Fats Domino, Imperial 5606, 1959, #17 Pop, #22 R&B
Antoine Domino got his nickname not from his size but because his piano style reminded a bandleader he worked for of Thomas “Fats” Waller. In fact, at the time of his first hit, “The Fat Man,” Domino was relatively petite. He only grew into his nickname after he’d begun making the long string of hits that led to fame, fortune, limitless desserts, and Sansabelt trousers.
Most recording artists who have had a great number of hits have also had some misses. While some music lovers may be able to find some subpar releases on Fats Domino’s long list of hits, to me they’re all delights, almost interchangeably enjoyable. Even “Blueberry Hill,” which I’ve heard my lifetime quota of and have sung hundreds of times at senior centers—even that one I can still listen to with joy.
“I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday” may edge slightly above the rest of the Fats catalog. I play this record more than any of the others, and (so far) it always remains fresh. It’s one of Fats’s few in which a guitar riff plays a prominent role, and that riff is offset by repeated shouts of “Hey!” that push it along. It was written by Fats and his producer/collaborator Dave Bartholomew, along with a fellow named Roy Hayes.
My first exposure to Fats Domino was at my Grandma and Grandpa’s farm, where my Aunt Kay had grown up. She had a small collection of 78s, including “I Want to Walk You Home.” That 78 mesmerized me and has always been a sentimental favorite, and led me to a lifelong craving for Fats.
Incredibly, he has no fewer than three top-ten hit records with forms of the verb walk in the title. “Walkin’ to New Orleans” is very similar to “I Want to Walk You Home.” They’re both sung at a steady walkin’ pace, with Fats sounding sedate and at the same time a little coy. “I’m Walkin’” speeds things up to a sprint, or at least to the elbow-flappin’ race-walker pace. I enjoy the steppy N’Awlins feel of it, but I also like to perform a slowed down, swingy version—back to regular walkin’ speed.
That brings us back to “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday.” Now Fats has abandoned the pedestrian mode altogether. He’s revved up the tempo even more, and along with the pace his tone has intensified: He’s gotten a little more boastful, almost full of himself (but not in an offensive way). And he’s not only planning to be a (big) wheel, he will have a set of wheels, and will be oblivious when he goes “rollin’ by.”
The music-related highlights of the most recent trip to NOLA my wife and I made included seeing Fats Domino’s totaled piano in a Katrina exhibit, seeing another Fats piano, restored with financial help from Sir Paul McCartney, in the U.S. Mint Building, and seeing Fats’ restored house in the Ninth Ward. Alas, that house no longer contains The Fat Man.