Honestly, I thought he had long since been dead.
That was my reaction to the news that Floyd Patterson died 11 May, just a few weeks ago, at his home in upstate New York. I hadn’t heard his name mentioned, or given him a second thought, for years. I knew the one great factoid of his life that Patterson was the first boxer to lose and then regain the heavyweight championship (both fights coming against Ingemar Johansson, in 1959 and ‘60) and that was basically enough for me.
Floyd Patterson photo from HeavyweightCollectibles.com
Were I more of a boxing history buff, I probably would have known that Patterson won gold in the 1952 Olympics as a middleweight, and that he won the heavyweight title in 1956 after Rocky Marciano retired undefeated. I had forgotten that Patterson lost the crown for good in 1962 to the fearsome Sonny Liston via first-round-knockout, and lost a rematch 10 months later the exact same way. I did know that Patterson lost to Muhammad Ali in 1965, with the younger, stronger Ali stringing an injured Patterson along for 12 rounds, but I had forgotten that they fought again in 1972, to the same outcome (and a much-needed paycheck for Patterson). Even then, Patterson was a name from the distant past, a stray ghost from an era that most folks had already forgotten about—and that was 34 years ago.
Scanning through his obituary, I recalled hearing about the incident when his short-term memory failed him while giving a deposition, and he resigned his post with the New York State Athletic Commission. But that happened in 1998, whereas it seemed in my mind that it had happened further back than that. In other words, the last time I’d even heard his name was so long ago, I couldn’t place the date without a cheat sheet.
Essentially, I knew that Patterson was a great boxer, a former champion, and that was about it. He was neither mythic legend of the past like Jack Johnson or Joe Louis, nor dark, moody street kid Mike Tyson, nor heroic icon like Ali. He was none of the things that make people write songs and books and biopics, or otherwise attempt to place a person in historical context, whether out of recognition of his accomplishments, or romance for the arc of his life. His accomplishments were significant at the time, but there was nothing about Patterson’s heyday that transcended his time, so it’s less likely that casual boxing fans like me would remember him a generation or more after his time.
In retrospect, Patterson seems to have been something of a transitional figure for a transitional time in black American life. He was humble and hard-working, a tortured, sensitive soul for whom boxing was both solace and escape. He overcame an impoverished and difficult childhood to represent his country on the Olympic stage, and he carried himself honorably as a professional. He was nowhere near as flamboyant as his middleweight contemporary Sugar Ray Robinson, in or out of the ring. He was always decent and courteous, even in defeat (although his inner demons led him to often pack a disguise in case he lost his fight). He was proud to have his picture taken with President Kennedy at the White House.
But Patterson’s life is more instructive to us than his boxing career. He personified an approach to racial politics that held some degree of sway within black America for a long time, and he was one of its standard bearers at the time it was rejected by the masses of black folks. Patterson represented the accomodationist view of racial politics, styling himself as an extension of a non-threatening Negro hero like previous champs Louis and Jersey Joe Walcott. Making waves was the last thing Patterson felt comfortable doing. His attitude was that by behaving honorably and not pushing the racial envelope any more than the occasional gentle shove, justice would be had over time. According to this line of thought, hot-headed radicalism would not endear white America to treat black Americans any more charitably, and certainly not any sooner. Confrontation was not part of this philosophy; when Patterson’s efforts to integrate an all-white neighborhood were rebuffed, he gave up the fight and left.
As David Remnick explains in King of the World: Muhammed Ali and the Rise of an American Hero (Random House, 1998), Patterson came to see himself as the Good Negro, hell-bent on saving the world from the notion that the heavyweight champ, one of the most prestigious titles in all of sports, could be either a mobbed-up thug like Liston or, God forbid, a cheeky member of the “Black Muslims” like Ali. Patterson lumped the Nation of Islam and the Ku Klux Klan together as hate groups (as did many, black and white alike, at the time), and insisted on referring to Ali by his birth name, Cassius Clay. But such grand notions of proper representation were not to be, almost as if the ‘60s zeitgeist decided to summarily render Patterson irrelevant. Liston made brutally short work of Patterson twice, and Ali took Patterson’s anti-Islam sentiments as insults, skewering him mercilessly in the run-up to their 1965 bout.
From that point, Patterson faded from view, lost amidst both the glut of talent in the heavyweight division during the early ‘70s and the post-civil rights whirlwind of change and struggle in black America. Floyd Patterson, for all his skills and moxie as an undersized heavyweight, won a lot of fights in his day, but lost the ones with history and the popular memory.
And so it goes, sometimes, with our stars and famous figures. It’s not that they lose their meaning, but that their meaning gets lost over time. The same reaction I had to the news of Patterson’s recent death “he was still around all these years?” many shared to one of the saddest and most infuriating images of Hurricane Katrina, the sight of seeing Antoine “Fats” Domino being rescued from his flooded home in the Lower Ninth Ward. Graffiti had been scrawled “R.I.P. Fats We Love You” after mistaken news reports said he’d perished in the wake of the storm. Many others, not having heard of new music from the rock ‘n’ roll pioneer in years, more or less assumed that Domino had passed on long ago.
Thankfully, none of that is true. Domino is still with us, after all these years and after Katrina washed away many of his possessions. He’s even enjoying a bit of a comeback, with a new CD of music he’d recorded over the last few years benefiting New Orleans musicians (health issues prevented him from performing at Jazzfest this spring). And a new, meticulously researched biography places Domino’s career in a context most folks probably never considered.
Rick Coleman spent the better part of 20 years working on Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock ‘n’ Roll (Da Capo), and it shows. He tracks Domino’s life from his birth in the Lower Ninth Ward, to his first taste of local stardom, through his hit-making years in the ‘50s and the decline of his profile as time went on, and all the way through the aftermath of Katrina. He pieces together not only the stories behind big hits like “Blueberry Hill” (1956) and “Walkin’ to New Orleans” (1960), but also reconstructs the numerous package tours that Domino headlined, bringing the big beat to the masses. One such cavalcade, in the fall of 1957, featured Domino atop a lineup that included Chuck Berry, Frankie Lymon, LaVern Baker, Clyde McPhatter, and a new act from Texas, the Crickets, featuring a bespectacled guy named Buddy Holly.
Coleman’s tendency to gush over Domino’s greatness and his needless, periodic insertion of a historical news timeline tend to interrupt the flow of a great story, but it’s not a fatal flaw. He notes that while Domino and his black band often had to contend with segregated facilities on the road, many of his concerts broke ground in their towns by having integrated audiences. Others broke ground for reasons that didn’t totally involve music. Riots broke out at several shows, from San Jose, California to Fayetteville, North Carolina, between over-eager teens and over-eager cops. Until now, one didn’t normally place “rock ‘n’ roll riot” and “Fats Domino” in the same sentence, the prevailing image of Domino as a rotund, genial sort precluding such associations.
But it’s that very image that Coleman convincingly gives the lie to throughout Blue Monday. First, the image was partly imposed upon Domino by a skittish Ed Sullivan, who took pains to stage Domino on his TV show as non-threatening a black man as possible. Second, Domino didn’t just play his piano; one of his signature moves in concert was to put his whole body into it, bumping all 88 keys across the stage for a bit (once, he got a little too happy and crashed his piano into the front row!). Finally, Coleman reveals Domino as the ultimate New Orleans homeboy. In ‘60, at the height of his fame, he built a million-dollar mansion smack-dab in the heart of his beloved Lower Ninth Ward, a few blocks from where he was born. Even as he and bandleader/arranger Dave Bartholomew introduced New Orleans r&b to the world in records and countless performances, Domino never called another city home, which may help explain why he was still in his house when Katrina struck (Domino’s plight is even more notable considering that many of his former neighbors got out and, for various reasons, may never return).
Domino’s music has been with us for 50 years, both in availability (through several greatest-hits collections and comprehensive box sets) and influence (not only among rockers and r&b players but even in Jamaica, as reflected by the ‘60s band named Justin Hinds and the Dominoes). But we scarcely knew the depths of Domino the person, and judging by our shock and horror upon seeing his post-Katrina situation, any such knowledge was in danger of being completely lost to the haze of time. Just as the New Orleans Harbor Police rescued Domino from his flooded home last August, Coleman’s labor of love preserves a sense of Domino as a pivotal figure in our pop culture.
Fats Domino photo from ChaucerCollectables.com
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Floyd Patterson and Fats Domino topped their respective charts at roughly the same time, the back half of the ‘50s and early in the ‘60s. They faded from influence and popular view roughly about the same time. From the ‘70s on, they both lived and worked in relative obscurity, compared to their years in the limelight. Patterson’s passing and Domino’s surviving Katrina was the first we’d heard of either man in years.
Their accomplishments stand, but 50 years on, obviously, they’ve been superceded by others. Back then, no one would have imagined that boxing’s heavyweight division would now be a joke, or that the standard bearer of New Orleans black pop music would be some guy named Lil’ Wayne, a rapper of all things, making music seemingly far removed from the second-line and barrelhouse piano traditions.
Now, I’m not advocating that we lessen our focus on the present day. That’s where we live, in the here and now, and that’s where the issues we face reside. But even as black America continues to battle crime, violence, and death from within and hostile political and economic policy from beyond, it can be useful to occasionally look back through the haze and marvel at the richness of our individual stories.
From the vantage point of mid-2006, it’s hard to imagine that there was a time when Muhammad Ali was not universally beloved—even before he defied his draft orders to serve in the Vietnam War. It’s even more instructive to note that well before ghetto thug culture went mainstream via commercialized hip-hop, and pundits and preachers wondered how to save yet another generation of young black men, the black community grappled with the social and political ramifications of “good” versus “bad” images and representations of black manhood in the culture at-large.
And while it’s probably a stretch to include Fats Domino in the pantheon of civil rights heroes (a stretch Coleman isn’t above attempting), we benefit from periodic reminders that much of rock’s evolution from a jumble of subcultures into a global force happened through the artistry, guts and courage of black performers, both in the studio and on the stage.
Obviously, it’s better to be reminded of such historical perspectives by a timely biography than by someone’s death. But the sadder thing, still, is to forget (or never know) that even with the cornucopia of knowledge, experiences, and stuff we wade through today, there’s a whole world of understanding and wisdom, and even some occasional coolness, just on the other side of time’s haze.