I wrote about Fats Domino in my previous post The Origin of Rock and Roll Part Two. I now write with sadness that Fats has passed away. In that post, and the preceding Part One, I made a case for either Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, or Little Richard being the real king of rock and roll. Only Little Richard, now 84, is left with us.
It is regrettable that these musical giants were so quickly relegated to the category of “oldies acts”. Elvis, who was so easily anointed as “King” acknowledged Fats as an influence and you can certainly hear it in his work. He not only covered Blueberry Hill, but, he did not like being called King because of his friendship with and respect for Fats. I don’t blame Elvis. I also don’t blame the Beatles, who had nothing but regard for their mentor Little Richard or even the Rolling Stones who made a career out of reworking Chuck Berry’s oeuvre. I blame a music industry that thrives on marketing the next big thing, as well as a fickle music buying public. In fact, I remember as a child in the early 1960’s, only a few years after these early innovators of rock were making hits, hearing their songs played on the radio as “Golden Oldies”. Contrast this to the long careers of the Stones, Paul McCartney, Dylan, etc..
Yet, if you search on YouTube you will be rewarded with footage of Little Richard in the mid 1960’s on the television show Shindig where his performance electrifies the crowd and he is much edgier than the staid British invasion bands of the time. In 1964, when the Beatles broke big in the U.S. Chuck Berry released his song Promised Land which later would become a staple of the Grateful Dead. The 1969 Toronto Rock and Roll Festival is worth looking for also on YouTube. This was an oldies festival that included not only 1950’s acts but also Frank Zappa and the Mothers, John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band (featuring Eric Clapton) and Alice Cooper. Here you can see that musicians whose careers were little over a decade old were still vital performing artists.
Fats clearly came on the scene before any of the aforementioned artists. As Louis Armstrong had done for New Orleans jazz in the 1920’s, Fats brought the innovative funky style of New Orleans rhythm and blues to the world in the 1940’s before most white people knew the term “rock and roll”. His music even had an influence on Jamaican Ska, which eventually became the still influential art form known as reggae (on a personal note, I recall that on my first visit to Jamaica, I heard one of his albums being played in a local restaurant). Fats paved the way for other important New Orleans artists like Earl King, the Neville Brothers, Irma Thomas (Time is On My Side), Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, the Meters and others.
It is such a shame that we don’t always acknowledge great artists and give them their due while they are still alive. Especially those who are the architects of good things yet to come.