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  • October 29th, 2017


By JoelM. Vance

A sprawling low ceiling room, filled with the stench of cigarette smoke (this was in the days when not only everyone smoked, but there were no prohibitions against it in public places), stale beer and sweating college students. The atmosphere was light years away from emulating the name of the place– the Paradise Club, part dance hall, part roadhouse, and all unique in Columbia, Missouri, where it introduced a generation of college students to seminal rock ‘n roll. There were three colleges to draw from–the University of Missouri, Stephens College, and Christian (now Columbia College).
It was for the last couple of years of my largely undistinguished college career, a Mecca of Music, a place where the aficionados of early rock ‘n roll could hear the giants of the genre in person. It sprawled four miles east of Columbia on old Highway 40, and there African-Americans and white college students mingled freely in an era when segregation still was in full flower and the three colleges were virtually lily white. The presence of several burly bouncers, who looked like the front four of any given NFL defensive line ensured that racial disharmony would be short-lived— but I never saw anything untoward just people enjoying the best of roots rock ‘n roll.
Outside in the crowded parking lot there was a Mount Everest of empty beer cans where once, while being introduced to the date of an acquaintance, I lost my balance and fell backward into that reeking monument to college degradation that, to give it its due, cushioned my fall. The guy went on to be the attorney for the University of Missouri, and I suspect he doesn’t remember the incident, and neither does his date, other than with disgust, but the moment is etched in my memory forever. That same attorney-to-be also had taught me to sift a salt shaker into a foaming glass of beer to temper the head on the beer, a useful trick for any lawyer. Apparently I had done considerable salt sifting that night, which is why I lost my tenuous grip on balance.
But I was not at the Paradise Club to fall into mountains of beer cans or to shake salt into my drink, despite my dive into the crumpled Budweiser talus. I was there to drink in the music of an entertainer who to this day, a sad one as it turns out, lingers in my memory like the sweet aftertaste of beer that didn’t go flat (thanks, no doubt to a deftly manipulated saltshaker). The evening news, now that my days of falling into mountains of beer cans, and seasoning my foaming beer glass, are regretfully over, carried the story that Fats Domino had died. If, in later years, there would be Deadheads who followed the fortunes of the Grateful Dead with the devotion of religious zealots, I was (and just skip the lame jokes) a Fatshead. Fats was the apotheosis of rock ‘n roll, nevermind the other giants who shared fame with him.
Yes, there was Little Richard, who attacked a piano as if he were afraid that if he didn’t it would attack back, Chuck Berry duck-walking across the stage to the irrepressible lilt of “Sweet Little Sixteen’, and that amped up white kid from the Memphis area who would be crowned the King of rock ‘n roll —but not by those us who were Fatsheads. To give him credit the Memphis King is the only rock ‘n roll artist who sold more records than my king. But Fats racked up 68 million records sold and had more sales than Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Buddy Holly put together. Not bad, considering that Fats never had a record that hit number one on the best-selling chart. “Blueberry Hill” came closest topping out at number two.
The chunky baritone from New Orleans, with the fluid Cajun accent and a pounding boogie beat, was the real King of rock ‘n roll to me and always will be as long as I’m around to pay homage. Fats didn’t much like his lardy nickname when it was first applied to him but when he sold one million copies of his first recording titled “The Fat Man” he accepted the moniker with gratitude and a gold record.
The Paradise Club was respite from the drudgery and trauma of college classes. To be sure, there were classes that I enjoyed like French, with the idea in mind that I would someday travel to Paris, and live on the Left Bank and join the ranks of the literary lions of yesteryear— Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and those guys. Then there were classes like sociology, a so-called science that I equated with alchemy and the summoning of evil entities through devil worship. There were no devils at the Paradise Club, only the Angels of rock ‘n roll.
For his greatness, Fats only had an eight year career in the upper reaches of the charts before the Beatles came along and blew everyone out of the water. Still he didn’t quit even though early rock ‘n roll morphed into music that bore little relation to the boogie, rhythm and blues, and jazz roots that had nurtured it. He was still touring and filling small clubs with aficionados with long memories when he vanished amid the chaos of Hurricane Katrina and was feared dead. Several days later he was rescued along with his wife of 50 years from the roof of their destroyed home. Gone was the legacy of his musical career including his gold records, but his indomitable amiability remained as did he until time caught up with him.
Once I took a date to the Paradise, a freshman (or are they now in this era of gender equality, called freshwomen?) from Stephens College (they were and probably still are called Stephens Susies). Normally, our outings to the Paradise were guys-only where we could be unfettered and ill mannered without the animus of a date. My little Susie turned out to be a loose cannon who, feeling the effects of a drink or two which she acquired from God knows where (not me—I didn’t have enough money to buy a half pint of Jim Beam) she ran through the parking lot opening cars and jumping in while I vainly tried to corral her. It was like trying to put a halter on an unbroken filly and I vowed to myself that if I ever succeeded in getting this girl back to her dorm, I would, first of all, never date again and secondly I would never take another date to the Paradise Club.
Fortunately, I did date again and 61 years later, I am married to a subsequent date— but I never took Marty to the Paradise Club.
The parade of rock ‘n roll superstars who appeared at the Paradise Club is astonishing. Ike and Tina Turner owned a piece of the place, and appeared there many times. I saw BB King plucking blue notes out of Lucille, his fabled electric guitar as if he were back in the cotton fields of Arkansas pulling cotton bolls before the world realized his genius. Chuck Berry traveled over from his home in St. Louis to astonish with often copied guitar licks (hail, hail rock ‘n roll!).
Of them all there was one, only one, who approached Fats in my affection. He actually predated Fats in grabbing my musical mind by its metaphorical throat. Ray Charles sang “Come Back, Baby” on a distant radio station from somewhere in Arkansas and I picked it up on our old Zenith upright radio in Macon, Missouri, where I spent lonely weekends, because I had no baby to come back. Macon was the new town to which we had moved from Dalton where music appreciation ended about the time of the Edison phonograph. Charles had begun as a Nat King Cole clone, but had switched to black gospel-inflected blues and ”Come Back, Baby” was so raw with emotion that it made me shiver all over.
There he was, one night at the Paradise Club, not yet one of the towering musical geniuses of the 20th century, but to those of us who had delved into black rock ‘n roll before that insipid Pat Boone began to rip off black artists with his pallid and uninspired cover records, he was the real deal.
At the break I went to the stage, hoping to get an autograph but was intercepted by one of the Raylettes, and when I told her what I wanted she said I’ll sign it,” and did so.
Ray Charles was to the back of the stage slumped on his piano bench and although I didn’t know it, he was floating on a heroin high, a drug which ultimately he would kick en route to immortality
Our drug of choice was dime a glass beer or the cheapest whiskey possible—Early Times was a raw favorite, barely out of the still. If you want to experience the full flavor of Ray Charles musical genius look up the YouTube video of him and Willie Nelson singing “Seven Spanish Angels.”
Still, as much as I love Ray Charles, and the other legends of early rock ‘n roll, it was Fats Domino who dominated my affection. There is an indelible memory of the one night I saw him at the Paradise Club, in the full flower of his fame. He sat at the front of the stage, pounding out hit after hit, and leaning slightly toward the audience as if to inhale them. He sweated mightily with the effort of his entertainment, his ever genial smile warming the audience like a ray of sunshine.
Directly in front of him, perhaps six or eight feet back into the room was a support pillar against which leaned an enormous African-American lady who jiggled with the beat like a great bowl of Jell-O. It was hard to tell whether she was supporting the post or vice versa but to her it was a dance partner. She rotated around the pillar 360°, never losing contact with it. Each time she came face-to-face with Fats, she would jerk an enormous handkerchief from somewhere, the size of a bedsheet, and step forward to mop his streaming brow, after which she would step backward against her pillar and Fats would illuminate her with his capacious grin.
The Paradise Club is a long gone and now so is Fats Domino. It’s the fate of old men to mourn the golden moments of yesteryear, those pinpricks of sheer joy that will not come again.

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