Everyone who knows anything about the music business knows that Seymour Stein — cofounder of Sire Records and a cofounder of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — isn’t just the leader of a label that signed Madonna, the Ramones, the Talking Heads, the Smiths and dozens of classic artists over the past 50 years, he also possesses a vast knowledge of the music of the 1950s, the era in which he grew up (and which saw him getting a job at Billboard as a teenager). Thus, when rock and roll pioneer Fats Domino passed away on Tuesday at the age of 89, we knew Stein (pictured below, being inducted in the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2016) would have some memories. He did not disappoint.
I first heard Fats Domino in 1951 or ’52, when I was just 9 years old. I was hooked for life: If I had to pick a favorite of all the artists that ushered me into R&B, it was most definitely “The Fat Man.” He was before Little Richard, James Brown, Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Clyde McPhatter, Hank Ballard and Jackie Wilson. He helped pave the way for them and for the great ladies of R&B like LaVern Baker, Ruth Brown and Etta James.
Later on, I got to know him well and tried to see him whenever I was in his hometown of New Orleans. About 25 years ago, I took him to lunch at the Commander’s Palace in the French Quarter, which specializes in great and authentic Cajun cuisine. I wanted very much to make an album of songs he had never recorded, including the Edith Piaf classic “Non, Je ne Regrette Rien” and the Eagles’ first hit, “Take It Easy.” He knew the Piaf tune and started singing it, and I did my best to sing the other. The staff and other diners were in awe as we sat there, eating and singing — it was one of the greatest days of my life.
He was up for the project, but when I offered him an advance of $50,000, he said he could get a much bigger advance from Capitol. When I tried to explain that Capitol would be paying him his own money — they owned masters from his old Imperial recordings — he said he knew that. I knew I could never convince Warner Bros. to invest as much as he wanted, so that was the end of that. In all truth, I hoped he’d take it to Capitol because I sure would have loved to hear his versions of those and other songs. But that’s a stellar example of Fats’ style of negotiating: It shows how sharp he was, back in the day when many artists were not.
A few years later, Jerry Blavat, my friend and the legendary Philadelphia DJ, took a trip to New Orleans on behalf of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (when I was still president) to get Fats to donate one of his famous rhinestone suits, which he graciously and generously did. We spent the entire day with Fats and his son Antoine, where he cooked an incredible meal for us.
When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, Jerry and I were both concerned, but Fats was initially calm and confident, as his home was on relatively high ground and had survived many other hurricanes. But when we learned he had been taken to Superdome, Jerry called his friend Ed Snider — owner of the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team and Flyers hockey franchise — to take his private plane down to rescue Fats. He succeeded in the first goal, but the weather was so bad the plane could not land in New Orleans. Thankfully, Fats was eventually rescued.
I dearly loved and respected Fats — he is a great treasure, gone but never to be forgotten.