Because Fats Domino's
persona, musical output, and offstage life were all milder and more genial than many of his peers, we often forget just what a force he was on the jukebox -- Fats hit the top 10 of the pop chart a staggering ten times during the last half of the '50s, a record very few could match. Even more impressive, Domino scored 37 top 40 hits during his career, most of those coming in one five-year stint between 1956 and 1961, not even counting the dozen top ten R&B hits he'd had before that. And only Elvis
and James Brown
could, at the time, beat Domino's record of 68 Hot 100 charting hits (84 if you count his R&B chart entries). Here are the ten biggest of the Fat Man's many, many hits.
For all the culture wars surrounding the advent of rock and roll, there were quite a number of solidly-written swing
-era classics which became rock hits with varying degrees of modification. This, which many consider Fats' signature song, began life as a Sammy Kaye hit in 1940 and was endlessly revived over the years, most notably by Louis Armstrong. But it took Fats' gentle swamp-pop
stroll and easygoing Creole phrasing to turn this into sock-hop gold. It was such a defining moment of the '50s, in fact, that "Happy Days" character Richie Cunningham sang it whenever he figured he was about to "get lucky" with a girl. And its popularity may be evergreen: Vladimir Putin made news singing this, his favorite song, at a Russian benefit concert in 2011.
Half of one of the greatest double-sided hits in 50s rock, "I'm in Love Again" (backed by a sensational cover of another swing standard, "My Blue Heaven") was a product of the sadly unappreciated songwriting team of Fats and bandleader Dave Bartholomew. Laid down, as so many of Fats' hits were, with the cream of New Orleans sidemen, this breezy yet earthy number features the kind of wry comic (and urban) take on romance that only Lieber and Stoller could match -- it's fun just to listen to Fats drawl "Baby, don't you let your dog bite me." This being New Orleans R&B, it made perfect literary sense to precede that line with "Oo wee baby, oo wee," then start the next verse with "Eeeny meeney, miney moe."
At the time, it was somewhat usurped by Ricky Nelson's
quasi-rockabilly cover version -- done merely to prove to his girl that he could sing as good as Elvis! -- but history has since seen fit to return this song to Antoine's own jump-blues throne. The story behind the Fat Man's version is equally interesting: Fats, one of the first rock stars to own a fleet of Cadillacs, somehow managed to find himself without transportation one day, which led to a friend calling out, "Hey! Fats is walking!" The song reportedly wrote itself as he trudged along. Major League Baseball also takes this classic equally literally; several teams play it whenever one of their hitters gets "walked" to first base.
Or was this
Fats' true singature song? It's hard to decide. One of a number of tunes written by Dave Bartholomew for NOLA R&B legend Smiley Lewis ("I Hear You Knocking" being the most famous), "Monday" was redone by Fats after Smiley's version went nowhere. Naturally brighter and sprightlier than Lewis' original, with a requisite Fatslike twinkle in its eye, it was therefore the kind of nonthreatening blues any worker could relate to, and it became an important doorway for R&B on the pop charts, bolstered in large part by Fats' performance of the song in the king of all '50s rock musicals, "The Girl Can't Help It."
Bobby Charles was a Cajun singer-songwriter in the swamp-pop vein who already had one hit under his belt -- "See You Later, Alligator," a smash for Bill Haley
-- when he met his idol Domino backstage at a concert in Lafayette, LA. When Fats took a liking to the kid and invited him to his famous Ninth Ward home, Bobby responded that he'd get there even if he had to walk. By the time he did get a chance to drive to the big city, he'd written a song about just that very subject, and, invested with some very Brook Benton
-like strings, it was a natural hit. The next year, Bobby did much the same favor for Clarence "Frogman" Henry by providing him with the #4 pop hit "I Don't Know Why (But I Do)."
A sprightly jump-blues with a touch so light it was practically pop, this earworm topped out at a mere 1:39, making it the second shortest top 10 hit in rock history, behind only Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs' "Stay" (which made it all the way to #1 at a mere 1:38). Fats uses every trick in the book to take you through that minute-and-a-half, too, including kissy noises, a happy little piano riff, some sort of clapping that probably represents something naughty, and a solo that fucntions as an effortless pastiche of New Orleans boogie-woogie.
not one of Domino's better known singles these days, which is odd, since it made it all the way to Number 6 on the pop charts and #2 R&B. Then again, it managed that at least partially from riding the back of another one of his biggest hits, "Valley of Tears." On the other other hand, that song only made it to #8. Whatever. It's just as infectious and irresistably joyful as any other golden oldie on this list, also serving as a perfect set of wedding vows -- "I'll be your little boy / you be my little girl / we'll go round and round / round this great big world / even in the rain / we'll go hand in hand / come here, kiss me / it's you I love." (In Creole patois, "rain" does indeed rhyme with "hand.")
Those studying American mating rituals of the postwar era would do well to take in this supremely sublime West Coast Blues-slash-swamp pop ballad, which asked to hold your hand years before the Beatles
did. A symbol of trust, walking a girl back to her house could signify the informal beginning of a courtship, and yes, sometimes it could be as simple as noticing that someone's walking alone, and asking. Punctuated by sassy little breaks that seemed to indicate all the roiling emotions just beneath the surface, as well as a performance so loose Fats feels free to sometimes pronounce "want" as "wants," I Wanna Walk You Home" seduces by pairing safety and protection with the promise of hot romance: "I'm not trying to be smart / I'm not trying to break your heart."
The Domino/Bartholomew team did almost as well at crafting a pure pop ballad with "Valley of Tears," which made it to the Top Ten thanks to, or perhaps despite of, its heavy strings-and-choir backing. Frankly, all that pop largesse carried it over the line, intentionally or not, into Countrypolitan
territory, since Fats' country roots were very nearly as strong as his blues and boogie-woogie ones. Brenda Lee
and Faron Young, realizing this, rushed out to make their own versions, and much later, so did Mickey Gilley and Gillian Welch. Oh, and some kid named Buddy Holly.
This, on the other hand, was one of several R&B hits that godfathered ska music, along with Roscoe Gordon's "Cheese and Crackers." Bend the beat of this Top 10 hit back just a bit, and you discover a ska classic, replete with horn section. It's still a recognizable Fats song, too, with its genial introduction to "join my party and meet the rest." "I'm the king but you can wear my crown," he sings, a lyric which elegantly sums up the essence of Fats' appeal. However, the Domino/Bartholomew team didn't write it -- that honor went to a kid named Tommy Boyce, who bugged Fats until he listened to this demo. You know him better as one half of the Boyce-Hart songwriting duo, who wrote tons of hits for the very non-ska act The Monkees.