RIP Fats Domino, the sanest and steadiest of the rock 'n' roll greats

Fats Domino in 1956.

Fats Domino in 1956. Associated Press

Fats Domino, who died Tuesday at the age of 89, offered the most pleasurable counterargument imaginable to the lie that rock 'n' roll is all about youthful abandon and dangerous sexuality.

Fats’ unrufflably undulating New Orleans piano and seductive cordiality were of course every bit as rock ‘n’ roll as Elvis’s swiveling hips or Chuck Berry’s calculating high-speed wit or Little Richard’s goosed-by-the-Holy-Ghost whoop or Jerry Lee Lewis’s blasphemous stool-kicking. But just as certainly, Fats – who stayed with the same woman he married in his teens till her death in 2008 and often played hooky from tour to tootle off back home to the Lower Ninth Ward – is the odd man out of that pack of titanically world-altering weirdoes.

There was no hillbilly herky-jerk in the Fat Man’s beat, no postwar go-cat-go sprint toward success. His voice never twitched and trembled and hiccuped as though he was trying to dislodge an inconvenient boner from the fly in his boxers. He seems to stand amusedly off to the side of the epic cultural psychodrama that played out in the 1950s, rocking steady with unperturbed brilliance.

The arrangements Fats worked up with producer and writing partner Dave Bartholmew (who's still kickin' and just two months shy of 99 years old) perpetually revitalize songs so familiar they could otherwise have faded into nostalgic wallpaper before Happy Days went on the air. The contrast between the two-note punch in the verses of “Ain’t That a Shame” and the easy-rolling stride of its chorus never fails to thrill me, nor does the moment in “Be My Guest” (its offbeat the purported ancestor of ska) where what sounds like a dozen people playing three horns each bursts into the mix. The performances are elegant but never fussy – Fats’ music never lost control because it never needed to. It sounds like the product of a world where all forms of emotional release – including sex, yes, but let's not forget plain old belly laughs – are just a part of life rather than acts of defiance. That world, I suppose, is New Orleans.

For a city that’s contributed so incalculably much to American music, there’s something joyously un-American about New Orleans. It’s too Catholic, too Caribbean, too Creole to get caught up in the perverse Anglo-Protestant tension between rebellion and piety that defines so much of our national culture, that coin toss of puritanical heads and hedonistic tails. In their enthusiastic yet desperate striving for joy and deliverance, most of the early rock ‘n’ rollers essentially hitched Jefferson’s paradoxical idea of the “pursuit of happiness” to a smokin' backbeat. But really, can you imagine Fats Domino setting off in pursuit of anything, let alone something he already clearly basked in as fully as he did happiness?

Like fellow New Orleanians Louis Armstrong before him and Lil Wayne after, Fats exuded humor in every breath, but with far less an undertone of pain than either -- have you ever heard anyone less upset about being heartbroken than Fats chuckling through “Ain’t That a Shame”? And because the lust in his voice was as kind as it was cool, Fats sounded exactly as innocent or lascivious as you wanted him to, soothing tremulous virgins and their even more tremulous parents, stimulating the post-virginal and nudging along those aspiring to that status.

Fats may in real life have bought himself one of those pink Cadillacs that Elvis sang about, but where his peers' music celebrated high-speed automotive delights, his lyrical interests were more pedestrian. Literally. You want to talk about not being in a hurry? Fats had three hit songs about walking – what do you think Chuck Berry made of that? And yet, “I’m Walkin’” motorvates just as fast as “Maybelline,” because why would Fats need Chuck’s V8 Ford to get where he was going when he had Earl Palmer on drums?

Fats Domino’s first R&B hit, “The Fat Man,” is sometimes classified as “the first rock ‘n’ roll song” by the sort of goofballs who believe that there’s any such a thing to sleuth out – you may as well set out to determine who was the first teenager. But it was certainly something significant: the first single cut by any of the great rock ‘n’ roll stars of the ‘50s. That was in 1949. So by the time rock ‘n’ roll had become a phenomenon, Fats had a few years' head start on the new kids. Maybe all those other rockers sounded so rushed by comparison because they had so much catching up to do.

Check out our list of Fats Domino deep cuts here.