Soul Serenade: Fats Domino, “The Fat Man”

Fats Domino
There were hundreds if not thousands of heroes associated with the birth of rock and roll but the vast majority of them remain unsung. Only a handful them are still remembered as major figures. I’m talking about people like Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Last week we lost one of the people who very definitely belongs on that list, Fats Domino, and the sad fact is that only two pioneers, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, remain with us. Both of the piano-playing giants are well into their 80s and are said to be in declining health.
Today I want to celebrate Fats Domino because that’s the way it’s done in his beloved hometown of New Orleans. When someone dies in New Orleans people have a parade. They dance and sing and remember the good times. So it should be with Fats. I’m not going to try to relate the entirety of his storied life and career here. That would require a lengthy book. But I thought I would talk about his beginnings, and the record that put him, and New Orleans, on the musical map.

Antoine Dominique Domino, Jr. was born in the Crescent City’s fabled Ninth Ward and despite the fame and fortune that he acquired, he remained there until Hurricane Katrina drove him out. Fats was one of eight children born to Antoine Caliste Domino, a violin player, and Marie-Donatille Gros. Incidentally, the first name of every one of the children began with the letter ‘A.’ He quit school in the fourth grade to help support his family with a job assisting a man who delivered ice.

At the age of ten, Fats began to play the piano, with instruction from his brother-in-law, the jazz guitarist Harrison Verrett. Four years later, Fats was playing in local bars. At the time there was a popular band in town called the Solid Senders. The band was led by Billy Diamond and when Diamond heard Fats play at a barbecue, he invited him to join the band. The gig at the Hideaway in New Orleans paid $3 a week. It was Diamond who dubbed Antoine “Fats,” not so much because of his size but because he reminded the bandleader of legendary pianists Fats Waller and Fats Pichon. Fats Domino could do some eating though and that also contributed to the nickname.

Fats Domino

By 1949, Fats had a record deal of his own with Imperial Records. He collaborated with producer Dave Bartholomew on a song called “The Fat Man.” If he put out a record with that title today it would be called building his brand. And yes, given its release date, “The Fat Man” is one of a handful of records that is in the discussion of the first rock and roll records.

So a now-legendary pianist, working with a now-legendary producer and recording in a now-legendary studio called J&M owned by the equally legendary Cosimo Matassa. Oh, and the backing musicians happened to include a drummer named Earl Palmer who also became, that’s right, legendary. The ingredients were all there for a perfect gumbo.

The shellac record was released in December 1949. Sadly, the shellac master has been missing for decades. If you hear the song now, you are hearing a recording made from masters of 78 RPM records that are still in good condition. The song itself was a variation on a traditional song called “Junker’s Blues.” That same song informed Lloyd Price’s hit “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” and “Tipitina” by Professor Longhair.

Nationally, “The Fat Man” began to get attention in January 1950. A month later it was in the Top 20 on the R&B chart. By 1953 the record had sold a million copies. Whether it was the first rock and roll record is and always will be the subject of debate, but it was certainly the first rock and roll record to be a million-seller. It marked a beginning for Fat’s Domino’s amazing career.

For Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew “The Fat Man” was the first in a long string of hits for Imperial Records that continued until 1962. You know these songs by heart. “Ain’t That a Shame,” “Blueberry Hill,” and “I’m Walking are just three of the titles from this remarkable period of hit-making.

So we say goodbye to Fats Domino and to an era that is quickly receding. And while we are sad to see him go, we will continue to play his music for as long as music is played, and it will continue to make us smile until that day when we join him on the other side.


Soul Serenade: The Toys, “A Lover’s Concerto”

The ToysThere is nothing new under the sun. Ever since early people beat on a stretched animal skin in order to signal other people, music has evolved in one long, continuous line. It is certainly a tree with many branches, but in the end, everything comes from something that has come before. Even when you hear a sound that seems completely new and innovative, a little research will reveal that it is based on something that has come before.

Anna Magdalena Bach was Johann Sebastian Bach’s second wife. She kept a notebook that compiled the work of late 17th and early 18th century composers. Her husband contributed pieces to the notebook, but it also included pieces by a few other composers including François Couperin, Georg Böhm. The thing is, most of the composers weren’t identified in the notebook and so a piece called “The Minuet in G Major” was for many years assumed to have been written by Bach when it fact it was part of a harpsichord suite written by Christian Petzold, an organist from Dresden, Germany. It took until the 1970s for Petzold to get the credit.

In popular culture, the melody of “Minuet in G Major” was first appropriated by bandleader Freddy Martin in the 1940s. It was his recording of the song the first bore the title “A Lover’s Concerto.” Enter songwriters Sandy Linzer and Denny Randell who gave the tune a set of lyrics and changed the song’s rhythm from 3/4 time to 4/4, and in 1965 found a group to record their composition.

The Toys

The Toys had already been together for four years by that time. They hailed from Jamaica, Queens and the original lineup included Barbara Harris, Barbara Parritt, and June Montiero. Harris, who had come to New York from North Carolina, formed a quintet while in high school. When two of the members left, the trio that remained was known as the Charlettes. They found some working singing background vocals for other artists and eventually met songwriter/producer Bob Crewe who signed them to his DynoVoice label where they became the Toys.

It was Crewe who introduced them to Linzer and Randell who wound up writing and producing most of the songs that the Toys recorded for DynoVoice. The label released “A Lover’s Concerto” in 1965 and it was a smash it, streaking up the charts to #2 in a year in which the British Invasion was in full flower. For critics like Dave Thompson, the Toys recording of “A Lover’s Concerto” represented “the apogee of the girl group sound.” The record sold two million copies and a follow-up single called “Attack” did quite well also, reaching the Top 20.

Two years later the Toys left DynoVoice and signed with Musicor Records but their only hint of success while there came by way of a cover of Brian Hyland’s “Sealed With a Kiss” that was a minor hit. The Toys broke up in 1968 but Harris continued to perform for many years and released her first solo album, Barbara Now, in 1998.

Soul Serenade: Lyn Collins “Think (About It)”

Lyn Collins







But let me tell you something
The sisters are not going for that no more
‘Cause we realize two things
That you aren’t doing anything for us
We can better do by ourselves
So from now on, we gonna use
What we got to get what we want
So, you’d better think, think
Now’s the time when we have
That’s the thing I never will forget

When I heard the latest news about the unfolding Harvey Weinstein scandal the lyrics to this song came to mind. So I thought it would be an appropriate time to feature this funky record from 1972.

Gloria Laverne Collins was born in Texas in 1948. She began her singing career in her teens with the Charles Pike Singer and recorded her first single, “Unlucky in Love,” at the age of 14. Her break came when, after seeing James Brown perform, she decided to send her demo tape to him. Brown heard something he liked and asked Collins to join the James Brown Revue.

It wasn’t quite that easy though, and Collins had to spend a couple of years on the bench before being called into the Revue. While she waiting, Brown took her into the studio and she recorded five songs. Two of them, “Wheels of Life” and “Just Won’t Do Right,” were released as a single on Brown’s People Records label. Shortly thereafter she was handed the lead singing spot in the Revue where Brown dubbed her the “Female Preacher” in deference to her gospel-based singing style.

Lyn Collins

Despite the fact that Brown was not particularly well known as an enlightened male, he wrote and produced “Think” for Collins, and his J.B.’s provided the backing track. With its spare drumbeat and sometimes random background vocal interjections, it’s easy to imagine that the entire track was recorded live in the studio with little or no overdubbing. However it was recorded, it worked out well, with the record reaching to the Top 10 in 1972.

“Think (About It)” became the title track for Collins’ first album, released by Polydor, which included four other Brown-written songs. But first and foremost, Collins was a salaried member of the James Brown Revue and as such saw very little of the profits from her hit record. She contributed songs to blaxploitation films like Black Caesar, and Slaughter’s Big Rip Off, and there was a much-loved duet with Brown called “What My Baby Needs Now is a Little More Loving.”

Collins recorded one more album for Polydor before leaving the Revue in 1976. She moved to L.A. and got a clerical job at the Record Plant recording studio. She didn’t stop singing though, providing background vocals for artists like Dionne Warwick, Al Green, and Rod Stewart.

Funk had a comeback in the mid-’80s and Collins decided to try to be a part of it. She released a new dance single called “Shout,” and her two Polydor albums were reissued, bringing her to the attention of a new generation of listeners. Even more attention was paid when Rob Base & DJ Ezy-Rock sampled her “Think” vocal for their 1989 smash “It Takes Two.”

Fame arrived again for Collins in 1998 when Polydor released an album called James Brown’s Funky Divas which included 11 Collins songs. In 2005 she toured Europe where she was treated like a star by audiences. Sadly, Collins suffered a seizure brought on by choking on a piece of food. She died on March 13, 2005, at the age of 56.

Yes, “Think (About It)” was a hit in 1972 but the record became even more popular in later years for the samples it spawned. In fact, it became one of the most heavily sampled of all of Brown’s records, and that’s saying something. In addition to Rob Base & DJ Ezy-Rock, those who used one of the record’s five breaks on their own records included Roxanne Shante, De La Soul, Kid Rock, Janet Jackson, Snoop Dogg, TLC, and Fergie. The feminist anthem disguised as a funk record lives on in all of these recordings.

Soul Serenade: “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” — Who Did It Best?

Marvin Gaye - Gladys Knight & the PipsIt’s that time again. Yes, it’s time to do your civic duty as a citizen of the soul music community and help to resolve an age-old question: one great song, two great versions, who did it better? Your vote will go a long way toward deciding this crucial question, so before leaving, even if you don’t want to read the rest of this, cast your vote below. You don’t have to input your email address or anything else. Just vote.
In the past maybe you found these polls too easy. Maybe you thought, “hey, is this guy kidding? This is a no-brainer.” But this week I’m convinced that I have a tough one for you. No one can say that the choice between Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight & the Pips is an easy one. Oh, you might have your favorite, and that’s the one you’ll vote for, but calling either version superior is a stretch, to say the least.

Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong wrote, “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” in 1966. Barrett, you had contributed mightily to the success of Motown with his early hit “Money (That’s What I Want),” had the idea one day while walking down Michigan Avenue in Chicago. He’d been hearing the phrase “I heard it through the grapevine” quite often. There’s no telling if he knew that the phrase had its beginning during the days of slavery when slaves passed messages through their own version of a telegraph, the human grapevine. Whitfield helped Strong to flesh out the idea and a classic song was born.

It was neither Gaye nor the Pips who recorded the first version of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” That honor fell to the Miracles in 1966 although it has been claimed that Whitfield meant for the Isley Brothers to record it first. Some say that the Brothers did, in fact, record it but no one has been able to come up with the recording. The Miracles version appeared on their Special Occasion album in 1968 but Berry Gordy, Jr. had decided that it was not worthy of being a single.

Meanwhile, Marvin Gaye got a crack at the song in 1967. Whitfield produced the five sessions that were needed to complete the recording. The Funk Brothers laid down the track and the Andantes sang the backing vocals. Gaye wasn’t happy when Whitfield asked him to sing the song in a key that was higher than what he was used to, but Whitfield had been successful when he got David Ruffin to do the same on the Temptations hit “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” so Gaye ended up abiding by the producer’s wishes.

Once again, Gordy decided that Gaye’s version was not single-worthy and it became an album cut on In the Groove. Later that year, Gladys Knight & the Pips took a whack at it. Once again, Whitfield was behind the producer’s desk. He had admired what Aretha Franklin did with Otis Redding’s “Respect” and wanted to get a little bit of that Muscle Shoals funk into the record. Hence the funkier arrangement.

Gordy still wasn’t convinced that he had a hit single but he reluctantly gave in and the Pips version was the first single to be released on the new Motown imprint Soul Records in September 1967. Their take on the song shot up the chart to reach the #2 position.

In August 1968, Gaye’s In the Groove album was released and when DJs began to play “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” regularly, Gordy rethought his earlier decision and Gaye’s version was released as a single in October of that year. By December, it was the #1 single in the land and remained atop the charts for seven weeks. It became the biggest single in Motown history until it was eclipsed by the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” nearly two years later.

Incidentally, Gladys Knight was not happy when Gaye’s version did better than hers. She accused Whitfield of using a track he had created for her group. Gaye denied the accusation, although, troubled by personal issues including the illness of his singing partner Tammi Terrell, felt that he didn’t deserve the success he had with the record.

Over the years there have been many covers of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” including an 11-minute epic by Credence Clearwater Revival. But there’s little doubt that the two greatest versions of the song ever recorded were those by Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight & the Pips. So which one is your favorite? Do you like Gaye’s soulful passion or Gladys Knight & the Pips quicker, funkier take? I know, you love them both. But if you had to choose just one …

Click here to vote.

Soul Serenade: Big Mama Thornton, “Hound Dog”

Big Mama ThorntonIn 1950, a kid from Baltimore met a kid from Long Island in Los Angeles. The older of the two, Mike Stoller, was a piano playing college freshman. The other, Jerry Lieber, worked in a local record store called Norty’s while he was a high school senior. The pair bonded over a common love of blues and R&B.
Lieber and Stoller began to write songs together. Jimmy Witherspoon recorded their first song, “Real Ugly Woman,” but it was Charles Brown who gave them their first hit with “Hard Times” in 1952. That same year, Lieber and Stoller wrote a song for a blues singer by the name of Big Mama Thornton. The song was called “Hound Dog.”

Big Mama Thornton

She was born Willie Mae Thornton in Alabama and began singing in the Baptist church at an early age. Thornton left home at the age of 14 and got a job with Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Revue. It wasn’t long before she was being called “the new Bessie Smith.” In 1948, she moved to Houston where her career began to gain some traction. Three years later she signed with Peacock Records. The next year, with Lieber and Stoller producing, Thornton recorded “Hound Dog.”

The record topped the R&B chart, but as happened all too often in those days, Thornton saw very little money from it. She continued to record for Peacock until 1957 but never had another hit. In the early ’60s, she wrote and recorded a song called “Ball ‘n’ Chain” for the Bay-Tone label. The record was never released and when the song was recorded by Janis Joplin several years later, it was the record company that had the copyright and again Thornton ended up on the short end of the stick.

Thornton relocated to San Francisco, but her career was clearly on the decline. She continued to tour, and to record for a succession of labels and in 1969, after Big Brother and the Holding Company included “Ball ‘n’ Chain” on their hit album Cheap Thrills, the renewed interest in Thornton led to a record deal with Mercury. But again she found little success and moved on to other labels.

By that time, interest in original American blues singers like Thornton was fading while younger artists were making huge amounts of money playing the blues in arenas. Thornton thought she would be more appreciated in Europe and in 1972 she was part of a successful tour of the continent that included Big Joe Williams, Robert Pete Williams, T-Bone Walker, and others.

A year later Thornton performed at the Newport Jazz Festival alongside Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson. By that time, years of heavy drinking were taking their toll on Thornton. She recorded her last two albums for Vanguard Records in 1975. She continued to appear at blues festivals for several years but in 1984 she was found dead in a Los Angeles boarding house, the victim of her excesses at age 57.

Thornton was inducted into the Blues Music Hall of Fame that year. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s list of “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll” includes “Ball ‘n’ Chain.” There is little doubt that racial segregation in the United States prevented Thornton from getting the recognition that she deserved, and she remains under-appreciated to this day for her role in helping to shape American music.

Thornton’s recording of “Hound Dog” spent seven weeks at the top of the R&B chart and sold 500,000 copies. The song has been recorded more than 250 times since then. The most well-known of those records was the 1956 Elvis Presley version which sold more than 10 million copies worldwide and topped the Pop, R&B, and Country charts in the U.S.

Soul Serenade: Diana Ross & the Supremes and the Temptations, “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me”

The Supremes - The TemptationsEver since I decided to make “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” the focus of this week’s column I’ve been wracking my brain to think of another instance when the full lineups of two huge groups collaborated on a hit record. Yes, there have been supergroups like Cream and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young made up of former members of various bands, but in this instance, we’re talking about the all the members of two groups who were at the top of their game getting together. If you can think of another example, please let me know in the comments.

“I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” is a Motown record, right? Well yes, but oddly its origins are pure Philly Soul. The song was written by Philadelphia legends Kenny Gamble and Jerry Ross, who was Gamble’s mentor. It has been claimed that Gamble’s partner Leon Huff had a hand in the writing but only Gamble and Ross are credited on the record. But the time the Supremes and the Temptations got around to it the song had been a hit twice already.

The original version of “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” was recorded by Dee Dee Warwick and produced by Ross. In late 1966, the Mercury Records release attained the #13 spot on the R&B chart and crossed over to #88 on the Pop chart. Also of note on the Warwick release were the background vocals which were provided by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. Although it was not her biggest hit, “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” is the record most associated with Warwick because of the hit it later became for the Supremes and Temptations.

In all, Ross produced a total of ten recordings of “I’m Going to Make You Love Me.” Among the others were a 1967 version by Jerry Butler and a cover by Jay & the Techniques a year later. Aside from Ross, what all the versions had in common was the presence of Ashford and Simpson as background singers.

In 1968, “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” was offered to Dusty Springfield who demurred but passed it along to Madeline Bell who was a background vocalist for her. In an interesting turning of the tables, Springfield ended up singing in the background for Bell on the record. When the record became a #26 hit, Bell, originally from Newark, New Jersey, got to come home from the U.K. with a hit record.

“It was great to go back to my hometown with a record in the charts. I was so happy to go home a success,” Bell said later.

The Supremes - The Temptations

And so the stage was set for the song’s greatest moment. The Supremes and the Temptations collaborated on an album called Diana Ross & the Supremes Join the Temptations and in 1968, “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” became the lead single, although that wasn’t the plan at the beginning. The version of “The Impossible Dream” that the two groups had collaborated on was supposed to be the lead single, but when advance copies of the album hit radio stations the DJs started to play “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me.”

This time the record was produced by Frank Wilson and, wait for it, Nick Ashford. Diana Ross and the Temptations’ Eddie Kendricks shared the lead vocal duties, and Otis Williams of the Tempts contributed the spoken word section. The always-present Funk Brothers provided the backing track which also included the Detroit Symphony.

In case you were wondering, the Supremes and the Temptations never performed “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” together live. When they appeared together on the legendary TCB special in December 1968, they sang “The Impossible Dream,” still scheduled to be the lead single at that point, to close the show. Both groups performed the song live on their own, however, the Temptations on the Ed Sullivan Show, and the Supremes at their farewell performance in Las Vegas.

“I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” was a huge hit for the Supremes and the Temptations, racing up to the #2 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 in January 1969 and reaching the same lofty perch on the R&B chart.

Soul Serenade: Lloyd Price, “Personality”

Lloyd PriceIn the last couple of years, we have had powerful returns to form from classic soul men William Bell and Don Bryant. Now we can add Lloyd Price, whose new album This is Rock and Roll will be released on September 22, to that list. In honor of the occasion, I thought I would take a look at one of Lloyd’s greatest hits this week.
Price was born on the outskirts of New Orleans and got his start singing and playing piano and trumpet in his church’s gospel choir. He got his big break when Art Rupe came to town in 1952. Rupe owned the Los Angeles-based Specialty Records. He got word that something was happening in the Crescent City and when he arrived there he found that Lloyd Price was very much a part of what was happening.

Price had a song called “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” that Rupe thought would be a hit. He hired ace arranger Dave Bartholomew to work on the record and Bartholomew’s band was there too, a band that included Fats Domino on piano. As it turned out, Rupe was right. “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” was a smash. The follow-up, “Ooh, Ooh, Ooh” didn’t do quite as well and subsequent Specialty singles failed to chart.

In 1954, Price was drafted. When he got out the service he found out that he had been replaced at Specialty by Little Richard. To add insult to injury, Larry Williams, who had been Price’s chauffeur, was having hits for the label. That door closed, Price used the opportunity to start KRC Records along with Harold Logan and Bill Bosken. When the label’s first single, “Just Because,” was picked up by ABC Records for distribution it became a hit. It was the first of several national hits that Price had for the label. “Just Because” was followed by “Stagger Lee,” and “Personality.”

“Personality” was written by Price and Logan and recorded in 1959. The ABC-Paramount single reached #2 on Billboard Hot 100 that year and also climbed to the top of the R&B chart and remained there for four weeks. Billboard named “Personality” the #3 song of the entire year. “I’m Gonna Get Married” was another Top 10 hit for Price in that era. The hits led to Price television appearances on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and the Ed Sullivan Show.

In 1962, Price founded another label with Logan, this one called Double L Records. One of the labels earliest signings was Wilson Pickett. Seven years later, Logan was murdered. Price, on his own, started a label called Turntable and opened a club in New York with the same name. Price proved to be an astute businessman. In addition to the club, he became a builder, erecting 42 townhouses in the Bronx, and promoting fights with Don King including the Ali-Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974.

Price was not done with music, however. In 1993, he toured Europe with Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and Gary U.S. Bond. More recently, in 2005, there was the “Four Kings of Rhythm & Blues” tour which featured Price along with Jerry Butler, Gene Chandler, and Ben E. King.

Lloyd Price

And that brings us to the new Lloyd Price album, This is Rock and Roll. The album is a winning combination of new Price songs including “I’m Getting Over You,” “The Smoke,” and the funky social commentary of “Nobody Loves Anybody Anymore.” When Price turns to covers of classics like “Blueberry Hill,” “I Can’t Help Myself,” and Jimmy Reed’s “Peepin’ and Hidin’” (recorded live in New York City) he brings his own unique twist to the old chestnuts. He is at his best, however, on an emotional cover of Carole King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.”

This is Rock and Roll was recorded primarily at City Lights Studios in Farmingdale, New Jersey with studio owner Guy Daniels producing. The sessions yielded 27 songs and Price chose the ten that he felt sounded like “a reflection of the past but still right now.”

Lloyd Price was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, and the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2010. The new album will be available digitally tomorrow at iTunes, and Amazon. The CD can be purchased at Price’s website.