A good innings

You could argue for the rest of your life about what constitutes the first rock’n’roll record and, indeed, on the internet, there are people prepared to do that. An exhaustive 82-track 2011 compilation comes up with candidates for the title, with varying degrees of plausibility, and with tunes dating back to 1915.

But Fats Domino’s 1949 single The Fat Man has a stronger claim than most. Based on Junkers’ Blues, a 1940 track originally recorded by Champion Jack Dupree, there’s almost nothing to it. A pounding, unchanging backbeat and an insistent bass pulse; Domino on piano, playing in a style noticeably more aggressively than that of his peers; saxes and guitar buried so deep in the mix that you barely even spot them until the song’s finale; some falsetto scat singing and three verses that replace Junkers’ Blues’ references to cocaine, reefers and heroin with lyrics that laud both Domino’s bulk and his irresistible sexual abilities: “I weigh two hundred pounds, all the girls love me, because I know my way around.” It sold a million copies and transformed Domino overnight from the pianist in Billy Diamond’s Solid Senders, a locally popular New Orleans band, into a star.

That’s some record sales there:

Fats Domino, the New Orleans rhythm and blues singer whose hits include Blueberry Hill and Ain’t That a Shame, has died aged 89 of natural causes.

Domino, born in 1928 and one of nine siblings, left school at 14 to take on work in a bedspring factory – but went on to sell over 110m records in a career that took off in the mid-1950s, having learned piano on an upright a cousin left in his New Orleans family home.

I think, and am open to correction here, that the reason he doesn’t appear at the top of the lists of records sold is that most of these were 78s and then 45s, not albums.

13 thoughts on “A good innings”

  1. Yes, I think it’s true that all the early rock and roll/pop singers suffer in comparison to later artists in that albums were regarded as throw-away by the record companies and hence everyone else.
    A couple of already released hits plus a load of random cover fillers recorded as quickly as humanly possible was the norm until really The Beatles. Their tendency to not put on an album anything which had previously been released as a single was pretty revolutionary and the attention they paid even to b-sides was exceptional.
    There had been examples like Sinatra and the “easy listening” acts like Martin Denny and Les Baxter selling themed albums in the 1950s but they were aimed at more affluent grown ups. As most of the audience for pop music was kids with not much money for albums I suppose the concentration on the cheaper single was understandable at the time though.

  2. Gamecock,
    No, the playing time of a 78rpm record extended slightly over time as the technology advanced, but went from roughly the equivalent of a 45rpm Single to that of an EP (From one to two songs per side although the latter was rare), The change from Bakelite to vinyl made all the difference in being able to develop the LP..
    A typical classical recording, for example, would be released on 78 in a several disc set as opposed to one double-sided LP on vinyl.

  3. Gamecock said:
    “I thought 78s were albums.”

    No; 78s are the size of LPs, but only have the capacity of a single (or a bit more).

    Partly because they spin faster (78rpm vs 33? for an LP), partly because they’re older technology (Bakelite?) so have a bigger space between each loop of the groove.

  4. Factoid of the day: the reason that most pop songs are 2½ minutes long is that was the playing time of a 10″ 78rpm record. (Classical music tended to be on 12″ records and lasted for 3 minutes – playing a Wagner opera could be ‘challenging’ :))

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