It’s the Domino effect (or ‘How to segue from R&B to Cajun’)
I was just about to turn off DJ Chris Evans’ radio waffle this morning when he played a medley of Fats Domino hits to mark the R&B maestro’s death at the age of 89. I would never say that I had been an active listener to his songs, but I was amazed at how many of them seemed so very familiar. I guess that’s due to growing up with the radio often playing in the background.
The three songs that most resonated with me must have been among his best-known recordings: Blueberry Hill, Ain’t That a Shame, and Jambalaya (On the Bayou).
IMHO Domino’s version of Blueberry Hill, with his trademark R&B piano playing, trumps that of another famous son of New Orleans, Louis Armstrong, whose jazz version is just, well, jazz – not my favourite genre.
Sadly, the history of Ain’t That a Shame reflects the history of coloured performers in the United States as it came to national attention only after being recorded by the (white) singer Pat Boone. More encouragingly, and according to legend, Domino was impressed by Boone’s version (and the royalties it brought) so he once invited Boone on to the stage, showed the audience one of his big gold rings and said: “Pat Boone bought me this ring!”
Jambalaya (On the Bayou), despite its seemingly Cajun origins, was originally a country song albeit one set to a Cajun melody and with faux Cajun lyrics sung in country fashion. Its originator was Hank Williams who had a mega-hit with it and Dr Google suggests that its popularity was due to a dilution of the ethnic origins of the music so that an audience could relate to it “in a way that it could never relate to a true Cajun two-step led by an asthmatic accordion and sung in patois” (I love that quote!). So Domino’s bluesy rendition of it is not a betrayal of any Cajun roots, but is instead a New Orleans R&B interpretation of a country classic and, as Domino’s origins were French Creole and his first language was Louisiana Creole, it all adds to the mix.
So here’s the limerick-as-eulogy for the late Antoine Dominique ‘Fats’ Domino …
There once was a pianist called ‘Fats’
One of R&B’s aristocrats
But the Grim Reaper came
(now Ain’t That a Shame)
And turned all of his sharps into flats.
Postscript: You can find loads of cover versions of Hank Williams’ Jambalaya (On the Bayou on the internet and it’s really interesting to compare versions. For example, at one end of the spectrum there is the saccharin-sweet Carpenters’ version, redeemed solely by Karen Carpenter’s hauntingly beautiful and honeyed voice, and Sonny and Cher’s light entertainment Comedy Hour duet that showcased Cher’s real talent in the days before she became a parody of herself.
A more energetic version that I really like is that from Creedence Clearwater Revival. Although its southern rock musical accompaniment is country-ish in origin, their vocals are closer to the harsh, slightly discordant tones of the Cajun tradition.
In fact, it seems that the ‘ethnic dilution’ inherent to the original version of Jambalaya has distanced the song from the purer Louisiana French and Creole traditions as it is nigh-on impossible to find a rootsy Cajun or Zydeco version on the internet. There are some that claim to be one or t’other, but they generally bear as much resemblance to ‘backyard’ Louisiana as mainstream country does to bluegrass. The nearest that I could find was a version by El-Jo Sonnier (and it’s okay other than it still betrays its country origins).
And what of the man himself? Well, this is his version.
Finally, there is an interesting cover of Domino’s Blueberry Hill
It is performed by a world leader oft implicated in the silencing of opposition and dissident voices, seen here to be murdering a song as well. Dear Reader, I give you ‘Fats’ Putin.