Remembering Fats Domino and Robert Guillaume

This week we lost two great African-American entertainers, musician Fats Domino and actor Robert Guillaume.

Famous for early rock and roll hits like “Blueberry Hill,” “I’m Walkin’” and “Ain’t That a Shame,” Domino was an early rock and roll pioneer known for his “two-fisted boogie-woogie piano and nonchalant vocals.” He died at age 89 on Tuesday at his home near New Orleans.

According to his New York Times obituary, Domino sold 65 million singles in those years, with 23 gold records, making him second only to Elvis Presley as a commercial force. Presley acknowledged Mr. Domino as a predecessor.

“A lot of people seem to think I started this business,” Presley told Jet magazine in 1957. “But rock ’n’ roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that music like colored people. Let’s face it: I can’t sing it like Fats Domino can. I know that.”

Actor Robert Guillaume also passed away at age 89 on Tuesday at his home in Los Angeles. His wife, Donna Brown Guillaume, said the cause of death was complications of prostate cancer, which he had had for 25 years.

His legacy is intertwined with his groundbreaking, starring role as subversive butler-cum-lieutenant governor Benson DuBois in the ABC hit series, Benson. The dramedy ran from 1979 to 1986 and was a spinoff of the acclaimed ABC series, Soap. Before there was The Cosby Show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air or Shondaland, Benson was our representative of an intelligent, “woke” black character on primetime TV. Guillaume won an Emmy for the role on both shows.

Guillaume’s New York Times obituary says he dreamed of being the first black tenor to sing at the Metropolitan Opera, but he settled for acting onstage and on television.

When criticized for playing a black domestic worker in a white household, he responded that he saw Benson as a paean to the black working man’s struggle. When he took the part, he said, he decided that while Benson might be a servant, he would never be servile.

“I wanted black people to be proud of Benson,” he wrote in his autobiography, Guillaume: A Life (written with David Ritz, 2002).

In a 2011 interview for his Times obituary, Guillaume said, “What made the humor was that he didn’t care what people thought about him. He wasn’t trying to be mean; he was just trying to be his own man.”

His most recent work was the book, Take a Look at Yourself: Secrets and Musings, published in 2014.

 

 

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