Film turns the spotlight on rock’s reclusive forefather

Recording artist Fats Domino is the focus of “The Big Beat: Fats Domino and the Birth of Rock ’n’ Roll,” which airs at 10 p.m. Friday on PBS.

Elvis Presley often referred to Fats Domino as “the real king of rock ‘n’ roll,” but this octogenarian musical royal has led a relatively sedate life, especially compared with highflying contemporaries like Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. Perhaps that’s why this New Orleans piano legend’s impact is often overlooked.

Best known for classics including “Ain’t That a Shame,” “I’m Walkin’” and “Blueberry Hill,” Antoine Domino Jr., known as Fats, has put up staggering statistics: He has sold more than 60 million records and, between 1950 and 1963, he made Billboard’s pop chart 63 times and its R&B chart 59 times — more hit records than Berry, Little Richard and Buddy Holly combined. Yet he generally shied away from the spotlight.

“The planet missed out on certain things that Antoine was about,” said the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Dr. John in a recent phone conversation. “He’s the one who brought everything to fruition.”

Joe Lauro, a filmmaker and archivist, set out to address this gap with a new documentary he directed and produced, “The Big Beat: Fats Domino and the Birth of Rock ’n’ Roll.”

The film’s broadcast premiere will be on the PBS “American Masters” series at 10 p.m. Friday, Domino’s 88th birthday. (A longer version of the documentary will be released as a DVD the same day.)

Lauro, who has produced documentaries on the blues giant Howlin’ Wolf and on gospel music, said this project began about 10 years ago, when a woman approached him at the premiere of his film “The Wildest!” about the big band musician Louis Prima, saying that she was a friend of Domino’s and she wanted to introduce the two men.

In a telephone interview, Lauro described entering the “parallel universe” of Domino’s double-shotgun house in the 9th Ward neighborhood of New Orleans where he grew up.

Domino’s first response when they met, Lauro recalled, was, “I don’t want to be documented by nobody!” For five years, the producer would visit the singer and they would talk, listen to music and wager on pool, until finally, when Domino lost a game, he signed a deal for the film rather than pay off his bet.

Still, the story faced some significant challenges. Domino, who has not performed since 2007, is painfully shy and very reluctant to speak in public.

In addition, most of the performance footage that exists, such as clips from teen shows and early rock ‘n’ roll movies, isn’t particularly dynamic. But then Lauro unearthed a film of a complete 1962 concert by Domino and his original band at the Antibes Jazz Festival in France.

“That inspired me to get over the other hurdles,” Lauro said. “Everything I needed was in that concert. They lead a second line through the audience, there’s great piano playing. Then I knew I needed to make the film.”

Though he did record new interviews with Domino, most of the time that the singer is heard speaking came from an archive of conversations with the biographer Rick Coleman, who also appears in the film.

“The Big Beat” focuses on Domino’s early years, in an area so poor it still had dirt roads, before he became entranced by the piano and eventually joined forces with the bandleader-arranger Dave Bartholomew.

Together, they helped create rock ‘n’ roll before it had a name; Domino’s breakthrough hit, “The Fat Man,” was recorded in 1949 (five years before Presley’s first recording session) and was just inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

“Dave and Fats had the magnetism of opposites,” Lauro said. “Fats would come up with a simple melody, and Dave would give it an edge or write a bridge. Or Dave brought in a song like ‘Blue Monday’ and Fats would give it a more accessible approach. The combination is where the magic is.”

Don Bartholomew, Dave’s son and a musician in New Orleans who has appeared in the HBO series “Treme,” said that although he grew up thinking of Domino as a family member, the movie helped him understand the relationship between the two men.

“That chemistry was just magical, like hand in glove, a perfect match,” he said. “It was a local sound my dad was producing, but Fats took it to the world.”

Though Domino and Bartholomew (at age 95) are still alive, other luminaries who appear in “The Big Beat,” including the musician/songwriter Allen Toussaint and the producer Cosimo Matassa, died while the film was is production.

“When you’re dealing with subjects in their 80s and 90s, you really don’t want delays,” Lauro said, stressing the urgency of capturing this history before it’s too late.

Don Bartholomew underlined the importance of bringing Domino’s story to light.

“He put New Orleans on the map, but even people in New Orleans today don’t know who Fats Domino is,” he said. “It’s been lost. Nobody really knows what he did in terms of the music, the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll, and breaking segregation.”

Dr. John, one of Fats Domino’s greatest disciples, put it in more sweeping terms.

“He was always ahead of the times, and spiritually off the hook,” he said. “And when Antoine and Dave got together, they made this city reverberate.”