John Lennon, Van Morrison, Ricky Nelson & Dr John follow Fats!

‘I said oh – ooh- oh Domino!

‘I said oh – ooh- oh Domino!’ (Van Morrison – Domino)

A true message always gets through. And, there was a powerful, danceable, message about common humanity and the joy of being alive in the music of Antoine Fats Domino.

Of course, it don’t hurt none if the message gets a push. And in 1950s America the best vehicle for spreading the message to the wider, white, public was national TV and the cinema.

So 19 November 1956 was a great day for spreading the good word from New Orleans. For, on that day, Fats Domino sang his glorious version of, ‘Blueberry Hill’ on show 9, Season 9 of the fabled Ed Sullivan Show.

The Sullivan Show broadcasting on Sunday Nights since 1948 had become an institution of American popular culture. Millions of Moms and Pops must have seen and heard Fats for the first time and concluded that this fellow with the broad beaming smile and the undeniable melodic gift wasn’t really one of those awful Rock ‘n’ Rollers like that hips swivellin’, lip curling, clear threat to civilisation Elvis Presley.

Their sons and daughters moving beyond their command weren’t interested in Fats’ position on the threat to civilisation spectrum (the Elvis Index!). No, they just felt in their guts that Fats with his sly N’Awlins tones and piano was talking directly to them and inviting them to come on over for one fine, fine time.

As 1956 closed the message was more than redoubled when the movie, ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ opened. No one cared about the slight, hackneyed story and Jayne Mansfield’s impressive blonde pneumatic charms were only a mild diversion in an age of impressive pneumatic Blondes.

What really turned heads, upturned seats, launched careers and set the world ablaze was the Rock ‘n’ Roll! Little Richard did what only Little Richard can do with his crazed, don’t try to follow me buddy, assault on the movie’s title track. His later takes on, ‘Ready Teddy’ and, ‘She’s Got It’ proved beyond peradventure that the Quaser most definitely had got it!

Gene Vincent and the Bluecaps added a southern surreal touch simultaneously seductive and menacing as they cruised through, ‘Be Bop A Lula’. Eddie Cochran took no prisoners with his rythmic attack on ‘Twenty Flight Rock’.

And Fats? Fats just leaned into the piano, grinned mightily and permanently lodged, ‘Blue Monday’ into the memory of everyone fortunate enough to hear it. The Sullivan show was massive in America but movies travelled the globe!

So when in the summer of 1957, ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ arrived in Liverpool it was a very big deal for Merseyside would be Rock ‘n’ Rollers – a chance to see and hear at high volume the real people behind the names inscribed on their treasured 45s.

Of course, one of these proto rockers was none other than the 16 year old John Lennon. Seeing his idols projected on the screen was an overwhelming experience crystalising his desire to join their company. Rock ‘n’ Roll for John Lennon was an anchor in his troubled life and a rope ladder of escape. Obsessively Listening to Rock ‘n’ Roll and daring to dream about about a future as a bona fide rocker who would write his own songs helped to forge his identity as he tested out a series of performance personas.

And, in a troubled time in the early 70s he went back to the persona of the slicked back rocker when he recorded his tribute record, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’. John’s memories of, ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ were obviously deep and true because he set down versions of, ‘Ready Teddy’ and, ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’ as well as honouring Fats with his version of, ‘Ain’t That A Shame’.

Now it would not be an overstatement to call the sessions which produced , ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll shambolic. Too many musicians, too many drugs, too much alcohol, too many egos in overdrive – not to mention Phil Spector firing his gun off in the studio to impose order!

Nevertheless! On, ‘Ain’t That A Shame’ I hear, poignantly, the shade of the unknown sixteen year in love with rebellion and Rock ‘n’ Roll music who was desperate to forge a new world sharing the microphone with the world weary superstar who had conquered every known world.

Maybe, all that held the two John’s together was his core deep love for the music of Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent and Fats Domino. All I am sure of is that John Lennon lived and died as an unregenerate Rock ‘n’ Roller. Rock on John! Rock On!

Meanwhile on 10 April 1957; back in the good old USA not long after Fats appearances on Ed Sullivan and, ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ a very handsome young man with perfect hair and a beguiling smile sang Fats’, ‘I’m Walkin’ on his parents TV show. The show was the wildly successful, ‘The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet’ and the young man was their son Ricky Nelson.

This was the first time that Ricky had sung on the show. It soon became obvious that the legions of young women who were already enamoured due to the show would have no hesitation in rushing to their local record store to buy any record that bore Ricky’s name.

While the above history might suggest that Ricky would turn out to be an ersatz rocker the glorious truth was that instead he turned out to not only to have perfect hair but also a seductive and surprisingly supple vocal style that beautifully blended country crooning with harder edged Rock ‘n’ Roll. He also surrounded himself with brilliant musicians like guitarist James Burton whose solos were pored over endlessly by six string scholars the world over.

I’m going to write much more extensively about Ricky here on The Jukebox later in the year. For now all I will say is that Ricky Nelson was a much more considerable figure than generally allowed and that at every stage of his career he made wonderful, heart-piercing records that continue to cast a spell decades after they were issued.

Now, if there’s one musician who is unimpressed by reputation and definitively knows, when it comes to music, the difference between the ersatz and the authentic that musician is George Ivan Morrison. So, when he records a tribute track to a master musician like Fats Domino you know he means it.

Of course, Van being Van, his tribute is not a recreation of Fats’ sound but rather a superbly played (listen to John Platania’s magical guitar and Jack Schorer’s scorching sax work) and sung celebration of the redemptive joy that music can make present in our hearts.

Oh, ooh, oh Domino! Oh, ooh, oh Domino. Dig it!

Bringing it all back home to the Crescent City my last example of the deep mark Fats has left on the musicians who followed him is a funkier than funky version of, ‘Walking to New Orleans’ by a true native son Mac Rebennack AKA Dr John.

You might well wear out two pair of shoes getting down to that one!

A true message always gets through.

Oh, ooh, oh Domino! Oh, ooh, oh Domino!

Fats Domino – Pharaoh of The 1950s! King of New Orleans!

Had I been born in Louisiana in the 1920s I know what I would have done with my life if I had survived World War Two intact and by fair means or foul accumulated a decently thick bankroll.

I would have bought a roadhouse on the outskirts of New Orleans.

Let’s call it, ‘The Blue Parrott’. And, all the dollars I spent and all the hands I hired would have had but one aim – to make the Parrott the jumpinist, jivinist, most joyful Joint for hundreds of miles around.

Embed from Getty Images

On the door and looking out for trouble before it becomes TROUBLE is an ex Marine called Tiny who stands six foot six and weighs in at 250 pounds. Tiny stormed the beach at Guadalcanal and came home with a limp and a chest full of medals.

Tiny never gets mad but he does get mean. No matter how drunk the drunks get and no matter how tough they think they are when they’re drunk no one, no one, thinks they can take Tiny down. Tiny maintains good order.

Behind the bar is Pops. Pops has looked sixty years old since I was six. He always will. Pops has heard and nodded sympathetically at every hard luck story ever told as he pours another shot of alcoholic redemption. Everyone know Pops understands. Everybody loves Pops. Pops has never touched a drop.

Out of sight in the Kitchen is Ferdy our chef. Ferdy don’t talk much. In fact he rarely says a word. Nobody cares about that because Ferdy can cook. Really cook.

So people who don’t come for the booze or the company or the music come anyway because they can’t resist Ferdy’s food. He will have you licking your lips just inhaling the aromas from his Gumbo, Jambalaya, crawfish étouffée and shrimp creole.

In the corner there’s a Wurlitzer Jukebox primed to pump out Hank Williams, Joe Turner, Louis Jordan and Harry Choates until the wee small hours.

I must, of course, have live music. A Roadhouse needs a House Band. So, I want a Band that’s has rural roots and city smarts.

I want a Band that folks will want to dance to, to listen to, to cry into their drinks to, to fall in love to, to remember the good and bad times in their lives to, to stare out the door and dream of another life to.

A Band people come to see the first night they get home from the Service or the Slammer so they can believe they really are home.

I want a Band that can whip up a storm one minute and lull a baby to sleep the next. I want a Band that you can stand to listen to three nights a week for year after year.

I want the Band to have a front man who makes people feel good just looking at him.

Embed from Getty Images

I want a drummer who lives in and for rhythm.

Earl Palmer

I want saxophone players who can play pretty or down and dirty as the song demands.

Embed from Getty Images Embed from Getty Images

I want a guitar player who never shows off but is so good he makes other guitar players despair and consider taking up the banjo. I want a Bass player who everybody feels but nobody notices.

I want a piano player who has the left hand of a deity and the right hand of a angel on a spree. I want the piano player to sing with such relaxation that it seems like he is making up every song on the spot.

Embed from Getty Images

I want the Band to have a secret weapon in a songwriter and arranger who knows all the music of the past and has worked out a way to make the music of the future from it.

Embed from Getty Images

I want Fats Domino, Earl Palmer, Herb Hardesty, Red Tyler, Lee Allen, Ernest McLean, Frank Fields and Dave Bartholomew.

I want, and will have, the best damn Band that ever came out of New Orleans – The Fats Domino Band!

Well, well, well …. Wah, Wah, Wah, Wah, Wah, Wah.

Baby that is Rhythm and Blues and Baby though you didn’t realise it at the time – Baby that is Rock ‘n’ Roll.

By my reckoning Fats Domino’s, ‘The Fat Man’ recorded in December 1949 in New Orleans and co-written with Dave Bartholomew and blues history is the first great record of the 1950s.

Some things are immediately apparent. Fats Domino sings with overflowing charm while his piano combines surging boogie-woogie with irresistible triplet flourishes. Right about here the great Earl Palmer invents Rock ‘n’ Roll drumming with his driving backbeat which lifts the Band and our spirits until his final fill decisively says, ‘That’s All Folks’ and you rush to cue it up again.

For the musically sophisticated there’s an excellent analysis of the crucial role of Fats Domino’s Band in the development of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ned Sublette’s book, ‘The Year Before The Flood: A Story of New Orleans’.

For the rest of us all we need to understand is that Earl Palmer’s bass and snare drum attack owed a lot to the style of New Orleans Parade Bands and that the way the whole Band locked into its rhythmic parts drew on Cuban, ‘Latin’ traditions to create something new under the sun in the Crescent City.

Listening here it’s abundantly clear that this is a Band that really does know its way around and that we should sign up now for a glorious cruise into the future. Of course, New Orleans picked up on Fats first with some 10,000 citizens putting their money down to buy, ‘The Fat Man’ in the first fortnight after its issue. A million or so sales followed as the entire United States fell under Fats’ spell.

We scroll forward half a decade now to a record which still sounds dew fresh 60 years after it was recorded in 1955. ‘Ain’t That A Shame’ was an instant classic and the passage of time has only added to its charms.

Fats grew up speaking Creole French and that must be a factor in his immensely winning vocal style. The Lower Ninth Ward where Fat’s family settled after moving Vacherie still retained a country feel despite its proximity to the city. So there always remained something of the relaxed rural about Fats nature.

Maybe that explains why I can’t think of anyone in the entire history of Rock ‘n’ Roll who exudes such bonhomie as Fats. As soon as he starts to sing the clouds part and the sun lights up clear blue skies. It’s an amazing gift he shares with his great New Orleans forebear Louis Armstrong. His piano adds further shimmer and dazzle.

Herb Hardesty has a lovely sax part here which always has me sets me gleefully swaying along with him and the Band. It seems the recording was compressed and speeded up to ensure favour with the mainstream (white) audience. Well, that sure worked!

‘Ain’t That A Shame’ is regularly used in movies to evoke the1950s most notably in George Lucas’ best film, ‘American Graffiti’.

Not too long after it was issued at 251 Menlove Avenue Liverpool the first song full time teenage rebel and would be rocker John Lennon learned to play was none other than, ‘Ain’t That A Shame’. John would formally tip his hat to Fats in his essential covers record, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’.

Following the major success of ‘Shame’ both through Fats version and Pat Boone’s cover the doors to the pop world swing widely open and Fats, always guided by Dave Bartholomew, took full advantage with a series of huge hits that had global impact.

Blue Monday tells a tale we all know all too well. Oh, I’ve had many, many, of those Sunday mornings when my head was bad yet I still grinned at the apparition in the mirror and concluded as the Seltzer fizzed that it was all worth it for the time that I had.

Naturally while reflecting that the awful ordeal of Monday would have to be faced I consoled myself that Fats knew and understand my feelings and somewhere in the grooves of his song lay the promise of the next, sure to be even better, weekend to come. This is one of the great vamping grooves that engages you from the get go to the thumping valedictory chord.

Blueberry Hill had been recorded many times before Fats took permanent ownership of the song in 1956. Fats and the Band invoke a bitter sweet recollection of the trajectory of love; part rural reverie, part lazy post love making langour. Their collective vocal and instrumental sound glides you through the song like an expertly piloted pirogue.

One last song. From the pen of superb singer and songwriter Bobby Charles the hypnotic marvel that is, ‘Walking to New Orleans’. String arrangement courtesy of Milton Bush. The relaxation maintained throughout with the sure groove could only be Fats Domino. This is one of those songs that the entire family sings along to when we are on long car journeys!

Fats Domino was and remains the King of New Orleans. The unique rhythmic signature of the city resounds joyfully through every bar of every Fats Domino recording.

They ought to put a statue up in the Lower Ninth and name a Square and a Bridge or two after him. He deserves nothing less.

Some personal memories to conclude.

In the late 1970s I went to see Fats Domino in concert at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. I only decided to go at the last minute and despite my silver tongue couldn’t persuade any of my hipper than hip friends to accompany me.

I was marooned up in Row YY at the very back of the Upper Circle. Friendless and far from the Bar. None of that mattered once Fats opened up with, ‘I’m Ready’. For the next hour or so as Fats played standard after standard with wit, playful power and affectionate authority I transcended to a state of near nirvanic bliss.

It was a rain soaked night but I waited for an hour after the show outside the Stage Door just to call out, ‘Thanks and God Bless You Fats!’ as he got into his bus.

That night remains one of my benchmark nights for musical excellence and personal happiness. Thanks and God Bless you Fats.

Now that there is more than a distinguished tinge of grey in my beard I lean more and more on the sovereign, reliable pleasures of life.

A good night’s sleep next to the woman I love; a mug of fresh brewed coffee in the morning, a walk on the common, the poetry of Herbert, Heaney and Hopkins. A glass of Malt Whiskey as the sun sets. The films of John Ford and Buster Keaton and the good humoured, life affirming, music of Antoine Fats Domino.

And, echoing Fats I’m ready, willing and able to follow this regime until someone puts out the big light.

If you have enjoyed this post please share it widely and tell your friends! Remember:

The doctor told me, Thom you don’t need no pills.
The doctor told me, Thom, you don’t need no pills.

Just a handful of nickels -Jukebox will cure your ills!

Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels burn rubber and inspire Bruce Springsteen!

Whatever gets you through the night. That’s right John. Whatever gets you through. Gets you through.

The days. The days you don’t own. You’re a prisoner of the days. A prisoner uniformed, numbered and defined by your family history and name.

A prisoner marked out by race, class, Zip Code, bank balance and Grade Point Average. And, if you ain’t no fortunate son one day you might wake up to find you’ve been drafted to fight in a war halfway around the world against folks you never heard of.

Everyone thinks they know everything about you from the way you look, the way you walk and of course the way you talk. Because your folks old country was Ireland or Italy or Poland you’re, ‘one of them’ and bound to act just like the way expected of one of them.

And you? Who do you think you are? Looking down the checklist on offer you only know you have to tick the box for, ‘None of the above’.

Sometimes, most of the time, it’s hard to breathe. It feels like you are being suffocated and thrashing about in a steel mesh net that’s tightening, tightening.

The only time you feel you are really breathing, not gasping for breath, is when you follow Grand River Avenue all the way down to the shore.

Down to Walled Lake. Down to the Casino.

To dance, dance, dance, dance until finally you’re breathing clear. Until, miraculously, you feel electrically alive and wholly free. Free.

Embed from Getty Images

Now you’ve had your radio tuned permanently to Lee Alan who hosted his show from right here in The Casino. And, you know that music legends have played here. Louis Armstrong himself, Sinatra and Chuck Berry as soon as he got out of the slammer.

Detroit is the home of Motown so here at The Casino Little Stevie Wonder, The Temptations and The Miracles all strut their stuff. The British invasion bands come out to the shore too to see if they can cut it in front of an audience that really knows. Really knows.

And, one thing above all the thousand or so regulars know. Really know. There’s only one band that will hit the stage at a hundred miles an hour and just be warming up. One band from right here in Detroit that will play and play until they drop.

Until they and the dancers circling the floor under the Mirrorball in a haze of smoke and sweat communally become transformed beings. That band, the unchallengeable monarchs of The Casino, are Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels.

Ah Jenny, Jenny, Jenny, won’t you come along with me!

Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels – now that’s burning rubber!

They had been Billy Lee and the Riverias. After producer/songwriter Bob Crewe saw them at Walled Lake they became Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels and in a New York studio in 1965 they achieved an almost impossible feat – to recreate the frenzied glory of their live show and capture it on vinyl.

You can imagine Mitch prowling the floor, doing the splits and knee dropping as he tears into the inspired medley of Little Richard’s, ‘Jenny, Jenny’ and, ‘C.C Rider’ the blues standard which probably came to them through Chuck Willis.

Jim McCarty on the lead guitar, Jo Kubert on rhythm guitar, Earl Elliott on bass and Johnny ‘Bee’ Badanjek on drums whip up a tornado of sound that laid waste the idea that the spirit of Rock n Roll was dead or alive only in bands from across the Atlantic Sea.

Embed from Getty Images

More than a million copies were sold as Jenny became a top 10 pop hit and, especially pleasing to the band, Number 1 on the R&B chart.

When you find the secret to capturing the intensity of live performance on record you just gotta do it again! Listen here to Mitch and the boys fire up and lift off like a Saturn 5 space rocket as they make an immortal anthem out of, ‘Little Latin Lupe Lu’ written by Bill Medley of Righteous Brothers fame (track down their version too).

What’s it all about? Your guess wins the prize! What it’s about is the exhilaration of Johnny Bee’s drums sound and the adrenaline rush of Jimmy McCarty’s guitar solo and the ecstatic abandon of Mitch’s vocal.

It’s about being 100% alive and throwing your head back and laughing at the sheer wonder of it all.

Growing up in Detroit Mitch and The Wheels developed a deep love and understanding of the music of the black community all around them – Rhythm and Blues.

So, whatever historians or sociologists might think it was entirely natural for them to turn to the work of a great luminary like Little Richard and a, ‘You gotta be in the know to know’ artist like Shorty Long and in a blast furnace of energy meld, ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’ and, ‘Devil With A Blue Dress On’ into an outpouring of ferocious joy.

Find 11 on your dial and keep it there throughout!

Taking on songs like these is high risk strategy. If you don’t pull it off you dishonour music you love and look ridiculous. But, once Johnny Bee kicks things off with an awesome drum tattoo and Mitch pours his heart and soul into the vocal you know that you’re never gonna tire of this record.

Additional musical brilliance here courtesy of Mike Bloomfield on guitar and Barry Goldberg on the organ. They were rewarded with a top 5 hit.

Someone else plugged into the primal source, Bruce Springsteen, recognised this and characteristically doffed his cap with his own tribute in the, ‘Detroit Medley’

Bruce a head and heart scholar of the music knew that for mainline energy and commitment to the Dionysiac essence of Rock ‘n’ Roll Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels have rarely, if ever, been matched let alone outdone.