Blueberry Hills belongs with Elvis Presley’s Are You Lonesome Tonight?, Joan Baez’s Diamonds and Rust, and Bob Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right and It Ain’t Me Babe among the sweetest, saddest love songs of all time. And now the voice and piano behind Blueberry Hill is dead. Fats Domino has died at the age of 89. But the boogie-woogie pianist who helped launch rock ’n’ roll will always have a place in my heart.
“The real king of rock ‘n’ roll”
Even before Elvis, there was Fats Domino. The singer from New Orleans recorded The Fat Man, a song about himself, in 1950. It went on to sell more than a million copies.
Elvis Presley, who began recording in 1953, called him the “real king of rock ‘n’ roll”. “A lot of people seem to think I started this business,” Presley told Jet magazine in 1957. “But rock ’n’ roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that music like coloured people. Let’s face it: I can’t sing it like Fats Domino can. I know that.”
John Lennon was another Fats Domino fan. Lennon, who recorded Fats Domino’s hit Ain’t That a Shame on his solo Rock ‘n’ Roll album, said Ain’t That a Shame was the first tune he learnt to play on a guitar.
Fats Domino may be hardly heard now. But he was immensely popular in his time. He sold 65 million singles and made 23 gold records, outselling every 1950s rock ‘n’ roll star except Elvis Presley.
I was already a Presley fan when I first heard him.
One day, I came across two long-playing albums – one by Fats Domino, the other by Everly Brothers. I still remember the Everly Brothers album contained upbeat, guitar-driven songs like Bird Dog and Jezebel. But I can’t recall what was on the Domino album though I liked it.
Fats Domino sounded different from Elvis and the Everly Brothers’. Instead of jangling guitars, Domino’s rollicking piano provided the background music backed by horns. Over the piano and the horns, he sang in his easy baritone, caressing words with his lazy drawl.
Blueberry Hill is one of the most wistful love songs I have ever heard. It had been recorded by others before, including Glenn Miller’s big band in the 1940s, but Fats Domino made it his own.
I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill
On Blueberry Hill, when I found you
The moon stood still on Blueberry Hill
And lingered until my dreams came true
The moon stood still
On Blueberry Hill
And lingered until
My dream came true
The wind in the willow played
Love’s sweet melody
But all of those vows you made
Were never to be
Though we’re apart,
You’re part of me still
For you were my thrill
On Blueberry Hill.
“After John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Fats Domino and his partner, Dave Bartholomew, were probably the greatest team of songwriters ever. They always had a simple melody, a hip set of chord changes and a cool groove. And their songs all had simple lyrics,” wrote Dr John in his tribute to Fats Domino in the Rolling Stone series on 100 Greatest Artists in which Domino was ranked 25th. “There are no deep plots,” wrote Dr John, “in Fats Domino songs: ‘Yes, it’s me, and I’m in love again/Had no lovin’ since you know when/You know I love you, yes I do/And I’m savin’ all my lovin’ just for you.’ It don’t get no simpler than that.”
Fats Domino agreed his songs were simple. “I was lucky enough to write songs that carry a good beat and tell a real story that people could feel was their story, too — something that old people or the kids could both enjoy,” he said.
I love the songs he wrote by himself and with Dave Bartholomew. They include I Want to Walk You Home, I’m Walkin’, Walkin’ to New Orleans, Whole Lotta Lovin, and Ain’t That a Shame.
He did not claim to be an innovator.
“Fats, how did this rock ’n’ roll all get started anyway?” he was asked by an interviewer in 1957. “Well, what they call rock ’n’ roll now is rhythm and blues,” he replied. “I’ve been playing it for 15 years in New Orleans.”
Earliest Rock and Roll Hall of Famers
He was one of the first to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 – with Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Everly Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, James Brown and Little Richard.
Awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton in 1998, he was rumoured to have died when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, flooding his home, in August 2005. But he was rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter.
Subsequently, he recorded the album Alive and Kickin’, a donating proceeds from the sales to a foundation for preserving New Orleans’ musical culture.
The title song, Alive and Kickin’, expresses his happiness at being alive and well after the hurricane.
All over the country
people want to know
whatever happened to Fats Domino
I’m alive and kickin’
I’m alive and kickin’
I’m alive and kickin’
and I’m where I wanna be
Now he is gone. But I can still hear him, alive and kickin’, on YouTube, Spotify and my memory.