When rock and roll burst onto America’s cultural landscape in the 1950s, it probably looked to most Northerners like it had simply appeared out of nowhere. Anyone spending much time below the Mason-Dixon Line knew that this supposedly radical new invention was just the synthesis of several strains of music, each of which had ample time to sink into Southern consciousness before it became a part of rock and roll. Though some musicians, like Carl Perkins, had been laboring away at devising a fusion of styles that would have massive appeal, its actual inception was more of an accident than anything. Elvis started singing “That’s All Right” to kill time between takes in Sun Studios when Sam Phillips recognized it as exactly what he (and America) had been looking for. Chuck Berry recorded “Maybellene” as a novelty B-side, considering his blues A-side much more representative of his musical personality. And Antoine “Fats” Domino hadn’t changed much at all since his arrival in 1949, but in 1955, he was suddenly thrust into the middle of the rock and roll explosion.
Those who like to debate about things like the first rock record frequently point to Domino’s “The Fat Man” from 1949 as a strong candidate, so it could simply be that he invented the genre on the wrong side of the color barrier and was forced to stay there until a white Prometheus stole his fire and incidentally broke down the segregating wall. Looking back on his body of work, though, it’s easy to see how Domino could get relegated to the lower tiers of first-generation rockers. Buddy Holly still sounds bold. Chuck Berry still sounds fun. Fats simply sounds tame. His easygoing appeal has not aged especially well in a genre that consistently favors aggression and sexuality, neither of which was Fats’s forte. His songs may be great, but they sound cemented in the proto-rock era and hence are strictly the purview of obsessive collectors and archivists, a situation to which Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” can be fittingly applied.
Since Fats-backers have spent so much time touting Domino’s rock credentials, it’s odd to see him appear in The Right Stuff’s Blues Kingpins series along with such names as B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Elmore James. Hidden among four no-brainer selections (and Ike Turner, who’s a slightly controversial choice) is an act of brazen historical revisionism. If one were to oust Domino from the world of rock, it would make the most sense to lump him in with Professor Longhair in the New Orleans R&B camp. But the blues? Fats Domino? Perhaps his use of the twelve-bar structure gets him close, but if that were the criterion for inclusion in the blues, the category would expand past the breaking point.
For anyone nodding their head in agreement with the above paragraph, Domino’s Blues Kingpins will be a revelation. The eighteen tracks included contain few if any well-known songs and thankfully avoids asserting the bluesiness of songs that can’t withstand the effort. Instead, it finds ample ammunition for the cause in numbers that were R&B hits at the time but which have sunk into obscurity since. Starting out with the blurry-acetate “Hide Away Blues”, the album doesn’t stop surprising from beginning to end. Domino’s voice, supposedly known in full by anyone who’s heard “Blueberry Hill” and “My Blue Heaven”, is transformed into something completely unexpected if not entirely unimaginable. He replaces his smooth, rolling delivery with nuances and microtonal shadings that, it seems, had no place on his pop recordings. The standard line that Domino hadn’t changed much during his career is revealed as the half-truth that it is. Just because he hadn’t changed doesn’t mean that he was one-dimensional, and Blues Kingpins makes a very fine case for at least one side of Domino we’ve been regrettably content to ignore.