When Fats Domino Didn’t Come to Town

Steve Propes

The year was 1988. Fats Domino was booked at the Summer of ’88 Together Rock and Country Festival staged at the Carson Street grounds of the Naval Hospital, now the site of the Long Beach Town Center. However, for reasons that are still unclear, the Fat Man’s named was quickly removed from posters and fliers, replaced by headliner Chuck Berry. It was a replacement that cost the Lakewood Chamber of Commerce thousands of dollars in concert costs and historically low attendance.

Three years earlier, in 1985, Fats Domino had made a one-of-a-kind appearance at the Universal Amphitheatre with one-time teen idol rocker, Ricky Nelson.

Fats opened. In the audience, KLON DJ Bernie Pearl, Ricky’s mom, Harriet Nelson and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame rocker John Fogerty. That concert was an easy sell-out.

It was planned as an authentic New Orleans celebration with Fats opening. Keep in mind, Fats Domino introduced and popularized the so-called second line rhythm unique to Crescent City jazz and rhythm and blues, emphasizing the off-beat and deeply influencing reggae as Jamaican music fans enjoyed on New Orleans radio in the early days.

Fats’ first, “The Fat Man” was an instant rhythm and blues hit. Few noticed it was based on “Junker’s Blues,” a Jack Dupree boogie about a dope addict. “The Fat Man” hit the top of the R&B charts in very early 1950, but it was five more years before Fats hit the pop charts with the avuncular “Ain’t It A Shame,” a song re-titled for the pop charts by Pat Boone, who was also covering Little Richard, the Flamingos and Joe Turner at the time. Fats didn’t care for the cover treatment, but truth be told, Boone helped spur the record up the R&B and pop charts. Later Ricky Nelson similarly covered Fats with his first record, “I’m Walkin’” to increased sales for both.

Domino didn’t like the song that became by far his biggest hit, “Blueberry Hill” was pop material Fats managed to turn it into a blues in 1956. He had a major hit, though he never sang the song for purposes of recording it. Instead, he’d play sections of it, all of which were captured on tape. So when it came time for his next record, engineers spliced together several of those sections and created a whole, even though on original vinyl, it’s clear that the tempo slows down halfway through the song.

Between 1955 and 1968, Fats had 66 records hit the pop charts, his final hit, a cover of the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna.” His last top ten hit was “Walking To New Orleans” in 1960.

So when Fats opened the Universal show, the audience was waving white napkins, which had been handed out by Domino’s crew. He went through his hits with gusto, at one time, pushing the piano across the stage with his belly. When he sang “I’m Walkin,” he said “I wish Ricky Nelson would cover another of my songs.”

It never happened. Ricky came out, performed a rousing set of hits, then his mother Harriet walked on-stage from the wings and the two left together. Several months later on Dec. 31, 1985, Ricky was gone, killed in an ill-fated DC-3 airplane flight, which crashed near De Kalb, Texas, taking his finance and five others.

Fats was basically missing in action after that concert. Some said it had to do with child support owing in California. Others claimed Fats was working off gambling debts in Vegas. Neither was mutually exclusive.

On the heels of “Ain’t It A Shame,” Chuck Berry debuted with his sensational car chase rocker, “Maybellene.” Fats charted one month earlier than Chuck, but Chuck dominated the charts with gems like “Roll Over Beethoven” in 1956 and “Johnny B Goode” in 1958 as well as his only number one, the novelty sing-a-long, “My Ding A Ling” in 1972.

After Chuck took Fats place on stage at the ’88 Together Rock and Country Festival, he returned to Long Beach to appear at the Long Beach Blues Festival in 1992, 1997 and 2008. Fats Domino never got to the area in that time span, spending most of those decades in New Orleans, where he was feared to have perished in Hurricane Katrina. Instead, he lost all of his gold records, but survived in a rowboat, moving on to new digs outside the flood zone.

Berry died at age 90 on March 18, 2017 at his home on the outskirts of St. Louis. Domino died seven months later at age 89 on October 24, 2017 at his home on the outskirts of New Orleans.

Both men left an indelible mark on rock and roll music as we know it. And John Fogerty said he was at the Universal Ampitheater not to see Fats, as was assumed, but to see Ricky. These days, Fats, Chuck and Ricky are already ensconced with the still-living John Fogerty in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.


Editor Note: Steve Propes will be teaching a seven-week Birth of Rock & Roll course at OLLI, CSULB campus starting on January 4, 2018. 


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