. Most of the time, Coleman is not able to elicit much more than this reflection on the several band members who have died over the years: “A lot of people come and go. So I figure, whatever happens, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh.” (On the other hand, no less than Mike Douglas was once able to get a great quote out of Fats, asking him how many children he had: Domino paused, then responded, “My wife’s got eight.”)

The upshot is that Domino appears as simply one among many characters in his own story, no more vibrant than his arranger, Dave Bartholomew, or his label head, Lew Chudd. Oddly, some of Fats’s most telling stories come about when he is retiring from the spotlight, such as when he cooks Creole tomato stew on a hot plate in a luxury hotel suite in Munich. We hear several times that Domino called home to New Orleans and his wife, Rosemary, every night from the road. Rosemary is even more fiercely private, generally refusing to be photographed with her husband and family for publicity purposes and scowling when she has to submit.

It’s up to Domino’s sidemen, then, to carry out the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, which they do with great aplomb. As anyone who saw the biopic Ray knows, heroin was the drug of choice for a whole generation of R&B performers, and Domino’s band indulged itself to the point that its members would take two station wagons on the road—one for the drunks, one for the dopers. Knowing their frontman’s kind nature, some of the musicians began hocking their instruments for drug money while on tour, fully expecting that Domino would pony up the cash come showtime to get their horns back.

Charles Neville, years away from starring with his band of brothers, was briefly a saxophonist with Domino, and like several other band members, he pawned his instrument as soon as the group hit Las Vegas—where as late as 1963, black musicians who weren’t headliners were not permitted to mingle with white gamblers in the casinos. This time, however, Domino was wise to the ploy and refused to pay up, and Neville was forced to wash dishes to make extra money. Other members of the band went further, though, and walked off with the drums from Ella Fitzgerald’s setup for hocking purposes. “We had the band jackets,” says Neville, “and in those days a black person could kinda be invisible if he looked like he belonged. We were some terrible characters, some of the shit we did.”

Nobody ever accused Fats Domino of being a terrible character. He drank too much, he missed shows, he cheated on his wife, but everyone still liked him. And that’s part of the problem. Coleman acknowledges that he and Domino have been friends for a long time, and Fats clearly sat for interviews for the book, but he has little first-person presence. Domino’s relationship with his wife, who also talked with Coleman, is complicated and fascinating and left almost wholly unexamined. The author tantalizingly notes early on that Rosemary was at a show put on by the teenage Fats in New Orleans before they were married—and that that was the first and only time she saw him perform onstage. But he never follows up, never asks her why she never went to see him again or whether Fats is disappointed in his wife’s seeming lack of interest in his career, and the subject is never revisited.

Guralnick even went so far as to explore the crucial question of whether Elvis could bring himself to have carnal relations with Priscilla after Lisa Marie was born. (He couldn’t.) One is tempted to say that the difference between Domino and Presley or Lewis is that Fats, though undoubtedly a charismatic performer, was more of a musician, while the other two were largerthan- life personalities, rock stars in a way that Fats Domino never was.

But I don’t think that’s it. Fats Domino is an undeniably lovable character, and I’m sure he’s even more lovable in person, cooking up some Creole stew for his guests, than he is onstage. The reason we don’t get more dirt and earthy escapades out of this book is that Coleman has made the biographer’s mistake of falling in love with his subject. But who can blame him?

A frequent contributor to Bookforum, Tom Nawrocki is a Colorado-based writer whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone and Sports Illustrated.

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