Rockin’ before she could walk, Kaili is a vinyl hound who knows the words to every post-1960 song.
Fats Domino was quite simply a trailblazer. The shy boy from New Orleans became a fixture on the scene in the early days of rock and roll, a musical genre he once said "wasn't anything but the same rhythm and blues I'd been playing down in New Orleans."
Who Wrote "Blueberry Hill"?
Three writers were behind this great song. The music was written by Vincent Rose, an Italian-American band leader and composer, and the lyrics were written by Larry Stock and Al Lewis. The song was first published in 1940 and was recorded six separate times that year alone. The first release was in May of that year by the Sammy Kaye Orchestra, with crooner Tommy Ryan doing vocal duty. This particular version was done as a ballad, with lots of soft horns. A pretty enough song, but it had no attitude—yet.
Other releases in 1940 included covers by jazz legend Gene Krupa, renowned bandleader Kay Kyser and even The Glenn Miller Orchestra, with the latter version making it to #2 on the US pop charts. Clearly, it was a good jazz/pop song that people liked; it just needed the right treatment to make it a great song.
Gene Autry and "The Singing Hill"
In 1941, the song was used in the film "The Singing Hill," starring Gene Autry. Though the movie wasn't a hit, Autry's version of the song actually became one of his best-selling recordings. This version helped move the needle a bit, at least, toward the version done by Fats.
Satchmo's Version of "Blueberry Hill"
It wasn't until 1949 that someone finally got it almost right. Louis Armstrong, also known as "Satchmo," released the song on the Decca label with Gordon Jenkins and His Orchestra. The song was recorded pretty late in Armstrong's long career, and it reached the #29 spot on the Billboard Top 40 chart. The song had real soul, and even drums, though the drums were played with brushes. It was a fine bridge between the original versions of the song done by crooners and what was to come.
One of the greatest songs in history is ‘Blueberry Hill.’ ‘The moon stood still on Blueberry Hill.’ I would be happy to have written that line. I don’t know how long it took the guy to write it, but it probably didn’t take years.
— Canadian singer/songwriter/poet Leonard Cohen
Brief Biography of Fats Domino
Antoine Dominique Domino Jr. was born in New Orleans on February 26, 1928. The youngest of eight children, young Antoine showed an early interest in music after someone gave the family an old upright piano. Lucky for him, his brother-in-law Harrison Verrett played banjo and piano in various local jazz bands, and he decided to teach Antoine how to play. The boy loved the piano so much that he left school in the fourth grade so he could focus all his attention on it. He honed his craft playing with local artists and sneaking into clubs when he could.
When Antoine was not quite 20 years old, he offered to play piano at his sister's backyard fish fry, where he met bandleader Billy Diamond. Diamond was so impressed with young Antoine that he offered him a job on the spot. Antoine—who was by now called "Fats"—spent time with Diamond's band and also played with bandleader and songwriter Dave Bartholomew before starting his own house band at a club called the Hideaway. One evening, Bartholomew and a local disc jockey brought the owner of Imperial records, Lew Chudd, to see Fats. Chudd signed him to the label that night.
Chudd was eager to get Fats into the studio, and on December 10, 1949, he did just that. Chudd had reworked a song called "Junker Blues" and renamed it "The Fat Man." Released that same month on the Imperial label, the song climbed to the #2 spot on the Billboard R&B chart by February 1950. This song is often cited as being the first ever rock and roll song.
Fats was to spend lots more time in the studio over the next several years, when he wasn't touring and playing live shows to promote his records. He followed up his success with "The Fat Man" the following year, when "Every Night About This Time" reached #5 on the R&B chart, and again in 1951 with "Careless Love" reaching #9. He had his first #1 hit in 1952 when "Goin' Home" grabbed that spot on the R&B chart, and his songs showed up on that chart at least once a year over the following three years.
In August 1955, Fats scored his first cross-over hit with "Ain't That a Shame" when that song appeared on both the Top 100 and R&B charts, the first "rock and roll" record by a Black artist to appear on the pop chart. Fats released what would be more #1 R&B hits the same year, including “All By Myself,” “Poor Me,” and “I’m in Love Again.”
Fats Records "Blueberry Hill"
Who could have imagined that a song recorded on a whim would help usher in rock and roll.
It was Satchmo's version of the song that Fats heard and decided he had to record, so he asked Harrison Verrett—the very same man who had taught young Antoine to play piano—to teach him the song. Satisfied he could play it, Fats went into the studio to record the song, but he wasn't at all happy with the results. Neither were the other musicians, who didn't even have sheet music. Producer Bartholomew, who also played trumpet on the song, figured it would never be finished and wanted to scrap it. He didn't believe it was Fats' style and also thought it had already been recorded too many times. But Imperial boss Chudd disagreed, and he had Bunny Robyn, who was the sound technician, pieced together a final version from the many takes recorded.
Released in September 1956 as the B-side of the record, with "Honey Chile" being the A-side, "Blueberry Hill" began its climb up the charts, and quickly landed at #1 on the R&B chart.
(Fats Domino is) the real king of rock 'n' roll.
— Elvis Presley
In the white honky-tonks where I was playin’, they were punchin’ ‘Blueberry Hill’ on the juke box. And white cats were dancing to Fats Domino.
— American singer Carl Perkins
Racial Tensions, the Devil's Music and Television
To call Fats a pioneer is not an understatement. Not only did he help pave the way for other artists like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis in this new music called rock and roll, he also helped break down racial barriers in the entertainment world, particularly on television.
By 1957, Fats was one of the most popular rock'n'roll musicians in the US, second only to Elvis Presley. But 1956 was a tough year. Fats was attracting more and more white folks to his shows, and integrated crowds, mixed in with the usual teenage antics and underage drinking, led to at least four major disturbances at his shows that year. The press were all over it, calling the incidents "riots" to highlight the dangers of both integration and rock and roll music. Fats and other more reasonable folks said it was just kids dancing and having fun. Fats and the band also experienced segregation first-hand, often having to travel well out of their way to find places to spend the night. In the midst of all this insanity, "Blueberry Hill" reached the #2 spot on the R&B chart.
When Fats appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on November 18, 1956, it was just Fats the audience saw. The rest of the band was behind a curtain, lest there be too many Black faces on television. He was also only allowed to perform only one song, since Sullivan was nervous about that sort of music on his show. Fats was a hit.
Fats went on to appear on The Perry Como show on February 2, 1957. Besides the color barrier, there was also an unwritten ban on having rock and roll artists on prime-time television. Como's producers were smart, and worked Fats into skits and had Como engage him in general conversation about rock music. Como asked Fats to perform more than one song, and Fats' band was right up there on the stage with him, not hidden behind some curtain. This was Como's answer to the racism displayed by Sullivan. Ratings spiked and Fats was immediately booked for a second appearance that May.
Fats and his band continued to tour and record and they made their first appearance on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand in 1957. Many of the venues they played in had never hosted integrated audiences before, so Fats continued to break down those barriers as he went. Fats experienced a bit of a slump at the beginning of 1958, but came roaring back in November of that year with “Whole Lotta Loving,” which reached #2 spot on the R&B chart and #6 on the Top 40 chart.
The early '60s were busy years, with tours to Jamaica and Europe that saw huge, adoring crowds turn up for all of Fats' shows. Even Paul McCartney took in a show in London while recording Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The song "Walking to New Orleans," released in June 1960, reached the #2 spot on the R&B chart, the second-last time that one of his songs would chart that high. Fats also began his first residence at the Flamingo Hotel in Vegas in 1962. But the British Invasion was about to claim another musical victim, and Fats wasn't immune to changing tastes in music.
Fats made annual trips to Europe in the '70s and was greeted by huge crowds and sold-out shows. He continued to record, but none of his singles appeared on any of the music charts. In 1986, he was one of the first ten performers inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Fats was inducted by Billy Joel, who said Fats was "The man who proved piano was a rock 'n' roll instrument."
Fats, who had lived in New Orleans his entire life, moved to Harvey, Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. He died peacefully at his home in Harvey on October 24, 2017, aged 89.
Ten Blueberry Facts
- Larry Stock, who wrote the lyrics, said that "one important publisher turned down 'Blueberry Hill,' because 'blueberries don't grow on hills'. I assured him I had picked them on hills as a boy, but nothing doing."
- Bandleader Billy Diamond gave Antoine the nickname 'Fats' when the young man started to put on weight soon after marrying in August 1947.
- According to Dave Bartholomew's son Don, "Elvis often commented that Fats and Dave were making rock n’ roll music before the term was ever coined.”
- “Ain’t That a Shame” was the first song that John Lennon ever learned to play on the guitar.
- "Blueberry Hill" sold a million copies the day after Fats appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956.
- The song was Fats' best-selling record, with five million copies sold.
- Fats and Elvis were among the first class inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.
- In the TV series Happy Days, the character Ritchie Cunningham, played by Ron Howard, sang this song whenever he had a date or saw a girl he was interested in.
- The song has been covered many times over the years, by artists including Elvis, Little Richard, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash and the Beach Boys. Even Led Zeppelin used to play the song in their early days.
- Through the years and until his very last concert, Fats would always ask his audience to “call out anything you want to hear.” The song they always shouted for was “Blueberry Hill.”
© 2022 Kaili Bisson