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‘American Masters: The Big Beat - Fats Domino and the Birth of Rock and Roll’ review: Only glory for singer’s legendary story

Fats Domino is a subject of note on

Fats Domino is a subject of note on PBS' "American Masters." Credit: Getty Images / Michael Ochs Archives

WHEN | WHERE Friday at 10 p.m. on WNET/13

GRADE B

WHAT IT’S ABOUT How Fats Domino found his thrill and used it to bring the New Orleans Big Beat sound to the world, as well as influence the early days of rock and roll, is a fascinating, layered tale. Director-producer Joe Lauro, also president of Historic Films Archive in Greenport, uses Domino’s longtime collaborators (including bandleader and co-writer Dave Bartholomew) and various experts (including the late Allen Toussaint and biographer Rick Coleman), to fill in the gaps. Though Domino, who turns 88 on the night “The Big Beat” debuts on PBS, appears sparingly in archival footage, his intense shyness often keeps him from speaking for himself.

MY SAY It’s to Lauro’s credit that the lack of lengthy in-depth interviews with Domino doesn’t hamper the storytelling. And by including Domino’s entire performances of “Blueberry Hill,” “I’m in Love Again” and “Walking to New Orleans,” his voice is heard powerfully in the element where he is most comfortable.

However, there are many moments when someone else is called in to tell a story that belongs to Domino. Bandleader Billy Diamond talks about how he gave Domino his nickname, which he didn’t like. (“Don’t call me Fats,” Diamond recalls being told by Domino, whose real first name is Antoine. “I’ll call you ‘Fat Billy.’ ”)

“The Big Beat” does well in identifying Domino’s influences, including Meade Lux Lewis and Big Joe Turner. It also does well in placing Domino in context in the early days of rock and roll, when he rivaled Elvis Presley.

It identifies how the race relations of the time shaped Domino’s career and how his record label worked to position him as nonthreatening to white teens and their parents. Biographer Coleman talks about how during Domino’s appearance on the “Ed Sullivan Show,” producers made sure to have him stand up after his song so that people could see he was chubby, helping to establish a “Harmless Fats Domino” mythology.

But even with that mythology, Domino still managed to tell the truth in dicey situations.

“As far as I know, music makes people happy,” Domino tells a journalist asking about whether his rock and roll music causes riots. “I know it makes me happy.”

BOTTOM LINE Only glory for the “Ain’t That a Shame” singer’s legendary life story.

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