Calling Fats Domino an architect of rock and roll almost sounds like faint praise. Indeed, the amiable country boy from the Lower Ninth Ward, with the help of bandleader impresario Dave Bartholomew and one of the world's truly legendary gangs of sidemen, dug the hole and laid the actual foundation. Fats emerged from an old-school New Orleans piano tradition into a cultural force that would shake the world with atomic-level power, and reverberate through the decades with an ever-rippling exponential influence. But if you asked him about rock and roll, back in the day, he'd shrug off responsibility for the electrifying new movement, saying it was just the rhythm and blues he'd been hearing, and playing, for years.
It's hard to pull together a list of performers influenced by Fats Domino because, seriously, it is not at all hyperbolic to say that Fats, by shaping rock and roll out of the primordial clay, influenced everyone. He came from big-band music, jump blues, boogie-woogie and barrelhouse, and slid into R&B and rock and roll. His dozens of hits, with their signature cheerful, bouncy piano triplets, famously traveled thousands of miles over the airwaves from South Louisiana to Jamaica, where the sound became a building block of ska and reggae. The rock gods of the '50s and '60s genuflected to the diminutive Creole artist in the captain's hat, covering his songs and marveling, rightly, in wonder at his talent. (Fats also had his own healthy sense of self-esteem. Famously, when a reporter asked if he'd gotten to meet The Beatles during their fall 1964 tour stop in his hometown New Orleans, he said, "No, they got to meet me.")
Compiled below are more than 50 essential recordings that tell the story of the place of Fats Domino on the music of the 20th Century, with selected annotations. You'll find songs by Fats Domino himself, plus selections by The Beatles and others who took inspiration from or directly covered the Fat Man, as well as those who shaped his own sound. You can listen to most of those songs on the playlist below. Selections that aren't available on Spotify are marked with an asterisk.
FATS DOMINO'S INFLUENCES & EARLY CONTEMPORARIES
"Pine Top's Boogie Woogie" by Clarence "Pine Top" Smith
"Operation Blues" by Amos Milburn
"Honky Tonk Train Blues" by Meade Lux Lewis
"Swanee River Boogie" by Albert Ammons
- Working at his cousin's bar on Forstall Street in the Lower Ninth Ward, biographer Rick Coleman wrote, Fats learned boogie piano tunes from the jukebox and the videophonic machine, which played short film reels for a nickel.
*"Girt Town Blues" by Dave Bartholomew
"Country Boy" by Dave Bartholomew
- Dave Bartholomew, a trumpet player and bandleader about ten years Fats' senior, brought Fats to the attention of the Imperial Records label in 1949. Bartholomew's own band, which included guitarist Ernest McLean, sax players Lee Allen and Red Tyler and legendary drummer Earl Palmer, would become part of the studio band at Cosimo Matassa's J&M Studio and back Fats on the extraordinary run of hits generated by the Domino-Bartholomew partnership throughout the '50s and early '60s.
"I'm Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town" by Fats Pichon
"Saturday Night Fish Fry" by Louis Jordan
"Stack-A-Lee" by Archibald
"Junker's Blues" by Champion Jack Dupree
- Champion Jack Dupree's 1940 recording of the piano blues was the basis for Fats and Dave's 1949 song "The Fat Man," which sanitized its druggy lyrics (in the Dupree version, "junker" = "junkie") and added the pounding backbeat, working in time with Fats' rhythmic left hand, that prompts many to finger "The Fat Man" as a contender for the "first" rock and roll song.
*"It's Midnight" by Little Willie Littlefield
- Like Amos Milburn, another pianist Fats appreciated and acknowledged as an influence, Littlefield (who recorded the first version of "Kansas City," in 1952) played the kind of triplet rhythms on the piano that would become Fats' signature.
FATS DOMINO HIMSELF
"Hey! La Bas Boogie"
"Swanee River Hop"
- Fats' version of Albert Ammons' "Swanee River Boogie," itself based on an old Stephen Foster tune, was a staple of his earliest shows in tiny Ninth Ward nightspots like The Hideaway, where Dave Bartholomew first heard him work. In 1986, the same year all three were inducted as part of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's inaugural class, Fats, Jerry Lee Lewis and Ray Charles recorded it together live in New Orleans as "Swanee River Rock," for the Paul Shaffer-hosted "Fats & Friends" TV special.
"Every Night About This Time"
"The Fat Man"
"My Girl Josephine"
"All By Myself"
"Walking To New Orleans"
"My Blue Heaven"
"Let The Four Winds Blow"
"Be My Guest"
"Ain't That A Shame"
"Whole Lotta Loving"
"Before I Grow Too Old"
- First recorded by Fats in 1960, its tender, plaintive tone made it perfect for swamp pop, the distinctive South Louisiana style that blended elements of Cajun music, R&B and country. It was covered, notably, by Tommy McClain and by Bobby Charles, the Cajun songwriter who wrote "Walkin' To New Orleans" for Fats the same year; in 2003, Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros recorded it as "Silver and Gold."
"I'm In Love Again"
"I'm Gonna Be A Wheel Someday"
"I Want To Walk You Home"
"I Hear You Knocking"
- The lyrics of "One Night" ("the things I did and I saw / would make the earth stand still"; "don't call my name / it makes me feel so ashamed") were uncharacteristically salacious for Fats, who recorded the Dave Bartholomew composition in 1961, five years after Smiley Lewis had had a Billboard R&B hit with the original recording. In 1959, Elvis also scored a hit with it, notably changing lyrics ("one night of sin" became "one night with you") for a more clean-cut effect.
ROCK AND ROLL (AND MORE): FATS' FOLLOWERS
"Junco Partner" by James Booker
"Junco Partner" by Dr. John
"(Every Time I Hear) That Mellow Saxophone" by Roy Montrell
"It Ain't My Fault" by Joseph "Smokey" Johnson
"I Hear You Knocking" by Smiley Lewis
*"Don't You Know Yockomo" by Huey "Piano" Smith & the Clowns
"Lady Madonna" by The Beatles
"Lady Madonna" by Fats Domino
"Blueberry Hill" by Elvis Presley
"Ain't That A Shame" by John Lennon
"Ain't That A Shame" by Cheap Trick
*"Blueberry Hill" by Led Zeppelin
"Grow Too Old" by Bobby Charles
"Be My Guest" by Yellowman
"Miss Jamaica" by Jimmy Cliff
- New Orleans R&B had a large fan base in Jamaica starting, perhaps, as Coleman writes in the Fats biography Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock 'n' Roll, in the late '40s, when workers from the island migrated to South Louisiana seeking work in the cane fields and brought home records. Sometimes, a radio in Jamaica could pick up a Louisiana station, and as ska developed in the late '50s, Fats' boogie rhythm seeped into its DNA. Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley both frequently declared Fats to be a primary influence on their sound.
"Christie Lee" by Billy Joel
- Inducting Fats Domino into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, Billy Joel thanked him for "making the piano a rock and roll instrument."
- Randy Newman, with his family ties to New Orleans, has acknowledged Fats' heavy influence on his piano style from the beginning. "Have You Seen My Baby," from his 12 Songs album, was a deliberate homage to Fats — which came full circle a couple of years later, when Fats recorded his own version of the song. Newman recorded this version of "Blue Monday" for the 2007 tribute compilation Goin' Home, a post-Katrina benefit project which attracted a star-studded roster of Domino fans including Paul McCartney, Tom Petty, Elton John and more.
"Silver and Gold" by Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros
*"I'm Walkin'" by Tom Petty & Heartbreakers
*"I Want to Walk You Home" by Paul McCartney & Allen Toussaint
*"Be My Guest" by Ben Harper & The Skatalites
"Angela" by Low Cut Connie
"Let's Get Low Down" by Jon Cleary
"You Make Me Happy" by Marcia Ball
"I'm Gonna Be A Wheel Someday" by Sheryl Crow