Musical memories

Fats Domino: The quiet rock ‘n’ roll rebel who defied US segregation

The groundbreaking musician who inspired Elvis and The Beatles died on Tuesday.

Rock ‘n’ roll trailblazer Antoine “Fats” Domino has died, aged 89. With his beguiling smile, genial image and effervescent shuffle-boogie sound, it’s hard to think of him as radical figure in American culture. Yet, in the mid-1950s, Domino was at the heart of a revolution that transformed western music and had profound social repercussions.

On May 4, 1956, Domino was headlining a rhythm and blues show at the American Legion Auditorium in Roanoke, Virginia. In keeping with the segregation laws of the day, whites and blacks were consigned to separate areas. On this occasion, African-American fans occupied the dance floor while 2,000 whites crammed into a balcony designed for about half that number. Some white fans tried to escape the crush by going downstairs to the less densely packed main floor where, as incredulous local journalists noted, they were spotted sharing seats and “actually dancing” with black rock and roll enthusiasts as Domino ran through an already extensive catalogue of hit songs.

The spectre of black and white youngsters defying southern segregation proved too much for some in the balcony, who began to hurl bottles down on the unexpectedly integrated scene below. After the show ended, an angry white crowd even pursued Domino and his fellow black performers back to the Dumas Hotel on Henry Street in the heart of Roanoke’s African-American community. Like other white southerners who opposed the spread of rock and roll music, the mob sensed that somehow this music – played by black and white musicians who drew on black rhythm and blues and white country and pop influences to craft a style that was adored by young black and white fans – represented a serious threat to the racial apartheid of the Jim Crow South. But it was too late. Thanks to Fats Domino and his fellow rock and rollers the integrated musical genie was out of the segregated bottle.

In 1950, the portly Domino had enjoyed his first hit with The Fat Man, a rollicking, good-natured ode to his amorous powers penned by his long-time collaborator, band leader and producer, Dave Bartholomew. With its pulsating piano and irresistible riffing horns, the recording pointed the way forward to what would soon become known as rock and roll.

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But The Fat Man was only a hit on the rhythm and blues charts, which essentially monitored the sales of recordings by black artists to overwhelmingly black audiences. Aside from occasional crossover hits by the likes of Louis Jordan and Nat King Cole, black artists rarely made much of an impression on the nominally white pop charts.

Within a few years, however, Domino was picking up significant sales among white audiences. In 1952, his number one rhythm and blues hit Goin’ Home also made the pop charts, as did the deliciously maudlin Going to the River the following year.

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By mid-decade, as Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and countless other black and white acts secured major hits on both sides of the racial divide, Domino’s career was in full swing. “A lot of people seem to think I started this business. But rock ‘n’ roll was here a long time before I came along,” Presley told reporters in 1957. “Let’s face it,” he conceded, “I can’t sing like Fats Domino can. I know that.”

Despite falling victim to the cover phenomenon, whereby white artists released versions of his new recordings hoping to capture the white pop market, many of Domino’s classic tracks, among them Ain’t that a Shame, Blueberry Hill, I’m Walkin’ and Whole Lotta Loving, were major pop as well as huge rhythm and blues hits.

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By the end of the decade Domino was the most commercially successful of all black pop stars, earning some $700,000 annually from live performances, record sales, publishing royalties (he wrote or co-wrote many of his recordings) and appearances in a string of rock and roll movies such as The Girl Can’t Help It, Jamboree and Shake, Rattle and Roll.

Crossover prodigy

In many ways Domino was a perfect crossover artist. His life and his music brought together many different strands in American culture. He was born of French Creole parentage on February 26, 1928, in New Orleans, a city he celebrated in songs such as Walking to New Orleans and where he lived the vast majority of his life. He even survived Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when he had to be rescued by helicopter from the roof of his ruined home in the Lower Ninth Ward. He lost all his possessions in the flooding, including his National Medal of Arts, which was later replaced by President George W Bush.

Domino was something of a child piano prodigy. He played local gigs from the age of 10, building up a solid local reputation before he signed to Imperial Records in late 1949 and began his incredibly productive relationship with Bartholomew. Stylistically, he was influenced by the rampaging boogie-woogie piano stylings of Albert Ammons and Amos Milburn, but he softened his sound with more ornate flourishes borrowed from Crescent City jazz legend Professor Longhair.

Similarly, the powerful horns that drove forward many of Domino’s finest tracks, often with saxophonist Lee Allen at the helm, were set against warm, honey-dew vocals that never quite lost their supple Creole intonation. He was also adept at reworking mainstream pop idioms (listen to Valley of Tears from 1957) and an enormous fan of country music. When he took Hank Williams’s Jambalaya (On The Bayou) into the pop charts in 1962, the hybrid seemed to make perfect sense.

By 1962, however, Domino’s glory years were already behind him. Like many of his fellow rock and roll pioneers, he struggled to meet the challenge posed by a whole host of anodyne teen idols in the early 1960s and then with the aftermath of the British invasion spearheaded by the Beatles in 1964. Yet his influence endured. The first record George Harrison ever bought was Domino’s 1956 pop and rhythm and blues crossover hit I’m In Love Again. In 1968, the Beatles’s Lady Madonna was essentially Paul McCartney’s homage to Domino’s seminal 1950s work.

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In 1975, Ain’t that a Shame reappeared on John Lennon’s Rock ‘n’ Roll album, just as it had in the 1973 hit film American Graffiti, George Lucas’s love letter to the teenage America of the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was an era to which Domino’s music provided a joyous soundtrack, while creating a musical legacy that ultimately transcends time and place.

As Britain’s poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy put it in her 2003 tribute to the singer: “Dominus, dominum, domine, Domino!”

Brian Ward, Professor in American Studies, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.