There is a famous quote from New Orleans rhythm and blues singer and self-proclaimed "Emperor of the Universe" Ernie K-Doe in which he says, "I'm not sure, but I'm almost positive that all music comes from New Orleans." Residents of New Orleans and music fans know this, but for others, it needs some reinforcement. New Orleans is one of the many streams that ran together to form the rock 'n' roll river. One of the first and certainly the most famous musician playing it was Antoine "Fats" Domino. In his new biography, Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock 'n' Roll (De Capo Press), author Rick Coleman tells the story of Domino's life and places him and his music in the changing social and cultural contexts of American life, from Domino's first recordings to his rescue after Hurricane Katrina.
Coleman's tale of Domino's life starts with a short explanation of the historical and cultural forces at work along this part of the Mississippi River, and New Orleans in particular. He then traces Domino's family to what some consider the ancestral home of rock 'n' roll, St Charles and St James parishes, particularly Vacherie, where they lived before moving to the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Coleman describes Domino's childhood in the Lower Nine, detailing his life there and how he learned to play piano. He shows how Domino played for his family and started getting up between other bands' sets to play in front of audiences. Domino started a band and got gigs opening for Roy Brown before landing his own steady gig at the Hideaway Lounge. There he was discovered by Imperial Records' head Lew Chudd and producer and trumpeter Dave Bartholomew, and his career as Fats Domino was born.
Coleman then takes the reader through Fats' career from his first single "The Fat Man" up until his recent travails with Hurricane Katrina. Along the way, Coleman details his early tours and music of the 1950s, his Vegas residencies and influence on the Beatles in the '60s, his "comebacks" then and in the '70s, and more tours and concerts in the '80s and '90s. He intersperses his narrative with quotes from many interviews he recorded over the course of 20 years. Especially illuminating are the comprehensive conversations Coleman had with Dave Bartholomew, Fats' producer and really one of the inventors and heroes of rock 'n' roll, and interviews with Lew Chudd, the owner of Imperial Records, which released a string of Fats' hits in the '50s that few have equaled. These interviews, along with that of J&M Studio engineer Cosimo Matassa (engineer of Fats' and many others' hits), give a fascinating perspective on what the recording scene in New Orleans was like in the '50s when so much brilliant, magic and fun music was being committed to tape.
In his examination of Fats' life, Coleman emphasizes several themes. The first and most developed is how new and exciting Fats' music was to the world. With testimonials by everyone from Dale "Suzy Q" Hawkins to Elvis Presley to John Lennon, Coleman emphasizes that Fats' compositions changed the world of music from the beginning of his career. Coleman analyzes the music not only from a layman's point of view, but also through the work of several musicologists. In his discussion, Coleman also makes the interesting point that the radicalness of Fats' music and his pioneering contributions have been played down and almost forgotten due to Domino's happy-go-lucky persona.
Not only did it change the music world, but Fat's music and concerts also changed the social milieu. Coleman goes into great depth and detail to show how Domino's concerts brought blacks and whites together as teenagers. Inspired by the "rockin'" music, they started dancing together regardless of the color of their skin or the segregation laws of the time. Coleman gives several examples of riots breaking out at Domino shows in the '50s and '60s when people started dancing together. In addition, Coleman quotes everyone from TV music hosts in Memphis to Cashbox Magazine in order to show how Domino, in his own unsung way, was a major force in the fight against segregation.
The book is full of stories about the musicians Fats came in contact with and played with, from the tragic stories of his guitarist Walter "Papoose" Nelson and Roy Montrell to funny man Walter Kimball to the illustrious saxophonists Herbert Hardesty and Lee Allen. In terms of craziness, Fats Domino's band would have given the Duke Ellington Orchestra a run for its money. Amid all these stories and New Orleans idiosyncracies, however, the actual portrayal of Antoine "Fats" Domino is thinner than one would expect. Although the reader gets a feel for who Domino is, the narrative does not delve particularly deeply into his motivations and personal thoughts and how they may have changed over the course of more than 50 years in the music business. Domino is a shy man, as Coleman purports. Even in this 300-page biography, chock full of New Orleans history and socio-cultural connections and a host of characters, the Fat Man proves to be an elusive subject. But that does not take away from the fact that this book is a good read and a great addition to the fast-growing library of New Orleans music histories.