What I learned about writing from listening to Fats Domino

Antoine  Dominique “Fats” Domino Jr., a founding father of rock and roll, has died at the age of 89 at his home near New Orleans. He sang and played piano as the inheritor of a tradition of Crescent City musicians, whose versatility allowed them to embrace jazz, gospel, country, boogie woogie, and the rhythm and blues that would evolve in the 1950s into rock.

The key to happiness, said the congenial Fat Man, was “to play the blues and drink the booze.”

Most of Mr. Domino’s hits – “Blueberry Hill,” “I’m Walking,” “Ain’t That a Shame” – came out in the 1950s and early '60s, just before I got to high school and just before the great British Invasion, led by the Beatles, washed across America. I was a young musician myself. But I had no aspirations on growing as a “pianist,” fingering the likes of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms. I wanted to be a “piano player.”

I might come home from Catholic school and do my homework, but not before tuning in to American Bandstand to watch the kids from Philly dance to the music of the day. Suddenly, rock and roll musical acts appeared all over our TV sets. There was Elvis, of course, gyrating on the Ed Sullivan show, that camera cropping him at the waist. But I preferred the piano players, especially the wild ones: Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the guy who played for Chuck Berry (I later learned his name was Johnnie Johnson).

A formative moment in my life: For a Cub Scout talent show my mom decided that I would play the piano. We even came up with a gimmick. I would be introduced as Liberace. I came on to the stage, a little transvestite, wearing mom’s sparkly sequined vest, sitting at a grand piano with a candelabra lighting the keys. I played the dramatic opening measures of Grieg’s piano concerto, exaggerating the effect. Suddenly I stood up, kicked back the piano stool, and was transformed into Jerry Lee Lewis, tearing into “Great Balls of Fire.”

If you are a writer who admires, say, Tom Wolfe or Joan Didion or James Baldwin, you may wind up imitating that writer, the way I began to imitate the rock and roll piano players of my formative years. I still play their music all the time, but I no longer sound like them. I sound like myself – my authentic musical self. This is the goal for writer or musician, to become your authentic self. Distinctive performers are formed by a tradition of artists, and, if they are truly talented (unlike me), they add something to it.

Here is the magic: When I listen to Domino I hear someone who is completely original, and yet I can hear every New Orleans piano player he ever listened to. In his famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” the poet T.S. Eliot might have had Domino in mind when he wrote:  “We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet’s difference from his predecessors, especially his immediate predecessors; we endeavor to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed. Whereas if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.”  

When I received the news that Mr. Domino had passed away, I read his obit in the New York Times and then spent most of the evening listening to his recordings and watching videos of his live performances. At such moments I try to extract lessons for myself as a writer.  “What did I learn about writing from listening to Chuck Berry, or Professor Longhair, or Fats Domino?”

There is a powerful connection between music and writing, which I have been exploring for a long time now. And I am not alone. At a coffee house event in New York City, Kurt Vonnegut once said that “… virtually every writer I know would rather be a musician. ... Because music gives pleasure as we [authors] never can. Music is the most pleasurable and magical thing we can experience. ... I’m Honorary President of the American Humanist Association, but I simultaneously say that music is the proof of the existence of God.”

I can make a list of great New Orleans piano players, from Tuts Washington, to Professor Longhair, to Allen Toussaint, to Dr. John. In the alchemy that only artists can understand, Fats Domino was so much like them, and so, so different.

He was a short man, and very round. He had a square face framed with hairdos that intensified the geometry. He had this peculiar move in which he always placed the microphone near the top of the keyboard, so he had to turn his head and body to the right to sing. (Unlike Jerry Lee Lewis, who provocatively stuck the mike stand between his knees.) That meant Fats always appeared to be facing the audience, always smiling, rarely looking at the keyboard, where his hands, encrusted with rings, played a percussive rhythm. His voice, even when he sang the blues, was silky smooth, making him, in my opinion, the best vocalist among his peers. Elvis thought so, too.

Here are the writing lessons I can extract from a study of his work:

  • It helps for a writer – or any artist – to be from a place, the way that Springsteen is from New Jersey – and the way that Fats Domino is so thoroughly from New Orleans. He had to be rescued by boat from his flooded house during Hurricane Katrina. He was not just “from” his home town, he was “of” it. That sense of place oozes into the details of stories and the rhythms of dialect.  Ask yourself, “What place does my writing come from?"
     
  • It helps for a writer to imitate the work of artists who come before. The great sports writer Red Smith testified as to how, in his early days, he imitated the more ornate style of his idols before he had the nerve to simplify and clarify his prose and write in his own authentic voice.
     
  • While originality is a virtue for writer or musician, it is sometimes necessary to work with the ideas or assignments of others. On talent shows, such as American Idol, this is captured in the catch phrase “making it your own.” Domino’s most famous and distinctive hit was “Blueberry Hill.”  No one remembers the several versions performed in the 1940s by big bands, or even the 1949 version by Louis Armstrong. It is Domino’s 1956 hit that became iconic because the Fat Man made it his own.

One small, but fervent complaint. A South Carolina performer named Ernest Evans auditioned for Dick Clark, who promoted the singer and dancer and turned him into “Chubby Checker.”  He covered Hank Ballard’s song “The Twist” and created the greatest dance craze of the rock and roll era. Perhaps the name “Chubby Checker” was meant as an homage to Fats Domino, but it always felt more like a parody, a gimmick, disrespectful to a true musical artist.

Listen and learn ...

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.

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