1. Life & Culture

The legend who got overlooked: Fats Domino

Elvis Presley often referred to Fats Domino as "the real king of rock 'n' roll," but this octogenarian musical royal has led a relatively sedate life, especially compared with highflying contemporaries like Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. Perhaps that's why this New Orleans piano legend's impact is often overlooked.

Best known for classics including Ain't That a Shame, I'm Walkin' and Blueberry Hill, Antoine Domino Jr. has put up staggering statistics: He has sold 60 million records and, between 1950 and 1963, he made Billboard's pop chart 63 times and its R&B chart 59 times — more hit records than Berry, Little Richard and Buddy Holly combined. Yet he generally shied away from the spotlight.

"The planet missed out on certain things that Antoine was about," says Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Dr. John. "He's the one who brought everything to fruition."

Joe Lauro, a filmmaker and archivist, set out to address this gap with a new documentary he directed and produced, The Big Beat: Fats Domino and the Birth of Rock 'n' Roll. The film will be shown on the PBS American Masters series on Friday, Domino's 88th birthday.

In a phone interview, Lauro described entering the "parallel universe" of Domino's double-shotgun house in the 9th Ward neighborhood of New Orleans where he grew up. Domino's first response when they met, Lauro recalled, was, "I don't want to be documented by nobody!" For five years, the producer would visit the singer and they would talk, listen to music and wager on pool — until finally, when Domino lost a game, he signed a deal for the film rather than pay off his bet.

Still, the story faced some significant challenges. Domino, who has not performed since 2007, is painfully shy and very reluctant to speak in public. In addition, most of the performance footage that exists — clips from teen shows and early rock 'n' roll movies — isn't particularly dynamic. But then Lauro unearthed a film of a complete 1962 concert by Domino and his original band in France.

"That inspired me to get over the other hurdles," Lauro said. "Everything I needed was in that concert.''

The Big Beat focuses on Domino's early years, in an area so poor it still had dirt roads, before he became entranced by the piano and eventually joined forces with the bandleader-arranger Dave Bartholomew. Together, they helped create rock 'n' roll before it had a name; Domino's breakthrough hit, The Fat Man, was recorded in 1949 (five years before Presley's first recording session).

"Dave and Fats had the magnetism of opposites," Lauro said. "Fats would come up with a simple melody, and Dave would give it an edge or write a bridge. Or Dave brought in a song like Blue Monday and Fats would give it a more accessible approach.."

Don Bartholomew, Dave's son and a musician in New Orleans who has appeared in the HBO series Treme, underlined the importance of bringing Domino's story to light.

"He put New Orleans on the map, but even people in New Orleans today don't know who Fats Domino is," he said. "It's been lost — nobody really knows what he did in terms of the music, the beginning of rock 'n' roll, and breaking segregation."