Rock 'n' roll educates its disciples retroactively. Unless you were there at the genesis of the form – which, in this country, can be traced back to slave plantations, and in the broader world, to primal African percussion – you likely learned about one early rock progenitor from a slightly later one, who might have name-dropped that legend in an interview, or covered one of that legend's tunes.
So it was for me with Fats Domino, the legendary pianist, singer and songwriter, who died at 89 on Tuesday. I learned about Fats as an 11-year-old who had fallen head over heels for Cheap Trick's platinum-selling 1978 live album "At Budokan." Always a geeky obsessive when it came to liner notes, I noticed that Cheap Trick's "Ain't That A Shame" was the only tune on the record with writing credits not reading "by R. Nielsen," a reference to Rick Nielsen, the band's guitarist and primary songwriter. So who the heck were the Fats Domino & Dave Bartholomew credited for this high-voltage, rollicking, roll-and-tumble of a blues?
I did a little digging, at the local library, the late '70s analog of Spotify. I found a dog-eared copy of "This is Fats Domino!" and went home with it. The avalanche of awesome electric guitar playing that marked Cheap Trick's take on Fats was missing, but something else was there – something I'd soon learn was the flavor of New Orleans, a graceful shuffle suggestive of swing, a slightly hazy and heavy-lidded tenor to the proceedings, an uber-hip approach to the bass line in the left hand of the piano, and a certain strutting (but never overstated) dignity. Fats had all of this. It oozed from the grooves of every tune on "This is Fats Domino!" and despite the fact that it was already more than two decades old when I first heard it – at the time, I considered that, like, forever - the album still had plenty of relevant lessons to impart.
There was another benefit: My father, who seemed to strongly dislike most of the music he heard emanating from my bedroom or bleeding from my way-too-loud headphones, actually knocked on the door, poked his head in, and said "I used to love this song!" with a big smile, as "Blueberry Hill" burst forth from my speakers. Wow. Thanks for that, Fats.
There was much more to Fats than "Blueberry Hill," of course. Between 1955 and '60, he scored 11 Top 10 hits, and this during a time when people in the music business tossed around terms like "race recording" as if it was acceptable, and not blatantly racist, to say nothing of condescending. "Blue Monday," I'm Walkin'," "Walking to New Orleans" – there was an effortless authenticity to these tunes, to the point that Elvis Presley famously deflected praise directed his way toward Fats, going so far during a 1969 news conference as to call Domino "the real King."
He wasn't wrong.
Interestingly, I later learned that "Ain't That a Shame" was the first song that a young John Lennon learned to play and sing at the same time. Let that sink in.
We owe this by all accounts humble and good-humored man a debt beyond measure. Long live Fats Domino. Long live rock 'n' roll.