If you've read any Fats Domino obituary or tribute--or if you've listened to any oldies radio in the past three decades--chances are you've seen his legacy reduced to a handful of songs.
There's "Blueberry Hill," the Great American Songbook standard he turned into a rock ‘n’ roll standard. There's "Ain't It A Shame," the song Cheap Trick turned into an arena rock hit in 1970. There's "Blue Monday," a 1956 hit that right-wing talk show host Michael Savage still uses as bumper music to this day. There's "I'm Walkin'," "I'm In Love Again," "Walkin' to New Orleans" and "Whole Lotta Loving," great records all, each confirming the commonly held notion that Fats Domino was a genial rocker who dispensed good cheer at a whim.
All of this is true, more or less, but focusing on just the hits does a disservice to one of the greatest musicians of the 20th Century. Forget his influence, although it's considerable. Domino--who recorded almost all of his great songs with producer Dave Bartholomew, who also co-wrote most of these tunes--has one of the deepest catalogs in postwar American music. Select a song at random from the sides he cut at Imperial Records from 1949-1962 and you're bound to find a joyous, nuanced performance, but there are a few that rise above the rest. Use this list as an introduction to his vast catalog and you're guaranteed an entry to music that's endlessly enjoyable, a source of sustenance when times seem bleak.
Be My Guest (1959)
The clearest connection between New Orleans R&B and Jamaican ska. Legend holds that Jamaican musicians heard the signature Big Easy shuffle over the radio and developed their skanking rhythm on what they remembered, and "Be My Guest" seems like Exhibit A in that argument: The groove is concentrated on the upbeat and there's a syncopation that counters the languid rhythm. Apart from its influence, the record is a delight, with a percolating groove that feels inevitable and Fats happily invites you into his home.
Little Bee (1950)
A really early cut--it was the flip side to Fats’ second single--"Little Bee" is definitive evidence that Domino wasn't simply a easygoing crooner. He leers throughout the record, taking stock of his purported paramour's measurements, but it doesn't feel sleazy because of the high spirits that would later become his calling card.
Don't You Lie To Me (1951)
Perhaps the purest New Orleans side in Fats Domino’s catalog, "Don't You Lie To Me" was popularized by Tampa Red and later cut by Chuck Berry. In Domino's hands, it sounds like a salute to Professor Longhair: it's wily and slippery in a way Fats rarely sounded on record.
Please Don't Leave Me (1953)
Fats resurrects his high, lonesome wail from "The Fat Man" for "Please Don't Leave Me," a 1953 single so laid-back Domino doesn't bother singing a word in English until a minute into the record. This isn't arrogance, it's confidence: Fats knows the rhythm works so there's no reason to clutter it with words.
An obscurity by any measure, "44" is one of the hardest blues Fats Domino ever recorded. A variation of "Forty-Four," a blues first recorded by Roosevelt Sykes and crystallized by Howlin’ Wolf in his 1954 rendition, "44" swings harder than its country roots but retains a sense of despair that's uncommon in Fats' catalog.
Don't You Know (1955)
A rolling blues that arrived just before "Ain't It A Shame," "Don't You Know" hits harder than its successor. Fats doesn't seem aggrieved but he's not donning the smile he'd wear on "Ain't It A Shame," and that makes all the difference, giving the record grit that his well-known hits lack. He's making a plea to a lover who's in no mood to hear his argument, and the futility of his testimony adds passion.
All By Myself (1955)
A number one R&B hit in 1955, just before rock ‘n’ roll existed, "All By Myself" is a joyous mess of contradictions. Domino tells his lover he wants to be her only boy, but his single-minded devotion is camouflaged by a rousing performance that feels like the opposite of isolation.
Poor Me (1955)
"Poor Me" topped the Black/R&B charts in 1955, just after "Ain't That A Shame" became Domino's first Top 10 hit. The reason why it didn't cross over is evident--it's a mocking blues with not a trace of pop, with a self-awareness that's absent in most '50s music.
Don't Blame It On Me (1956)
A flipside to Domino's rousing 1956 version of the folk standard "Bo Weevil," "Don't Blame It On Me" is classic New Orleans R&B. It's easy-rolling self-deprecation, the humor concealed beneath a cheerful surface.
I'm Ready (1959)
A big hit in the spring of 1959, "I'm Ready" may be the greatest of the big beat singles from Fats Domino that isn't acknowledged as a standard. What makes the record isn't just the rhythm, but how the words follow the beat: "Talkin' on the phone is not my speed/ Don't send me no letters because I can't read" is one of the great couplets in rock ‘n’ roll, gaining strength from its meter and containing a deceptive wisdom.
Natural Born Lover (1960)
The B-side to 1960's hit "My Girl Josephine," "Natural Born Lover" is sweeter than most of Fats' '60s singles, thanks to the heavy strings. Despite this element, the music feels empathetic, following the contours of Domino's melody and his soft touch.
Before I Grow Too Old (1960)
Fats Domino cut a few great records after "Before I Grow Too Old"--"Walking To New Orleans" followed this flipside of "Tell Me That You Love Me" by a couple of months, the blue-beat standard "My Girl Josephine" appeared a few weeks later still--but this song can't help but feel like the coda to his classic era. Maybe it's because it's a song of experience, a tune that should be sung by somebody who has tasted just enough of life to know there's more to savor. Over the years, a few artists revisited the song, including its co-writer Bobby Charles, but Fats adds a sense of gravity to a tune that demands it.
Read our tribute to Fats Domino's life and music here.