‘He’s the Best Singer Ever in the World’

Let’s not beat around the bush – as anyone who knows me well will testify to, I am completely obsessed with Domino. In a recent monomaniac’s contest, I finished a close second behind the ring-fixated Gollum. The chapter title is a line from one of my many musical homages to the great man, which reflects my penchant for hyperbole, but also the naked truth, as far as I am concerned.

I’m pretty sure I’d have discovered the Fat Man anyway – after all, he’s hardly an obscure name – but I have my Dad to thank for kickstarting the process at an early stage. I was about fourteen when me and my mate and neighbour Rich Payne decided to check out my old man’s record collection. He was heavily into jazz and stuck some on the record player at every Sunday lunch, much to his pleasure and largely to everybody else’s chagrin. I wasn’t a fan. I guess it’s normal to reject your parents’ tastes in music. It certainly was in the post-punk times I was living, not necessarily as an act of rebellion but as an act of taste. Music had changed irrevocably since my parents’ heyday. However, some of the sleeves on these jazz LPs were amazing, so we went through them, marking them out of ten, occasionally playing a track or two. Eventually, after enjoying a psychedelic Charles Mingus cover and a vibrant and humorous Stanley Turrentine sleeve, to name but two, we came across Domino’s Sleeping on the Job – with the bejewelled and pink-suited Fat Man asleep at the keys of his Joanna. We gave it ten out of ten, it was so funny and charming. We gave it a spin for good measure. It opens with a tinkling piano riff strangely similar to the beginning of Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights, accompanied by a witty wah-wah, farting bass and the sound of Domino snoring. What was there not to like about the dude? It wasn’t exactly jazz and we both dug it. In hindsight, I would probably say it was Domino’s seventies foray into funk – there are certainly very liberal helpings of that bubbling bass on it – but it remains quintessentially Fats with those oh so sweet unmistakable piano melodies and generous slices of organ. This was my introduction to Fats Domino and I couldn’t categorise or contextualise it. Now I’d say it was probably one of his weaker albums, having heard almost his entire catalogue (I say ‘almost’ because if you poke around hard enough on the internet there always seem to be new, interesting and unexpected Domino gems out there), but it’s still absolutely ace – merely absolutely ace – rather than totally and utterly fecking phenomenal in every possible way as so many of his recordings are.

So I told my Dad I’d enjoyed Sleeping on the Job.

“Who is he?” I asked.

“He was famous in the fifties. I liked him then but didn’t buy any of his records. I remember a song he did called My Blue Heaven. Dad then proceeded to impersonate the astonishing way Fats sings, the words ‘blue’ and ‘heaven’ phonetically being something like ‘bluooooouggh’ and ‘hevauurrrn’. He’d nailed why Fats’ magic worked. It has since become my favourite song ever, along with Mainlines by The Doctors of Madness and Kate Bush’s Cloudbusting, but is more versatile than either, in the sense that as yet I have discovered no state of mind when I am ‘not in the mood’ to listen to My Blue Heaven. I would conservatively estimate to having heard it well over five hundred times but it may be closer to a thousand. Were I being viciously tortured with thumbscrews I imagine I’d still tap my feet along to it.

In fact, ‘blue’ is a word Domino often likes to sing, along with the even more ever-present ‘do’ and ‘you’, because he has a simply fantastic pronunciation of the ‘oo’ sound. Many great singers do and know that the more they flaunt it and work it into their lyrics, the better their songs will be. Julian Cope and Nick Heyward are two I could mention whose ‘oo’ sound is jam-packed with character. Cope’s ‘oos’ are long and croony, while Heyward’s are endearingly and humorously babyish. Heyward penned Blue Hat for a Blue Day entirely for phonetic reasons in my opinion, the storyline being merely an afterthought. Top vocalists know their strengths and write accordingly. Self-knowledge is vital to a good singer, including knowing your limitations – without me wishing to impose them. Yes, be ambitious but don’t cross the borders of your range and don’t sing that which patently doesn’t suit your voice. There probably aren’t too many cover versions Morrissey could pull off, for instance, yet he remains one of the absolute greats when singing his own work. Take Kevin Archer from the Blue Ox Babes. His ‘ong’ sound is particularly striking, and so an almost ridiculously disproportionate number of his songs contain the words ‘strong’ and ‘wrong’, pronounced something like ‘strawng’ and ‘rawng’. Repetition of lyrics can also be a devastating vocal weapon. One could do worse than refer to The Psychedelic Furs’ first and eponymous album, on which the scornful blade of Richard Butler’s vocal chords acerbically scowls the words ‘stupid’ and ‘useless’ on every single track. The lead vocalist of the Vaccines is another one. His extended vowels such as in ‘So what do you expeeeeect, from post break-up seeeeeex,’ shows good self-awareness. David Hasselhoff, though his is more of a comic, self-deprecating muse, is at his most brilliantly funny when singing the word love (which he sings rather a lot) by hammily but hilariously pronouncing the word as ‘lohhwwve’.

“And I wanna make lohhwwve, yes I wanna make lohhwwve to you tonight!’ he sings, with a very straight face that masks a tongue firmly embedded in his cheek, on the entertainingly preposterous Let’s Spend the Night Together (not the Stones’ song).

“You wanna do what, exactly, David?”

Much of Domino’s phrasing has to be heard to be believed, but his ‘oo’ sound is without any serious doubt the greatest, funniest, kindest, loveliest and most easy-going vowel sound emitted by any singer in the entire history of the human race. So many other sounds Fats comes out with also resonate with natural, uncontrived, unhurried fun and warmth. While a show-off like Michael Bolton belts out every note like he’s desperately straining to release the last little lump of poo still lodged in his bowels, Domino breezes through songs as if the act of playing, singing and sounding like a genius were as easy as plucking a blackberry from its bush.

The Fat Man even does a mean version of Lady Madonna. Not too many beat The Beatles at their own game.

“See how they rorrrrrrrrrrn,” goes the chorus.

“I come home in the evening, you’re still in biiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiid,” he sings in the unimaginably, ridiculously infectious Sick and Tired.

You’ve got to put Fats’ pronunciation down to more than just his New Orleans background, with its rich mix of African, French creole and cajun influences. He takes all that and gives it the Domino treatment. I guess he found the winning formula early and stuck with it. It’s a magic potion he can cook up in seconds. As well as all I’ve said about his singing, don’t get me started on his incredible, thrilling piano playing, the consistently, barnstormingly ecstatic songs and the fabulous contributions of his erstwhile backing band, at its peak more than half a century ago.

Shortly after getting into Sleeping on the Job, I bought a Fats Domino ‘singles album’, with many of his greatest hits from the fifties and very early sixties. It was miles better – there stood a flat-topped, beaming Domino in a shiny blue suit, and well anyone might beam were they to write even a handful of songs half as good as the Fat Man’s. I loved the upbeat ones straight away. This was rock and roll, but better than Elvis, Buddy Holly, Little Richard et al. It was so catchy; utterly irresistible, the vinyl equivalent of ‘unputdownable’. I still believe totally that it is rock and roll – and boy, does it ROLL – despite the boogie-woogie and jazz roots that go with the New Orleans territory. Fats Domino invented the genre in my book. He indirectly invented ska (and hence reggae too) by massively influencing Jamaican musicians with his rhythmically extraordinary (not to mention melodically astounding) hit Be My Guest. Once, after a show in which Fats was on the same bill as Elvis Presley, the latter, with his arm around The Fat Man, pointed to his fellow singer and told a journalist,

“This is the real King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

Humility, though, is another of Fats’ qualities and it permeates his music just as wholly as arrogance marks Jerry Lee Lewis’s and angst tears through Little Richard’s.

On the first few listens I especially loved My Blue Heaven (of course), I’m Walkin’, Country Boy, I’m Gonna be a Wheel Someday, Be My Guest, Whole Lotta Loving, Jambalaya (on the Bayou), and I’m Ready. I still do love each second of all of those songs with all my heart. It was a while, though, with punk around and later on passing through a psychedelic phase, before my Domino obsession took root. I would say somewhere around 1990 or 1991 was the year. In the months leading up to the Fats gig (and very frequently after) I acquired the habit of coming home from night clubs at the weekend and feeling slightly frustrated physically, as if I wasn’t quite spent – as if the ultimate dance music hadn’t been available for me. So, at an hour usually between two-thirty and three in the morning, I’d stick some Domino on and leap and dance on the sofa to tunes such as When I See you and What’s the Reason I’m not Pleasing you?’ Fats Domino made such remarkable dance music – at its best the most rhythmically perfect, pleasing, fluid rides the Earth will ever hear. Pure joy.

I don’t remember exactly where I saw the advert for ‘Fats Domino at the Hammersmith Odeon, London on October 28th, 1992’. I think it may have been in the NME, showing that largely irritating old rag had a use after all beyond the obvious ‘restroom’ gags. Despite being on the dole at the time, I didn’t hesitate. Indeed I could not hesitate, and would have found the cash by fair means or foul with the same desperation as a hungry man or heroin addict. I put a cheque for forty pounds in the post as soon as was humanly possible, which was going to get me two tickets. That constituted almost half of my fortnightly Income support, or Jobseeker’s Allowance, or whatever it was called in 1992. I was going to see Fats Domino in concert; it was pretty much the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me.

Being a silly ass, three weeks before the show I got my Fats Domino albums together (I’d accrued six by now, along with several cassettes worth of Fat Fun and one CD’s worth of material – the first CD I ever owned was a ‘best of’ Fats.) and paid five pence a shot to photocopy the front and back covers. I then stapled twenty pages together and hung them on my wall as a crude calendar, each page marked with the appropriate number of days left before the big night.

One day to go... I didn’t sleep much that night, but I leapt out of bed like a spring pixie and tore off the page, leaving one last sheet of paper bearing the words ‘Fats Day’, accompanied by a picture of the perennially grinning New Orleanian. The first thing I did after breakfasting was to put on my ‘Fats Domino, King of Rock and Roll’ T-shirt’, an item I’d had for a few months which had been beautifully hand painted by my dear friend William ‘Fatt’ Hutchinson. The ‘Fatt’ was just a coincidence, by the way, merely being an ironic reference to his post-teenage scrawniness. I’d also got my Walkman at the ready with my homemade Dom-pilation spanning ninety glorious minutes to get me in the groove travelling down on the Liverpool to London train. Walking through town in the morning I was so happy, waving and saying good morning to strangers with the unabashed joy of a George Bailey on his way back from meeting Clarence the angel. What a lovely morning, folks!

My Belgian Odyssey partner and joint best friend Dan was to meet me in London after agreeing to take the other ticket. He liked Domino but with nowhere near the zeal I did. I soon warmed him up by sharing the Walkman (one earphone each going up Euston station escalators) and letting him hear When I See you for the first time.

“Beeay-ee-beeb – wooh-hoo... Can yer hear my call – wooh-hoo...? I’m beginnin’ to fall – wooh-hoo... in lowhve wit yough...”

The honky-tonk piano break in that song is as good a thirty seconds or so you’ll ever hear in music. I love the Domino formula; verse, chorus, verse, chorus, piano break... George Formby does the same but substitute banjelele for piano. Stuff originality in the arrangements, geniuses like that don’t need it and would actually probably suffer for it if they tried it. Such is their justified confidence in their tried and trusted recipe that it isn’t at all necessary.

The gig passed in a blur, naturally. Was it the greatest live experience I’ve ever had? Probably, but it must surely be challenged by Blurt at Shaftesbury Hall and one other, to occur over two decades later. The only disappointment – and I knew this was coming – was the fact that the Hammersmith Odeon is an all-seating venue. It hardly seemed appropriate for the ultimate dance music, although Fats (who is still with us as I write in October 2014) was a healthy 64 years old by this point in his life, which meant a fair proportion of his audience were also claiming or about to claim their pensions and were going to need seats. I would have preferred a venue split between seating and standing.

Elvis Costello once said that if you take the ‘roll’ out of rock and roll it becomes ‘boring music for boring people’. I’m not sure I agree because there are always exceptions like Thin Lizzy and anyway everything about Lynott’s boys spiritually speaking was rock and roll, but I get Elvis’s point. Bum-de-bum-de-bum you can dance and have fun to, whereas bum-bum-bum is macho nonsense. Especially in the 1980s when rock was the dirtiest, smelliest word going. Nobody does the ‘roll’ bit like Fats Domino. His music swings and boogies and lilts and skips irresistibly, so as classic after classic poured from the Hammersmith stage, I decided I had to express my appreciation, so went and stood right at the back in a fairly generous space between the back row and the theatre entrance and danced away. The hits were coming thick and fast – it was all passing too quickly! My Blue Heaven came and went. I have a memory of going berserk to his brilliant cover of Hank Williams’ Jambalaya (on the Bayou).

“Son of a guorn, we’ll hiv’ big forn, orn the Bay-oh.”

Not many artistes can take on a Hank Williams song and blow the original away. Fats Domino can. The phrasing, oh the phrasing!

Time flies when you’re having fun. Something extraordinary happened which had to mean the gig was peaking and nearly over. What, already? I don’t remember during which song it was, though it may have been an extension to the aforementioned Jambalaya, but I vividly do remember trumpeter and legend Dave Bartholomew leading the entire brass section on a joyous dance up and down the aisles, while Fats tinkled and rolled out the chunks of rhythm on his abandoned stage. I love Domino’s hunched posture at the piano, a few seconds of looking at the keys followed by turning a grinning face towards the audience. Like the easy rhythm of inhalation and exhalation; concentrate/grin/concentrate/grin.

As is Domino’s wont, the set finished with a New Orleans take on When the Saints Go Marching in, which was absolutely brilliant and I don’t even particularly like the song! By this time I’d managed to squeeze down one of the outer aisles. The front rows had now all stood up in homage to the great man and I wanted to join them, but a bouncer stopped me in my tracks. I think if any one person deserved to be at the front it was probably me, but hell, it didn’t matter. Deeply moved by the realisation I was actually watching the crescendo of a Fats Domino concert, I was content as a cloud. During the last song, as he always does, The Fat Man kneed his piano so it gradually moved from the side to the centre of the stage. What a lovely, good-humoured thing to do. Then as the band played on, Domino got up, covered his suit in an exotic, furry coat, and shook hands with the stage hangers below, grinning away. So it wasn’t my destiny to shake the hand of the man who had given me so much joy and would provide yet more in the future, but so what? Fats is a musician, not a healer nor a saint, and the experience was ample food for the soul. It had been wonderful, and pretty much lived up to every very high expectation.

I say Domino is no saint, but in his music I nevertheless hear and feel so many of the qualities I hold dearest in humanity; kindness, love of life, a good sense of humour, humility, gentleness, fun, simplicity, striving for excellence and love of dancing and rhythms. I’m sure I’ve missed a whole lot more qualities out, too.

In Sick and Tired, Domino sings to his girlfriend, after moaning about her laziness,

“This is my last time telling you to change your ways, I’m telling you, baby, I mean what I said. Last time telling you to stop that jive – or you will find yourself outside.”

Yeah, right! Sure! No chance, you big softie!