Fats Domino, the beloved icon and master pianist partly responsible for the nascency of Rock and Roll, was as great an ambassador for the music of New Orleans as Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet or Allen Toussaint.
Domino's 1949 hit "Fat Man," recorded at legendary engineer Cosimo Matassa's J&M Recording Studio in New Orleans, has been credited by many as the first Rock and Roll song. His classics "Blueberry Hill," "Ain't That A Shame," "Jambalaya," "I'm In Love Again," and "I'm Walking" really laid the blueprint for Rock and Roll, but also represented the multi genre fusion of R&B, blues, and two distinctly New Orleans-specific genres, ragtime and jazz.
And like many incredible New Orleans musicians over the years, Fats Domino also had a connection to Houston.
One rainy Sunday night in Houston back in 1953, Domino and his orchestra were playing such an exquisitely sublime set that the wall of sound drowned out a burglary transpiring next door at the Uptown furniture store. The burglars had entered the furniture store through a skylight and cracked open a safe with hammers, making off with $3,000 cash. The police were "quieting a disturbance" at the Fats Domino concert according to one newspaper report published the following Monday on December 28, 1953 with the headline "Bebop Ruckus Covers Up Noise of Safecrackers." Because of this, they were unable to hear the other real ruckus next door.
The burglers climbed back out of the same skylight they entered and the rain pouring down caused about $500 worth of damage to the furniture store.
But the Fats Domino concert itself was its own example of wild Johnny Strabler and film noir-era Rock and Roll rebelliousness. At the concert, police arrested 76 white people who did not want to stay in the section reserved for white concert attendees, but instead decided they wanted to dance with the black concertgoers.
According to the same article, a police lieutenant "said the youths, all white and many of them wearing 'ducktail' haircuts, created the disturbance by refusing to stay in sections reserved for whites. He said two minor fights broke out and search of the 76 taken to jail revealed 25 knives and a pair of brass 'knucks'."
The article ends with a sentence that reads "...the white youths apparently were so carried away by the 'bebop' music they wanted to get in on the dancing."
That same year in 1953, Fats Domino's biggest hit of the year, "Goin' to the River," reached No. 2 on the Billboard R&B chart, having entered the chart earlier at No. 8 the same week Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog," released on Don Robey's Houston-based Peacock label, peaked at No. 1.
Fats Domino played many shows in Texas throughout his career, but he also paid tribute to the state and specifically mentioned Houston in his music. His rendition of "Deep in the Heart of Texas" is a warm-hearted tribute to the Lone Star State.
In one of Domino's lesser known songs, "The Rooster Song," he mentions Houston, singing, "There was an old lady from Houston / She had two hens and a rooster / Her rooster died, the old lady cried / My hens don't lay like they used to."
Houston record label owner, radio host and promoter Skipper Lee Frazier, who passed away last year and was best known for his Ovide label, booked Fats Domino for concerts in Houston. One of the venues Domino played here is the Eldorado Ballroom on Elgin Street.
In an issue of Billboard Magazine dated Sept. 8, 1973, an article about downtown Houston's La Bastille Club, primarily a jazz club, mentions Fats Domino twice. The owner of La Bastille, the late Ernie Criezis, also owned local businesses (some with his brother Spero Criezis) including The Great Greek, Harlow's, Fat Ernie's, the Bowery, an architectural remnant shop and The Great Caruso. He also owned businesses in Paris and, later in his life after living in Houston, Los Angeles.
Criezis founded La Bastille in 1965 at its 716 Congress address with his then wife Toni Renee, a chanteuse from Europe whose last known whereabouts according to a comment on one forum were likely to be an island off the coast of France.
An article written by David Theis described La Bastille as a really happening place during its heyday:
"The building is long-since demolished, but apparently it ran deep enough underground that it passed for a "Parisian prison." In the '70s La Bastille was known for bringing in jazz greats such as Dizzie Gillespie for two-week stints, but in the '60s the entertainment was more cabaret style. Renee appeared there frequently (even at lunchtime) doing songs by Piaf, Brel, and the rest of the Gallic gang. At other times the club featured acts such as Los Chamacos from Mexico City and performers who were likely to turn up on the Johnny Carson show. Carson himself did standup in La Bastille."
The Billboard article from 1973 gives more detail with respect to La Bastille, mentioning another long gone Houston venue, the Cork Club at the Shamrock Hotel, and some of the musicians who also performed at La Bastille: "Ramsey Lewis, Herbie Hancock, Cannonball Adderley, Freddie Hubbard, Buddy Rich, Stan Kenton, Fats Domino and even Woody Herman playing his new jazz charts." Muddy Waters, Johnny Otis and Weather Report also played La Bastille.
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But as much as La Bastille was known as a jazz club, it was really the Rock and Roll, R&B maestro from New Orleans, Fats Domino, whose star shone the brightest there. For Criezis during that time, as the article noted, "His biggest draw so far has been Fats Domino."
And just a few months after La Bastille received the national spotlight in September 1973, Fats Domino played what appeared to be a residency there that lasted for weeks in December — perhaps one of Domino's favorite months to play Houston.