Antoine Dominique “Fats” Domino Jr., a humble and shy Black American pianist, singer and song-writer from New Orleans died on October 24, 2017. “One of the pioneers of rock and roll music, Fats Domino sold more that 65 million records.”
He became my Black musical icon in a critical moment in my life and in a difficult time in the racial history of the United States. His music was one of the first accepted by Whites in America.
I left home when I was 17 and 2 weeks old as an enlisted member of the Air Force. My parents signed and sent me on my way.
Once I arrived at my posted location in Germany to work days and go to college at night I sought out extra things to fulfill my curiosity and growth. Among the things I wanted most and got were a 6-year-old GM Opel Kapitan car to travel and see my new surroundings, a Hohner accordion that for me is the most German of musical instruments and a Grundig tape recorder that eventually converted all my records to taped music. I also recorded the latest singles by Latino artists that my Aunt Lydia sent from Corpus Christi, Texas.
This was also the time when segregation was still with us in a real way even in the military. Growing up in Denver did not erase the memory of the racial way of having lived in Texas that included Blacks in a separate space away from Whites and Mexicans forced to navigate the possibilities of inclusion or exclusion depending on local policies with respect to public accommodations.
That was partly on my mind when I arrived at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio where all airmen go through basic training. My time there was very lonely even though I was in the middle of thousands of people.
Weekend nights were the most difficult because we were confined to our quarters and there was so much going on outside. For example, one Saturday night, there was an outdoor Fats Domino concert that could be heard across the base.
It was August, our windows were opened allowing the sound of the distinctive rolling piano music to be heard along with songs like Ain’t That a Shame (1955), I’m in Love Again (1956), Blueberry Hill (1956), I’m Walking (1957) and I Want to Walk You Home (1959). The songs brought back “old” memories even for a young man fresh out of the 10th grade.
Horace Mann Junior High School in North Denver was the only school I attended from beginning to end. It is there that I heard and came to gain a special feeling for the Fats Domino sound.
Hearing that piano and the unique interpretation of rhythm and blues was to me as profound as it was understated. It taught me that that rock and roll also has a soul.
While in Germany, I listened to the Beatles long before they were famous and came to America. As it turned out, Fats Domino had a great influence on their music as well.
The first song John Lennon learned to play was Ain’t That a Shame and Paul McCartney fashioned his musical version of Lady Madonna after Domino’s 1968 rendition of the song.
For most of my life, Fats Domino has been important not only because of the greatness of his music, but also because of his role in racial transition. His life has taught me so much about the human character.