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Fats Domino, New Orleans’ Founder of Rock, dies at 89 October 28, 2017

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fats domino1Antoine Dominique “Fats” Domino, one of the last surviving “Founding Fathers” of Rock n’ Roll, has died at the age of 89.  According to the Jefferson Parish Medical Examiner’s office, Domino died of natural causes.  A life-long resident of the New Orleans area, he gave the city a rock music vibe to complement its status as the birthplace of jazz.  Young and old alike easily recognize his signature vocalization of the famous lyrics “I’ve found my thrill…on Blueberry Hill…”, a recording 61 years young.

Domino helped usher in rock n’ roll with his boogie-woogie piano played in his signature style, and did so thoroughly.  Not only did he have hits at the dawn of rock’s explosion (1955) and for the rest of that decade, but he had R&B hits that helped firmly plant rock’s roots prior to then.

From the start of the 1950s through the early ‘60s, we sold 65 million singles and had 23 gold records, making him second only to Elvis as the strongest commercial force at the dawn of the genre.

To add depth to the legend, his image and persona were unforgettable.  He stood at 5 feet, 5 inches tall (joking that he was as rotund as he was tall), and sported a big, infectious grin.  During performances, he exhibited a fondness for the bling in the form of jewel-encrusted rings that he wore on most of his fingers – again, he wore these while playing the piano.  His easy-going demeanor surely helped his public persona as well.

As each of Rock’s founding fathers contributed their own style to the genre, Domino was no exception, he having brought New Orleans parade rhythms to the proverbial party.

Domino was born on Feb. 26, 1928, the youngest of nine children.  He grew up in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, and spent most of his life there.  His life changed forever when his family inherited a piano when he was ten.  His brother-in-law was a jazz musician who wrote down the notes for young Antoine, and taught the boy some basic chords.

He threw himself fully into learning to play the piano, becoming almost entirely self-taught.  Part of the self-teaching included playing records from noted boogie-woogie artists, including Amos Milburn, who would later have a slew of R&B hits in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

At this same time, he dropped out of the fourth grade so he could take a job as an iceman’s helper.  He supplemented his piano practicing by playing pianos for customers in their homes while making deliveries.  Later in his teens, he started working at a club called The Hideaway with a band led by a bassist named Billy Diamond, who first dubbed him “Fats”.  It did not take long for Domino to become the face of the band and a huge local draw.

A songwriter, arranger, and producer named David Bartholomew took notice of this strong, local draw, and realized he found a special artist in Domino.  By 1949, Bartholomew brought over the owner of Imperial Records, Lew Chudd, to The Hideaway in New Orleans to see Fats Domino in person and the amazing effects he had on the club’s patrons.  As he told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in a 2010 interview, “Everyone was having a good time. When you saw Fats Domino, it was ‘Let’s have a party!’ ”

Together with Mr. Bartholomew, Fats Domino established his boogie-woogie style of piano playing early on with his first record, “The Fat Man,” an instant R&B hit when it charted in 1950 on the Imperial label.  The song title would give him a stage persona for the rest of his career, and he would stay with that label for over a decade, churning out hits that helped define the 1950s.  Another trait he established with his first record was his mastery of the non-word lyrics, namely the “wah-wah” sound that soon evolved into “woo-woo”.

Indeed, those very sounds added much to the character of another early 1950s R&B hit from 1953, “Please Don’t Leave Me”.  A close listen indicates that, from the opening bars of that record, he already had honed his signature style of rapid piano triplets.

His most solid contribution to someone else’s record came in 1952, when he just so happned to visit a New Orleans studio.  He was asked to help a nervous teenaged singer named Lloyd Price.  Domino not only obliged, but came up with another memorable piano riff at the beginning of the track that set the tone for the entire song, “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”.  The R&B record proceeded to become one of the first to cross over to the pop audience.

His style continued to gradually evolve to the right point at the right time when he had a hit that helped trigger the Rock n’ Roll explosion of 1955 with “Ain’t That A Shame”.  But that was only a warm-up for what he was to record for the following year.  People of all ages to this day can easily recognize his version of “Blueberry Hill” from its semi-staccato piano opening.

As a preschooler, it was within a handful of the first of popular tunes I recall hearing.  At that time, the recording was not even 30 years old.  The almost plaintive-sounding response/reactions of the horn section to Domino’s vocals are unlike anything recorded before or since, and undoubtedly contributed to the legendary status of the record.  Those strains have certainly remained with me all these years.

The irony of “Blueberry Hill” is that, unlike, say, “The Fat Man”, it was not a Domino original, but a long-standing cover.  The song originated in Big Band Era, with Gene Autry actually cutting the first know version in 1940.  Glenn Miller followed suit on May 13 the same year (with Ray Eberle on vocals).  Other bands and notable singers contributed their own “take” on it in the early half of the 1940s, including Kay Kyser, Russ Morgan, Jimmy Dorsey, Gene Krupa, and Connie Boswell.  Glenn Miller’s version actually made it to No. 1 on the pop charts in 1940.  Louis Armstrong would later cut a version with Gordon Jenkins’ band in 1949.  But 16 years after the song’s introduction, Fats Domino truly made it into his own, so much so that it now comes as a surprise to many that earlier versions of it by other artists even exist.

Although Domino already had such a legendary record to his credit by 1956, he did not cease to cut great, memorable tunes.  That same year, he produced some other notable tunes such as his version of “My Blue Heaven” and “When My Dreamboat Comes Home” (also holdovers from the Big Band Era).  With both, Domino offered refreshing takes, particularly the latter.  Also in Domino’s 1956 vintage is “I’m In Love Again”.

At the end of 1956, he churned yet another of his most memorable tunes, “Blue Monday”.  Who can forget the quasi-chorus “Saturday mornin’…..Oh, Saturday morning…..all my tiredness have gone away….”?  Clearly grammar was not the Fat Man’s strong point – no doubt a product of his aforementioned truncated education — but the tune was great anyhow, bluesy yet upbeat at the same time.  As kid in junior high, I learned how to play the brief sax solo in the middle of the record in question.

His most notable track from 1957 was “I’m Walkin’”, another uptempo tune that has found its way into movie soundtracks and commercials over the years.  Who can forget the sequence in “Blues Brothers” (1980) when the protagonist duo trapse all over Chicagoland announcing the Blues Brothers Showband and Revue?

Whole Lotta Loving” is the stand-out tune in Domino’s discography from 1958, and he closed out the Fifties strongly with “I’m Ready”, “I Want to Walk You Home” and “Be My Guest” in 1959, all having different tempos.  The first of the aforementioned three is particularly catchy.  Its energy would make one think as though it was recorded closer to the rock explosion period of 1955-’57.

Even the early 1960s were a rather fecund period for Domino, having a hit in 1960 with “Walking to New Orleans”, a track played ad nauseam on the SiriusXM 50s on 5 channel.  Other tracks from this period included Hank Williams covers (“Jambalaya”, “You Win Again”), originals such as “Let the Four Winds Blow”, and other covers such as “I Hear You Knocking” (Smiley Lewis’ hit from 1954) and “You Always Hurt the One You Love” (A Mills Brothers hit from 1944).

By 1963, his record sales were lagging considerably, and a switch to ABC-Paramount did little to revive them.  But he remained a popular live act throughout the 1960s, touring Europe for the first time in 1962, and met the Beatles in Liverpool during that tour – before they became huge stars.  By the mid-1960s, he appeared in Las Vegas for 10 months a year making live performances.

He quit touring for good in the 1980s, and settled back down in his hometown of New Orleans.  Part of the reason for staying in his native city was that, according to him, it was the only place where he liked the food.  Lucky for those in attendance, he was a regular performer at the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Still alive and well when Hurricane Katrina hit his native city on Aug. 29, 2005, he refused to leave his home in the Lower Ninth Ward even as it was flooding.  Eventually he was rescued by helicopter on Sept. 1, and evacuated to Baton Rouge, La., where for a couple of days he stayed in then-LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell’s apartment until taking up shelter elsewhere pending the receding of the floodwaters.  The flood in the hurricane’s wake caused major damage to his home, having risen up 20 feet on the house, but it was fully rebuilt by 2007.

The timelessness of Domino’s music was discerned by some even when it was new.  Jerry Wexler, the legendary producer at Atlantic Records, made a prediction as early as 1953, stating “Can’t you envision a collector in 1993 discovering a Fats Domino record in a Salvation Army depot and rushing home to put it on the turntable?” he wrote. “We can. It’s good blues, it’s good jazz, and it’s the kind of good that never wears out.”  The fact that “Blueberry Hill” and other riffs from his other records remain recognizable today prove just how thoroughly that prognostication has come to pass.

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Mischief: Exploring the Soundtrack of Eternal Youth August 21, 2014

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Mischief1985Very few movies can appeal to both our nostalgia for Americana’s bygone eras and also to our, well, mischievous side at the same time. Yet the 1985 film “Mischief” accomplishes just that, putting it in a rare company of films. A critic for the New York Times once said it best: “If Norman Rockwell had wanted to make Porky’s, he might have come up with something like Mischief.” I could not have said it any better myself. “Porky’s,” the 1982 period comedy/raunchfest, also hits the mark of aforementioned simultaneous appeals. Writer/director Bob Clark put together the story of that movie out of his own personal experiences from his high school and college days, as a way of showing the youth of the 1980s that life was not all that different for teens almost 30 years ago (Clark graduated from high school in 1957, and that movie takes place in Florida in 1954).

As for “Mischief,” one can easily surmise a very similar intent.  Screenwriter Noel Black described the film as “somewhat autobiographical,” and did a marvelous job in showing the timelessness of many teenage experiences, from romance to, er, certain obsessions.

The 1980s were a great time for period pieces from the time of Americana, particularly the 1950s (think: “Porky’s,” “Back to the Future,” “Clue,” “Mischief,” “Peggy Sue Got Married,” and so forth). This was mainly a function of basic logistics at the time.  If you took the established professionals in their mid-forties of that decade, you would need to go back 30 years to examine their experiences as teenagers.  That particular chronological spot just so happened to be the mid-1950s, a special time when Eisenhower was in the White House (let’s face it: Obama does not even deserve to carry Ike’s golf clubs!), Rock n’ Roll had just exploded onto the scene, America was reaching a new level of prosperity, and styling set the pace for new car design, with tailfins, wrap-around windshields, and lots of chrome!

One thing that the viewer is reminded of, as this film itself is almost 30 years old, is the respective rate of change in the patterns of life in America over the two three-decade intervals. Yes, they have changed considerably in America since the mid-‘80s, what with Internet and smart phones, but what remains clear is that the change in patterns of life was even more drastic in the first 30-year stretch.  In the mid-1950s, the center of commercial activity was still Main Street downtown, not at a sprawling shopping mall on the city’s edge, just to point out one example.

That point is hit home all the more at the very beginning of the film.  Right after the opening 20th Century Fox fanfare, the famous opening line “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” comes on to the screen, in the exact same font as that line appears at the beginning of all Star Wars films, no less! Of course, the filmmakers quickly drop the other proverbial shoe when they conclude the opening line with “…Ohio, 1956.” Quod erat demonstrandum.

The filmmakers start things off with a bang immediately, for they begin the opening scene with Fats Domino’s famous rendition of “Blueberry Hill” playing during the opening credits – that song was one of the most recognizable ones from that year, even though it never topped the charts (full confession: I was introduced to that record before I got to kindergarten…which was in 1985).

The female love interests are certainly appealing, and recognizable.  A young Kelly Preston, in her youthful prime, in 1950s dresses?  Yes, please!  Film buffs might also recognize Catherine Mary Stewart as having played the girlfriend of the protagonist in “The Last Starfighter” from the previous year (also one of the late, great, Robert Preston’s last films – no relation to the female lead in this film, though).  Other great bit-parts abound in the movie, too. Terry O’Quinn co-stars, this time sans-moustache (film buffs would recognize him as Howard Hughes from the hit Disney flick “The Rocketeer” from 1991, another great period piece, this time taking place in 1938).

Anyhow, we barely miss the three-and-a-half-minute mark of the movie when we’re treated to our next Oldie offering in the soundtrack, “Young Love,” and the Tab Hunter version, at that (the version that actually did top the charts for a couple of weeks in ’56), not the Sonny James version from the same year that most listeners might ironically more readily recognize today.

The film is not without its fair share of period gaffes, however.  The song selection is, on balance, great, but some of them are a tad anachronistic: a great example can be discerned in the eighth minute of the film, when you can hear Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” playing on a transistor radio.  All well and good, except that “Sweet Little Sixteen” was from 1958, and the story is supposed to take place in 1956. Oops.

Also, one hazard one is likely to encounter in period films from the 1980s and earlier are contemporary re-makes of hit-songs from the past. Remember, this was still a relatively new artistic technique in cinema, largely pioneered by George Lucas in “American Graffiti” from 1973.  But this was 13 years later, and seemingly a disproportionately longer span of time between the contemporary and the bygone era the film attempts to portray.  Nevertheless, after more than a decade, they still apparently had yet to secure the necessary permissions to use certain authentic songs in movies, hence the contemporary knock-offs one hears of Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” among others.  It would not be until the 1990s when, apparently, that process would become more streamlined, and we would not have to settle for the knock-offs, occasional though they may be.

Even with the knock-offs, some are still out of place. Danny and the Juniors’ “At the Hop” was re-made for the film, but the original hit did not top the charts until the start of 1958, for example.  The ever-popular “Peggy Sue” by Buddy Holly, also a re-make in this film, did not debut in its original form until the following year, 1957 – same thing on both counts with “Maybe Baby.” Ivory Joe Hunter’s “Since I Met You Baby” fits the year, but they had to play a late remake of it, too, for some reason.

Thankfully, one of the most appropriate tunes of the entire film, “School Days” by Chuck Berry, is untainted in its originality of rendition.  Too bad it too was from 1957, not 1956.  Oh well!  The song is played at the perfect time, just as teenage students are walking in to their high school.  With such impeccable timing, who cares if the period authenticity is off by one year?

The film’s soundtrack is not without its pleasant surprises, either.  For example, I have been listening to ‘50s tunes my entire life, and was still not aware that the Fontaine Sisters did a cover version “I’m In Love Again.”  As if the filmmakers read my mind, they waste little time in switching to the more popular rendition of that hit by Fats Domino! Later in the film, we are treated to a third recording by Fats, this time “Ain’t That a Shame” from 1955, one of the songs that contributed to rock n’ roll exploding onto the scene that year.

They also do get it correctly, however, in the 25th minute of the film by playing part of Elvis’ 1956 hit ballad “Love Me Tender.”  Ditto with Mickey and Silvia’s hit “Love is Strange” in the 41st minute. Another example of an out-of-year tune, though is in the 47th minute.  The protagonist gets his first kiss with the girl of his dreams, and they play “One Summer Night” by The Danleers (1958).  Again, oh well!  Another interesting example is when the protagonist is in the process of cultivating a relationship with an attractive girl, they play Clyde McPhatter’s “A Lover’s Question (1959).

The best way I can explain these slight incongruities in the years of some of the selected tunes is that the filmmakers were less focused on being period-correct and more focused on trying to recreate the overall era with songs that were, in some cases, recorded three years after the story’s timeline.  A similar technique was used in the movie “American Hot Wax” (1978), where early rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest hits are all mashed in together ca. 1959-1960.

Other times, the filmmakers got it right in terms of correct-to-the-year tunes, but goof elsewhere. During the main love scene of the picture, they put on a 45 RPM record, supposedly “My Prayer” by the Platters (yes, from 1956, and in fact, the group’s first No. 1 hit).  But the Platters recorded on the Mercury label, and what is seen spinning on the turntable is a Roulette record – from the mid-1960s, no less!  Another curious choice of song is later in the main love scene, when they switch to “It Only Hurts a Little While” by the Ames Brothers.  Period-correct, yes, but I can think of dozens of more romantic records between 1954-’56 than that one!  They couldn’t play “Earth Angel” by the Penguins, for example? To be sure, Kelly Preston’s nude scene lives up the hype, but I digress.  At least the version of “My Prayer” is the real deal.

ThreeRecordLabels_Mischief

When one of the characters in the movie puts on a 45 RPM record, the song one hears is “My Prayer” by the Platters (right). Yet the record one clearly sees is a record with the Roulette label, from the mid-1960s at that (see left). In the mid-1950s, Roulette’s label had the design seen in the center. Translation: this was a double period goof.

Semi-curious is the choice later in the same love scene, where they are playing Buddy Holly’s “Everyday,” (the flip-side to “Peggy Sue,” but from 1957, not 1956).  But shortly thereafter, they made a fine 1956-correct choice in Bill Haley’s “See You Later, Alligator.”  The timing is also great when they break out the venerable Platters hit “The Great Pretender” from 1955, though it peaked in the charts in early 1956.  Also finely-selected for setting the mood was the exquisite doo-wop ballad “Since I Don’t Have You,” by The Skyliners.  The song was not recorded until December of ’58, and did not chart until ’59.

By the time the 75th minute rolls around, you cease to care that Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day” (the first song I consciously remember ever hearing, and that is NOT a joke!).  After all, what Fifties-themed soundtrack is complete without it?  Same thing goes for the use of “It’s All in the Game” by Tommy Edwardsone of the greatest records of all time – even though it was a No. 1 hit in 1958, not ’56.

As an aside, is it not odd that they played a modern knock-off of Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue,”  but played the correct, original version of its flip-side, “Everyday” (Coral 61885)?  Just asking.

The usage of the Hoagy Carmichael tune “Heart and Soul” by the Cleftones, while a great tune, is even more curious, in that it was not recorded until 1959, and was not even released to the buying public until 1961.  That group had three solid doo-wop hits in 1956 (“Little Girl of Mine,” “You Baby You,” and “Can’t We Be Sweethearts?”).  Could they, the filmmakers, not have chosen one of those three instead, say, the third?  That said, and much to their credit, they nail it in terms of year and mood with the usage of the timeless Elvis hit “Don’t Be Cruel” from that year.  It takes an hour and half, but after holding out on us for the whole movie, we finally get to hear from Little Richard, singing “Rip It Up,” also correct to 1956, no less (to be sure, LR had a huge bumper crop of hard-rockers from that year)!

One aspect of the movie where the filmmakers did it consistently period-correct was the cars.  Not a single automobile that I observed – and as a long-time classic car nut, I observed very closely! – was more recent than 1956, and even they were relatively few compared to the other model years I noticed.  Plenty of 1953 Chevies, 1950 Nashes and Studebakers, and 1954 Buicks abound, among others. Only in the second half did I finally find one Cadillac – a 1956 model, one of the few cars actually from that year in the film.  Plus, there’s the occasional ’53 Studebaker, ’50 Hudson, ’47 and ’55 Plymouth, etc. So, there is a nice mix of cars and model years, overall.

It is my love of cars that made me cringe in some of the scenes.  “My goodness, I sincerely hope they did not actually warp the bumper on that ’50 Studebaker, or bend the front quarter-panel of that ’53 Chevy Bel-Air, or totally smash up that nice ’55 Chevy Bel-Air convertible.”  Hey, I care about my true classic cars!

All in all, though, the movie is well-written, very entertaining, and the soundtrack is, even with some of the unnecessary knock-offs, one of the best I have heard in a movie in a long time.  If you want to make for a cozy night in with your significant other with a great film on DVD, by all means choose this (provided you can stomach the occasionally awkward moment or two)! Who knows?  You might even gain some nostalgia for that time gone by yourself, even if the events taking place in the story predate your birth by a quarter-century or more.

America’s Greatest Music: I Only Have Eyes For You October 31, 2013

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“I Only Have Eyes For You” is yet another great example of a venerable pop standard who writers lack the fame or prowess of the big boys like Gershwin, Berlin or Porter.  Case in point, it was written in 1934 by comparative nobodies Harry Warren and Al Dubin.  Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler introduced it that year in the film “Dames”.  Bandleaders Ben Selvin and Eddy Duchin also had hits with it that same year.  Interestingly enough, it was also used in a film the following year (1935), where it was performed by Barbara Stanwyck and Gene Raymond.  In the years and decades, certain big-name recording artists have added it to their reportoire; for example, Peggy Lee recorded a version of it in 1950.  Even Art Garfunkel had a hit with it in 1975.  In between those years and later, it has been recorded by hundreds, if not thousands of different artists, as it is considered both a pop and a jazz standard.

Frank Sinatra did this song not once (1949)*, but twice (1962), the latter of which he did with Count Basie’s band, just after he switched from the Capitol label to his own Reprise Records brand.  It certainly ranks among the better versions of the tune for sure.  The late-era big band backing gives it a ‘swinging’ quality, something that one would normally not expect from a ballad-type song, but it works well, particularly when paired with Sinatra’s vocal talent.

But let us not kid ourselves.  One version out of all the rest stands out in the minds of music connoisseurs and laymen alike, and that is the Flamingos’ version, recorded exactly 55 years ago today (Oct. 31, 1958), though it peaked on the charts in 1959.

The song in question was recorded with a reverberation effect, which was one of several things that sound engineers were able to perfect within the broader science of analog recording technology during that decade.  The effect gave the record a very dreamy ambience (it certainly left a lasting impression on yours truly as a young boy!), helping it stick in people’s minds for more than five decades.  It also ranks as one of the best love song recordings, not only from the 1950s, but from all time in general.  When you and your significant other are sharing a tender moment, this tune can only add to it!

One very interesting aspect about this record is that it was part of a major trend in the recording industry throughout that decade, that of cutting updated arrangements of pop standards and show tunes from the 1920s and 1930s.  To brief wit:  The Clovers did “Blue Velvet” in 1954 and “Devil or Angel” in 1956.  Fats Domino elevated “Blueberry Hill” to legendary status in 1956, in so doing making it far more famous that it was in its almost 16 years of existence prior to that year.  Connie Francis had her breakout hit with “Who’s Sorry Now” in 1958 (the song was already 34 years old by then!), and let us not forget that in 1957, Billy Ward and His Dominoes had hits not only with the venerable “Stardust” — already 30 years old by then — but also with “Deep Purple“.**  This only scratches the surface of this amazing recording trend that happened more than five decades ago.

*To be sure, Sinatra also performed a live version of this song on a radio show in the 1940s, with the Benny Goodman Sextet providing the instrumentation.

** What do two legendary tunes from the Great American Songbook, “Stardust” and “Deep Purple” have in common?  Mitchell Parish wrote the lyrics to both songs!