Ain’t that a shame, my tears fell like rain

There are those who maintain that rock ‘n’ roll was born in 1955, roughly with the ascension of Bill Haley & The Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” to #1 on the charts, where it remained for eight weeks throughout July and August that year.

Others point to the emergence of Elvis Presley, whose first single, “That’s All Right,” was released in July 1954.  But it stiffed on the charts, and Elvis wouldn’t become a star until “Heartbreak Hotel” in January 1956.

The truth is, both theories are incorrect.  Most rock music historians insist that rock ‘n’ roll as a genre — essentially combining jump blues, jazz, boogie woogie, rhythm & blues and country — dates back to the December 1949 release of a rollicking tune called “The Fat Man,” a high-spirited reworking of a 1940 piano blues called “Junkers Blues” by FatsDomino-MezzChampion Jack Dupree.  “The Fat Man” reached #2 on the R&B charts and sold a million copies by the end of 1950.

And who co-wrote, sang and played piano on this trailblazing song?  None other than Antoine “Fats” Domino, a (the?) bonafide pioneer of rock music, who died last week at the ripe age of 89.  Sadly, yet another rock hero has joined the amazing band being assembled in rock ‘n’ roll heaven…

Domino was an important member of the fraternity of musicians (Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Buddy Holly and Presley, among others) who brought rock ‘n’ roll into the popular mainstream charts in 1955-1956, with the aforementioned “Rock Around the Clock,” Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” and Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” leading the way.  Over the next 18 months, Domino would follow that classic with more  piano-driven hits like his signature hit “Blueberry Hill” (Richie Cunningham’s favorite on TV’s “Happy Days”), “I’m Walkin'” and “It’s You I Love.”  All of them have become standards from the early rock ‘n’ roll era.

All told, Domino sold upwards of 65 million records in his five-decade career, with 35 hits in the Top 40 (eleven in the Top 10).  The fact that he sold more records than any ’50s rock figure except Presley is often overlooked, in part, perhaps, because Domino was inordinately shy and humble, especially compared to most rock ‘n’ roll stars.

Presley, also a humble man back then, knew enough to defer to Domino and his influence.  “A lot of people seem to think I started this business,” he told Jet Magazine in 1957.  “But rock ‘n’ roll was here a long time before I came along.  Nobody can sing that music like colored people.  Let’s face it:  I can’t sing it like Fats Domino can.  I know that.”

Fats-Domino-and-ElvisHe reinforced this message a decade later when, at a 1969 press conference introducing his new single, “Suspicious Minds,” Presley brought Domino to the podium with him, praising him as “a huge influence on me.”  When a reporter referred to Presley as “The King,” he interrupted and said, “No, no.  This gentleman right here, he’s the real king of rock ‘n’ roll.”

He stood only 5’5″ and seemed almost as wide as he was tall, with a head shaped like a cube because of his trademark flat-top haircut.  He had an infectious grin and a pleasing way about him, delivering his boogie-woogie music seated sideways on his piano stool, turning his head to the audience as he sang.

In 1957, a newsreel reporter asked, “Fats, how did this rock ‘n’ roll all get started anyway?”  Domino smiled and replied, “Well, what they call rock ‘n’ roll now is rhythm and blues, and I’ve been playing it in New Orleans for 15 years.”

That’s actually not an exaggeration.  Domino, born in New Orleans in 1928 as the youngest of eight children, learned piano from his jazz musician brother-in-law, and found himself at age 14 playing in bars all over the French Quarter and the city’s Lower Ninth Ward, where he lived virtually his entire life.

New Orleans bandleader Billy Diamond gave Domino his first break at age 19 in 1947 by adding him to his lineup, and gave him his “Fats” nickname because of his big appetite.  David Bartholomew, the songwriter/producer/arranger who worked with Domino for MI0001330226much of his recording career, said Fats quickly became the focal point and frontman of that band.  “He was singing and playing the piano and carrying on, always smiling from ear to ear,” Bartholomew said. “Everyone was having a good time when Fats was playing.  It was like a party.”

Domino signed with Imperial Records in 1949 and embarked on a 15-year relationship that spawned most of his chart success.  Following the triumph of “The Fat Man,” he became a regular presence on the R&B charts with both slow and fast tempo tracks:  “Every Night About This Time,” “Rockin’ Chair,” “Goin’ Home” (a #1 hit), “Poor Poor Me,” “Going to the River,” “Please Don’t Leave Me,” “Rose Mary,” “Something’s Wrong,” “You Done Me Wrong,” “I Know” and “Don’t You Know,” and all charted in the R&B Top 10 between 1950 and 1954.

Domino was among the more important figures in the effort to break down the musical color barrier by bringing R&B sounds (then termed “race records” by the pop music industry) to white audiences.  Thanks to innovative, revolutionary radio DJs like Cleveland’s Alan “Moondog” Freed, who relished the opportunity to play R&B music to his unusually integrated radio audience on the midnight shift, early rock recording artists like Domino received invaluable exposure previously denied to black musicians.

Ain't_It_a_Shame_-_Fats_DominoDomino and fellow rock pioneer Little Richard were prime examples of black artists who introduced extraordinary rock recordings which were immediately re-recorded and surpassed on the charts by white artists.  In particular, Pat Boone, whose squeaky-clean image made him a favorite in heartland America, made soulless, sanitized cover versions of Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” and Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” and took both into the Top Five, while the originals consequently charted much lower.  (Boone even had the audacity to suggest changing the title to the grammatically correct “Isn’t It a Shame” until his producer intervened.)  While it’s true that Boone’s safer, more acceptable renditions helped bring the rock ‘n’ roll genre to a broader white audience at the time, they are without question inferior to the vital, energetic originals.  (Both versions appear back-to-back on the Spotify list below.)

Domino’s recording of “Ain’t That a Shame” still managed to reach #10, and it was followed over the next five years by no less than 10 hits that reached the Top 10 on the mainstream charts, an unprecedented success for a black artist:  “I’m in Love Again” (#3), “Blueberry Hill” (#2), “Blue Monday” (#5), “I’m Walkin'” (#4), “Valley of Tears” (#8), “It’s You I Love” (#6), “Whole Lotta Loving” (36), “I Want to Walk You Home” (#8), “Be My Guest” (#8) and “Walking to New Orleans” (#6).

Fats appeared alongside other early rock giants in a couple of rock ‘n’ roll movies Hollywood churned out to capitalize on the new craze, including the lightweight “Shake, Rattle and Rock!” and the more substantial “The Girl Can’t Help It.”  Both served to Beatles_Fats-1broaden his reach and build his career momentum, as did his appearance on the influential “Ed Sullivan Show” in 1956.

In 1962, Domino toured Europe for the first time and met the young and struggling Beatles, who lauded him as a major inspiration ever since.  The same year, he played his first of many stands in Las Vegas.

But the winds of change were blowing.  When Imperial Records was sold in 1963, he jumped ship to ABC-Paramount, who insisted he record in their Nashville studio instead of the New Orleans studio he’d always considered his home base.  That move proved ill-advised; he managed only one more Top 40 hit (Red Sails in the Sunset, #35), although he continued making singles and albums for Mercury and then Reprise until about 1970.

Fats-lady-madonna-Germ-290The arrival of the British Invasion bands, folk rock and psychedelic rock in 1964 and beyond represented a monumental shift in public tastes, shunting ’50s pioneers like Domino to the sidelines.  Still, Paul McCartney publicly mentioned Domino when he wrote The Beatles’ “Lady Madonna” in 1968.  “Basically, I was channeling Fats and his piano-playing style on that one,” he said.  Domino then returned the favor by including a vigorous cover of “Lady Madonna” on one of his final albums, “Fats is Back,” as well as a passionate rendition of Lennon’s “White Album” track, “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except For Me and My Monkey.”

Although Domino retired from the studio, he remained a formidable presence on the road throughout the ’70s and ’80s, touring periodically, making special concert appearances at charity events in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and elsewhere, and continuing to hold court in Vegas.  And let’s not forget the impact he had on the next generation of piano-playing rockers, from Dr. John and Leon Russell to Elton John and Billy Joel.  When Lennon chose his favorite early rock songs to record for his “Rock and Roll” LP of covers in 1975, front and center was “Ain’t That a Shame.”  Even a band like Cheap Trick took the same song back up the charts in 1978 (#35 in the US, #10 in Canada) with a live version from their “Cheap Trick at Budokan” album.

By the late 1980s, as he reached 60, Domino chose to withdraw from the public eye, preferring to stay home in New Orleans, close to his wife of 40 years, Rosemary, and his eight children.  He declined an invitation in 1987 to attend his induction as a member of the charter group of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame honorees.

fats_dominoHe mounted one last tour in 1995, playing to enthusiastic crowds in two dozen European cities, but ill health made it an unpleasant experience for him, and he never went on the road again after that.

When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2006, he chose to remain in his home with his ailing wife, and when he hadn’t been heard from in a couple of days, rumors spread that he had perished in the disaster.  It turned out the couple had been rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter, but Domino lost “almost everything” in the flood.

His final public performance came the following year at Tipitina’s, a favorite local club in New Orleans, where he was among the celebrities who participated in the post-Katrina fat-domino-coverbenefit.  Also in 2007, Vanguard Records released “Goin’ Home:  A Tribute to Fats Domino,” a collection of cover versions of Fats Domino classics by such luminaries as Elton John, Neil Young, Robert Plant, Lucinda Williams, Lenny Kravitz, Norah Jones, Dr. John and Willie Nelson.

Domino was revered by musicians and city dignitaries alike.  “On behalf of the people of New Orleans, I am eternally grateful for Fats Domino’s life and legacy,” said Mayor Mitch Landrieu last week.  “For a city known for its talented musicians, Fats was one of the all-time greats.  He added significantly to New Orleans’ standing in the world, and what people know and appreciate about our city.”

 

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At the lonely end of the rink

I have an ever-growing list of topics I’ve been wanting to write about at Hack’s Back Pages, one of which is Canadian Rock.  Our neighbors to the north have produced some very fine musical artists over the years, some of whom are near screen-shot-2014-11-11-at-11-07-56-am1974_Joni_MitchellGordon_Lightfoot_-younger

and dear to me.  Joni Mitchell is by far my favorite, followed by The Guess Who, Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot and Leonard Cohen.  There are others who have also broken into the U.S. market (Rush, The Band, Bryan Adams, among others), but there are also many dozens that are very popular in Canada but unknown here.  

An event happened there last week that has moved me to address the subject this week, and I’ve decided to essentially turn over the column to a Canadian friend who has a much keener insight into the matter.

Paul Vayda, who I’ve known since we were seven, is a drummer and rock music enthusiast who has lived in Canada since 1970.  He may have been born in the States, but he has dual citizenship, and knows a great deal about the Canadian on-gord-downie-my-dad-and-taking-people-for-granted-1471630712rock music scene from coast to coast, from British Columbia to the Maritimes.  He wrote me the other day in the wake of the death of a national Canadian hero named Gord Downie, the singer of a wildly popular band there called The Tragically Hip, and the issue Paul brings up is both timely and fascinating.  I hope you enjoy it.

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Hi Bruce:

I have been thinking about this phenomenon lately:  Why is it that sometimes a nation’s border seems to stop music from penetrating?

I can understand why music is more popular in one place or another, like country music in a more rural setting, or glam rock in a big city.  And of course, a different language and culture might understandably be an impediment to another country’s music being absorbed by American audiences.

However, Canadians and Americans speak the same language, watch the same TV, the same movies, essentially the same sports.  For the most part, we share the same rock music roots as well.  Maybe Canadian audiences are less spiritual and Motown, and more Celtic and maritime, but we love the blues and folk music as much as Americans do, and we have all listened to the same great supergroups from across the pond — The Beatles, The Stones, Elton John, U2, Pink Floyd, and so on.

So why is it that only a relative few Canadian rock artists have found success with American audiences and radio listeners?

Everyone in the States knows Neil Young, and Rush, and Joni Mitchell, and The Guess Who, and Leonard Cohen, and The Band, and Gordon Lightfoot, and Bachman-Turner Overdrive.

Many US listeners have heard of Bryan Adams, and Loverboy, and Alanis Morrisette, and Bare Naked Ladies, and Arcade Fire.

And some Yanks may be in the know about Saga, and Jann Arden, and Crash Test Dummies, and Kate & Anne McGarrigle, and Men Without Hats, and Cowboy Junkies.

But I’m at a loss to explain why Americans don’t know anything about the many bands that are huge in Canada but can’t seem to make a dent in the US.  Why don’t they know and love The Tragically Hip??  Chilliwack?  Triumph?  Our Lady Peace?  I Mother Earth?  Lighthouse?  The Nylons?  Crowbar?  April Wine?  Big Sugar?  The Stampeders?  Matthew Good Band?  Sam Roberts?  Metric?

Maybe it’s just luck that some Canadian artists got airplay south of the border.  Maybe they had a savvy, hard-working manager.  I really don’t know.  (By the way, the same holds true for rock music artists in general — since the birth of rock and roll, it’s often a mystery why one band makes it big while another more worthy one doesn’t.  But I digress…)

TragicallyHip_130403By far the most glaring example of a Canadian group that should have been accepted in the US long ago is The Tragically Hip.  This band from Kingston, Ontario, spent a few years in there mid-’80s honing their chops at small venues around Ontario, then emerged on MCA Records in 1989 with “Up to Here,” an album full of terrific blues-based MI0001989827sounds led by lead singer and songwriter Gord Downie.  They played no-nonsense rock, sometimes loud, pounding music, but changing to melodic ballads in a heartbeat.

The Hip, as we called them, evolved into Canada’s unofficial house band.  They were like our secret handshake.  They were polite, but sang deeply political songs — songs about Canada, its history, its struggles.  Songs like “At the Hundredth Meridian,” or “Wheat Kings,” or “Ahead By a Century,” or “Courage,” or “Bobcaygeon” (go look it up).  The BBC called them “the most Canadian band in the world,” and they were correct.

The Hip is our most celebrated group.  They won 12 Junos (Canada’s version of the Grammys).  Between 1989 and 2016, they racked up 12 Top Five albums on the Canadian fully-completely-51db25df72144charts, nine of which reached #1.  They charted 34 singles, 14 of which made our Top 20, including two #1s.  They earned the unconditional love of a nation.  They were our Bruce Springsteen — a garage band that started in high school with a few fans, and grew to be truly legendary.

Gord Downie was a showman like The Boss.  As a friend of the Native people, he was christened Wicapi Omani, which means “man who walks among the stars.”  He was modest.  He rode his bike to concerts; no limos for him.  He would bring coffee for his interviewers.

In 2015, he was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer.  In 2016, The Tragically Hip did a farewell tour, culminating in a final show in Kingston that was simulcast live across the country.  Twenty million Canadians, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, watched and cried as Gord sang favorites from The Hip’s repertoire one last time.

On October 17, Downie died, and the country reeled with grief.  People even suggested there should be a state funeral for him.

Here is the best testimonial I have read, written by widely revered Canadian radio broadcaster Alan Cross:

Dear Rest of the World:

You’re probably looking at Canada (if you look at us at all) and wondering how an entire nation can be consumed by grief over the death of a singer.  A rock singer, no less.

AAtGnxH.img“Seriously, Canada?  And even your Prime Minister was crying?  And now some people are talking about a state funeral for this guy?  What’s up with that?

It’s … hard to explain.  But let me try.

First, we’re not ashamed about any of this.  You see, The Hip was Canada’s house band and their front man was our de facto poet laureate.  To put it another way, if there was a World Cup of Rock, Canada would send The Tragically Hip.

Second, The Hop taught us about ourselves.  Good and the band were unabashedly Canadian without being jingoistic or wrapping themselves in the flag.  How many people leaned of Hugh MacLennan or David Milgaard through Hip lyrics?  How many people across the country were sent to atlases to locate Bobcaygeon or Algonquin Park?  And then there were all the hockey stories:  Bill Barilko, references to the 1972 Canada-Russia series.

images-8If there in’t already an undergraduate course that teaches Canadian history, politics, geography and sociology using the lyrics of The Tragically Hip, it’s just a matter of time.

Third, we learned to appreciate Gord’s often obtuse and opaque lyrics.  They stood up to repeated listening, often revealing new layers each time.  His writings (including his sundry non-music poetry) are worthy of study the same way we look at the works of Leonard Cohen, Michael Ondaatje and Al Purdy, one of Gord’s heroes.

But hey, Rest of the World, you did have a chance — multiple chances! — to get in on this action.  But for some reason, you chose not to.  (You people in U.S. border towns, and some folks in Western Europe and Australia, are exempt.  You know who you are.)

After a couple of failed attempts to break into the American market that were thwarted by records company politics, bad luck and other things beyond the band’s control, The Hip retrenched and super-served their domestic fan base, who responded with even more devotion.

hipthumbIn fact, it was perhaps because they couldn’t break it big in America that we embraced them even more.  You didn’t want ’em, so we hung on even tighter.  They were ours.

They sold millions of albums and hundreds of thousands of concert tickets from coast to coast.  We travelled from gig to gig, often outnumbering the locals when The Hip played U.S. cities and were stunned more of you didn’t attend.  Couldn’t you see what you were missing?

But unless you’re Canadian, you probably wouldn’t understand.

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The Hip actually did try to reach an American audience by playing gigs in border cities like Detroit and Buffalo.  But as it turned out, most of the attendees at those shows were Canadians who had been shut out of sold-out concerts at Canadian venues.  And The Hip now-for-plan-a-51db2071dc0b9did show up on U.S. charts, but no one noticed; eight of their albums made the Top 200, but the best they could manage was an anemic #129 for 2012’s “Now for Plan A.”  None of their singles ever made the US Top 40, although 1993’s “Courage” made it to #16 on the lesser “Mainstream Rock” chart.

In any event, there has been some great music played by Canadians not named Celine Dion.  Maybe your understanding of rock music and Canada will suggest an explanation of this “border wall phenomenon.”  Maybe Gord Downie’s death can be a catalyst to introduce one of our greatest rock groups to the American audience, and to whet their appetite to check out more.  Listen to their music, and if you do figure out why Americans never got hip to The Hip, by all means, let me know.

As you would say, “Rock on!”

Paul