The gap between first and second place, as the brass-balled Blake reminds us in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, is vast but not immeasurable: First place’s award is a Cadillac El Dorado; second place’s is a set of steak knives. There is inequity in the nearest of proximities, and that’s a cruel if inevitable irony not lost on he who claims the cutlery.
Time only exaggerates the opposite ends of any distance, mythologizing the leader at the expense of each runner-up. In the 1950s, Antoine “Fats” Domino sold more rock records than any other artist—with the exception of Elvis Presley, the El Dorado to Domino’s steak knife. Though Domino is arguably a more important figure in rock ‘n’ roll’s genesis (his first single, “The Fat Man” (1949), is considered by many to be the first rock ‘n’ roll record, beating out Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats’ “Rocket 88” by at least a year), popular history maintains Presley as a rock ‘n’ roll messiah and cultural icon, while Domino, much like fellow black rock godfathers Chuck Berry and Little Richard, clings to a much smaller plot of the cultural consciousness. And yet half a century ago, the only thing that separated the two singers’ renown was a number. It’s perfectly sensible to chalk up the disproportion to racism—racism dictated the playlists of American commercial radio in the ‘50s and continues to promote rock ‘n’ roll as music by and for white males—but the debilitating curse of second place is the major unspoken contributing factor to the preservation of that gap.
Presley didn’t steal from Domino like he stole from Big Mama Thornton and Carl Perkins—that honor went to Pat Boone, who in 1955 hijacked Domino’s big pop crossover hit, “Ain’t That a Shame”, and took it all the way to number one on the pop charts. Domino’s original version, released the same year, only got to number ten on the pop charts, but it was the first time he cracked pop’s top ten and the first of ten times he would put a single in pop’s upper tier over the next six years. Before he crossed over, Domino, a New Orleans native with an effervescent boogie-woogie pulse, was a mainstay on the R&B charts. “The Fat Man”, released at Christmas 1949, quickly hit number two on the R&B charts and sold a million copies; its style, a rollicking boogie-woogie rhythm punctuated with bluesy piano licks, would serve as the simple but undeniable template for the majority of Domino’s songs in the years to come.
From 1950 until the early ‘60s, Domino recorded prolifically for Imperial Records, and along with producer and co-writer Dave Bartholomew, contributed a few staples to the rock ‘n’ roll canon: “Ain’t That a Shame”, “My Blue Heaven”, “Blueberry Hill”, “Blue Monday”, and “I’m Walkin’” are a few of his most indelible performances. “Blue Monday”, in particular, is a torrent of piano pounding, especially in the bridge, where the entire band beats two chords into submission; and the weightless shuffle of “I’m Walkin’” shakes up the boogie-woogie formula enough to make the song’s very concept appear downright novel. Other songs get to the same buoyant place on slightly skewed tangents, like the farm yarn “Bo Weevil”, the kiss- and clap-populated “Whole Lotta Loving”, and the infectious if oddly named “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday”.
There have been a number of Domino compilations in recent years, including the Capitol box set Walking to New Orleans and its one-disc summation Fats Domino Jukebox: 20 Greatest Hits the Way You Originally Heard Them (both 2002). Capitol’s new collection, Greatest Hits: Walking to New Orleans, sets the single-disc standard: it boasts a total of 30 tracks from Domino’s Imperial tenure (ten more than Fats Domino Jukebox), 29 of which made the R&B top ten. With the exception of “Valley of Tears”, which flirts a little too close to Presley-esque gospel-pop, the songs included in Greatest Hits: Walking to New Orleans are all essential, from rough-edged early tunes like “Goin’ Home” and “Going to the River” to the more pop-polished sound found in early-‘60s songs “Walking to New Orleans” and “My Girl Josephine”.
For a singer who uses his physical size to define his public identity, Domino’s voice remains surprisingly tender and smooth. The syrupy Southern drawl is there, but the rasp and growl of a comparative size-conscious singer like Howlin’ Wolf is not. Domino’s voice is in league with the material, this wonderful stuff that elevates woe to a celebratory plateau; it’s mournful and apologetic and defeatist, but triumphantly so, begging “please don’t leave me” and “don’t blame it on me”, and asking “ain’t that a shame?” to the tune of a fluttering backbeat. It’s honest and emotionally fearless rock ‘n’ roll, eternally gregarious and sweetly resigned: the sound of first place making its quiet surrender.