3 New Orleans Musicians: Fats Domino, Louis Armstrong, and Aaron Neville

Fats Domino is a man who wants to be the only lover of a particular young woman in “All By Myself,” an attitude that seems friendly and self-possessed, without torment, without undue force (I imagine a contemporary version would be unbelievably sentimental or hostile). His song “My Girl Josephine” is full of details—an umbrella, rain, riding a woman on his back, her place near a railroad track—and in it he asks, Do you remember me as I remember you? (Isn’t that the trace of love?)

By Daniel Garrett

Fats Domino, All-Time Greatest Hits
Curb Records, 1990, 2005

Louis Armstrong, The Essence of Louis Armstrong
Sony, 1991

Aaron Neville, Warm Your Heart
A&M Records, 1991

I grew up listening to Fats Domino: I grew up in southern Louisiana, though not in New Orleans—and in addition to bayous and late summer storms, there was crawfish, backyard barbecues and ice-cream making, pecan picking, riding bikes, hunting, baseball, talk, and music. I listened to Fats Domino and the Motown crew—Stevie, Diana, Smokey, and Marvin; and I listened to Clifton Chenier, Dolly Parton, Elton John, and the Rolling Stones; and Ernie K. Doe, the Neville brothers, Streisand, and radio, which included then a greater range of music than it does today. It is a pleasure to hear a re-issue of Fats Domino’s music. Many musicians create good music and good will without becoming the first names we think of when we think of music. Fats Domino is one of those, and his All-Time Greatest Hits (Curb Records, 2005) offers a good time. “Whole Lotta Loving,” the first song, has piano and a percussive rhythm, with a charming vocal in which the singer makes the sound of kisses before uttering the word. The lyrics state, “I got a whole lotta loving for you, true, true loving for you. I got a whole lotta loving for you. I got a whole lotta (kisses) for you, I got a whole lotta (kisses) for you, I got a whole lotta kisses for you.” It is a very simple song—and I would not have it any other way.

In the uptempo, jazzy southern rhythm and blues of the next song, “I’m Walkin’,” Fats Domino is a man walkin’ and talkin’ and hopin’ for reconciliation with his love. “You made me cry/ when you said goodbye—ain’t that a shame,” he sings in “Ain’t That a Shame.” There is no aggression, and no threat, in the vocal: just a matter-of-fact declaration: “Ain’t that a shame, you’re the one to blame.” Southern intimacy is here; and male tenderness is here—and I have missed them. Most of the songs were co-written or written by Domino (only three were not). In “Walking to New Orleans,” which seems a thematic continuation of “I’m Walkin’” with a twist—a not uncommon marketing inclination in rhythm and blues and other popular music—Domino talks about going home after a lover spent all his money. He mentions he will need a new pair of shoes. (I think now of dusty southern roads that can be walked, and rode by horse, bicycle, motorbike, or car: and were.) The lyrics of “Walking to New Orleans” are: “I’ve got my suitcase in my hand./ Now, ain’t that a shame./ I’m leavin’ here today./ Yes, I’m goin’ back home to stay./ Yes, I’m walkin’ to New Orleans.”

“Blue Monday” is a terrific view-of-life song, a working man’s life, his travail and pleasures.

“I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill” may be a famous line, even for those who have not followed the career of Fats Domino (others, including Louis Armstrong, recorded the song). It is a doo-wop love song in Fats Domino’s hands, given a nice arrangement with varied instruments, including horns, percussion, and guitar. There is a saxophone, and a happy home scene featuring a family of three, in the uptempo “My Blue Heaven.” Fats Domino sings about having fun in “I’m Ready,” using claps, a fast rhythm, and a confident vocal to ensure that we join the fun too.

Fats Domino is a man who wants to be the only lover of a particular young woman in “All By Myself,” an attitude that seems friendly and self-possessed, without torment, without undue force (I imagine a contemporary version would be unbelievably sentimental or hostile). His song “My Girl Josephine” is full of details—an umbrella, rain, riding a woman on his back, her place near a railroad track—and in it he asks, Do you remember me as I remember you? (Isn’t that the trace of love?)

In “I Want to Walk You Home,” a song that might have been an inspiration for the Beatles, Fats Domino sings, “I want to walk you home./ Please let me walk you home./ I want to walk you home” and “I want to hold your hand./ Please let me hold your hand.”

He quotes lines from “I Want to Walk You Home” in “Let the Four Winds Blow.”

Fats Domino and his wife survived the year 2005 flood of New Orleans; and his music survives. Fats Domino’s popular songs, as collected here, are not what most of us would consider important or profound music, but there is still much to be said for music that puts a smile on one’s face.

Louis Armstrong

The great Louis Armstrong—an artist of the trumpet and of song, an entertainer, and an ambassador to the world: a couple of my favorite love songs have been sung by Louis Armstrong, and they were not among my favorites until I heard him sing them—“How Long Has This Been Going On?” and “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall In Love).” On Louis Armstrong’s The Essence of Louis Armstrong (Sony, 1991), a nice collection of songs that offer a taste of Armstrong’s talent, he uses both his voice and trumpet on the first song, “Mack the Knife,” the amused song about a thief and murderer, Macheath, written by Marc Blitzstein, Brecht, and Weill, and the song is given a jaunty and memorable treatment. There’s a spoken introduction with a bandmate on “Back O’ Town Blues,” a song about a lost love due to the narrator’s infidelity, featuring useful advice: “Never mistreat your woman, because it’s gonna bounce back on you.” (Armstrong’s trumpet playing here is wonderful.) There’s more sexual duplicity in “Six Foot Four,” much more—and involves nearly everyone, including Louis’s wife—and that pervasive duplicity is given a comic treatment that makes the song seem colloquial and modern. (I think of Armstrong as modern in the same way that I think of Pirandello, Picasso, Orson Welles, James Baldwin, Miles Davis, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Bertolucci, Diana Ross, and Joni Mitchell as modern, as a possessor of a sensibility and talent not likely to have existed before the twentieth century.) Armstrong scats through “All of Me,” and his voice is rough but with clear diction, and he scats in “When the Red Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along.” To hear that augmented with his trumpet playing is to inspire a listener to think about what the word talent means: ability, invention, mastery. There’s a long instrumental introduction to “Blueberry Hill,” then Louis’s singing is featured, and the song sounds as if it were recorded live. The collection includes the instrumental piece “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans,” and Armstrong gives a confiding vocal, an almost sad tone, to “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans.” “On the Sunny Side of the Street” and “When It’s Sleepytime Down South” and “Someday You’ll Be Sorry” are here, and Louis Armstrong closes the set with “Cabaret,” in which he makes life as a cabaret sound more like a call to good sense than a call to sensuality. Louis Armstrong—was?—is distinctive but one doesn’t perceive an excess of pride or anxiety or intensity in him. There is something social about the man and his work; and he has an understated, possibly indestructible dignity.

Aaron Neville

Aaron Neville’s Warm Your Heart (A&M, 1991) was produced by Linda Ronstadt and George Massenburg, and it is one more confirmation of her sensitivity and generosity: a beautiful job was done. The song arrangements are some of the best—beautiful, delicate, precise—I have ever heard. “Louisiana 1927” begins the collection, a song I liked when I first heard it fourteen or fifteen years ago, but which many people have adopted since hurricane Katrina. It has become an anthem of mystifying and outrageous loss and hurt. On “Everybody Plays the Fool,” Aaron Neville’s falsetto seems more steady and appealing here than in other recordings I have heard of his, and his wordless singing is also appealing. “Everybody Plays the Fool” is a song I grew up hearing—and might have listened to as I was playing, reading, writing, walking through a bookstore, learning lines for a high school play, or preparing to go to sleep. To hear it now is to think about past time, and how songs become part of our lives, dependable encasements of feelings, of pleasure: standards. Aaron Neville’s vocal is forceful on “Somewhere, Somebody” and “With You In Mind,” and “That’s the Way She Loves” is given a pretty presentation though there’s possibly not enough of a song there. (Neville also performs “It Feels Like Rain” and “Don’t Go, Please Stay.”) The song with a prison theme, “Angola Bound,” is a cry—wounded, inevitably though subtly angry—that forms a contrast to the comfort and sensitivity that most of the other songs might suggest. “Angola Bound” reminds me of human flaws, of the foolish and impoverished and stressful aspects of some Louisiana lives, in and out of jail. The state has many natural resources but does not retain most of the wealth that brings; and its culture often resists the intellectual: and such facts affect individual lives. (The song reminds me, too, of the casual and petty prejudices I used to hear, without taking that as its subject. What makes people so malicious, so merciless?) The humor in “Close Your Eyes” is welcome. In the song’s call and response between singers Neville and Ronstadt, he says, “Tell me you love me” and she says, “You love me.” Ronstadt also seems to take a leading tone that suggests a gender switch in the handling of romantic roles and singing parts. On the duet between Neville and Ronstadt, “Close Your Eyes,” a kind of doo-wop ballad with saxophone, they both sound great. “La Vie Dansante” has a subtle dance rhythm and Neville’s vocal is confident, firm, and the choruses are both celebratory and delicate—they seem to have a special intricacy as they mix English and French words. (I recall my grandparents and their children speaking French in Louisiana, and the Creole dishes the family cooked.) There’s a bluesy beat in “Warm Your Heart,” a contrast to Neville’s voice, which has a shivery lilt before deepening. “I Bid You Goodnight” is a Bahamian gospel song featuring a male chorus and it sounds like no gospel sound I have ever heard. (Then again, the Catholic church I went to as a boy rarely had singing and when it did it was usually that of a soloist who was studying opera, and she sang spirituals and other songs.) “I Bid You Goodnight” reminds me a little of male glee club singing, a little of doo-wop, a little of reggae. “Ave Maria,” though it has no significant appeal for my atheist heart, is an acceptable end to Aaron Neville’s collection Warm Your Heat, an album of popular music that seems to yearn toward the classical. Aaron Neville, like Fats Domino and Louis Armstrong, is a credit…

About the reviewer: Daniel Garrett has written about music for AllAboutJazz.com, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Option, and PopMatters.com; and his commentaries on Lizz Wright, Sinead O’Connor and Al Green have appeared on the web pages of The Compulsive Reader. Daniel Garrett has also written about art, books, business, film, and politics, and his work has appeared inThe African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Offscreen, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.