By Tad Dickens
Nostalgia was the rule on Wednesday, as news emerged that Antoine “Fats” Domino, the New Orleans singer, pianist and rock ‘n' roll pioneer, had died at 89.
Yet Domino's career, including iconic numbers “Ain't That A Shame” and “Walking To New Orleans,” included bleaker episodes. The songwriter and performer saw multiple doses of mid-1950s racial violence—including a Roanoke melee.
In May 1956, the same year he released his career-defining hit, a cover of “Blueberry Hill,” Domino headlined a show at the American Legion Auditorium.
As was typical in the Jim Crow-era South, it was considered a “negro” show. Whites were admitted to the auditorium's balcony for a rhythm & blues concert that included Little Richard, Portsmouth-born Ruth Brown and The Cadillacs.
In the book “Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm And Blues, Black Consciousness And Race ...,” Brian Ward wrote that the balcony was too small for the 2,000 whites who came to the show.
“Some sought to escape the crush by moving down to the less densely packed main floor.”
Black and white people shared space on the bleachers below, and some danced together, Ward wrote.
By 1:15 a.m. as Domino was closing his set, the trouble began. Someone threw a bottle from the balcony, then people on both floors began hurling glass at each other. The violence continued outside.
Under the headline, “Racial Disturbance Climaxes Dance,” The Roanoke Times reported that all police on duty were called to the auditorium to join about a dozen off-duty officers who had been hired as security.
“There were many bruised and cut heads, it was reported, but so far as was known, the only person treated at a hospital was (a Virginia) Tech student,” the Times reported. “Police reported seeing numerous persons leaving with bloody heads or hands.”
Police noted “several fist fights” between whites and blacks on the streets around the auditorium that stood on the site of the Hotel Roanoke parking lot.
Two fighters struggled to reach a nearby loaded automatic pistol. Neither man claimed the gun, and police seized it, the Times said. At least five people, white and black, were arrested.
By year's end, Domino shows at a Newport, Rhode Island, naval base and at Army town Fayetteville, North Carolina, ended in violence. After a dozen black and white sailors were hospitalized after fighting at the enlisted men's club in Rhode Island, the base commander “immediately imposed a moratorium on rock and roll” and banned glass bottles, Ward wrote.
Domino, who “as a seasoned veteran of such brawls had taken refuge under the piano during the chaos,” said later that the glass bottles made “frighteningly effective missiles,” Ward wrote.
The Roanoke incident sparked discussion of barring whites from black dances, the Times reported. The city took no such action, but within days the American Legion facility banned race mixing at its shows.
The fighting also inspired the earliest calls in the city for a biracial committee to deal with integration.
Domino returned to Roanoke in 1972 to perform at the Caesar's Club, on Townside Road Southwest, off Franklin Road. Roanoke band The Vikings opened the show, then-band member Tommy Holcomb remembered.
“I remember Fats as being a down-to-earth, kind man,” Holcomb wrote in an e-mail exchange. “I actually have some 8 mm footage of the night, including a shot of my then-wife Rita and another pretty lady sitting on Fats' lap, with all three laughing. I also filmed Fats singing at the piano. A bit frustrating to watch, because there's no sound!”
And nary a bottle thrown.