Born 3 March 1923, Covington, Louisiana
Herb Hardesty will forever be famous as THE saxophone player behind Fats Domino. Of course, many sax men have backed the Fat Man through the decades, but Hardesty was there from the very beginning of Domino's recording career in 1949 until recently when Fats gradually retired from performing. A unique 50+ year association. By Herb's own estimation, he plays 90 percent of all sax solos on Fats's records.* Personally, I think that 75% would be closer to the truth, but that's still a lot. More about those solos later.
Hardesty began playing music at age seven, when he got private trumpet lessons. When he was fourteen, he was already playing professionally. During World War II, he first picked up a saxophone when he was a radio technician for the black Army Air Corps. Returning home, he majored in music at Dillard University and formed his own band. Then the recording companies came to New Orleans. In the late forties Herb played with Roy Brown (with whom he also toured), Professor Longhair and Smiley Lewis. In 1949, he joined Dave Bartholomew's band and became his top soloist. When the session work (for artists like Shirley & Lee, Lloyd Price, The Spiders, Jewel King, Archibald, T-Bone Walker and Pee Wee Crayton) slowed, Hardesty accepted a standing offer from Domino to join his band. This was in February 1955. Herb had already played on Domino's records since "The Fat Man", recorded in late 1949. Now he had the chance to play the solos live that he had been recording for years.
With his personal and musical sophistication alone, Hardesty stood out from Domino's other musicians. But he also performed with wild showmanship, running and sliding across the stage, playing on his back, and even riding down banisters. In 1956 Herb became the band's driver and not long after, also the leader of the band. He was married and had two sons, but didn't see much of his family as the band was constantly touring.
Notable sax solos by Hardesty on Fats Domino recordings include:
Going To The River
Dave Bartholomew was the one who decided who would play the solos. If it was swing or traditional, he would choose Hardesty, if it was more gutbucket or bluesy, he preferred Lee Allen. Examples of solos by Allen are "I'm In Love Again", "I Can't Go On", "It's You I Love", "Wait And See", "Telling Lies". Compared to Hardesty's melodic, refined style, Allen sounds a little crude, albeit powerful and exciting. Music critic Hank Davis has called Hardesty's solo on "Blue Monday" "as close to perfection as one can imagine. The eight-bar sax break is a gem of almost frightening economy. It is one of the most memorable, bluesy and yet simple runs in all of r&b." And that on a baritone sax, an instrument that Herb had never played before and didn't even like. In some cases, the solos were played by Wendell Duconge (for instance, on "Solong").
Between 1958 and 1962, Hardesty also released some instrumentals under his own name, on Mercury (an entire album), Mutual, Paoli and Federal. Not having heard them, I can't say anything about these recordings, which may veer towards jazz. In 1970 Hardesty moved west and quit Domino's band. He made his home in Las Vegas, where he is still living today. Under contract to the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas, Hardesty backed up the likes of B.B. King, the Coasters and Tony Bennett. He also toured with Count Basie and Tom Waits. But he still performed with Domino off and on throughout the Seventies. I've had the good fortune to see him perform with Domino's band, which then also included Lee Allen and Dave Bartholomew, on at least four occasions in the 1970s and 1980s. By then he was wearing spectacles. In the 1990s he returned permanently to Domino's band. "My 50 years with Fats have been a rewarding, fulfilling experience, and we've come to be great friends with a bond of understanding and respect. I have had a good life in music and I'm still living a good life in music." Hardesty, now in his eighties, is still active and recently performed at the Ponderosa Stomp and, in Germany, with Frank Muschalle, one of Germany's top boogie woogie pianists.
- Rick Coleman, Book accompanying the Bear Family box-set "Fats Domino : Out Of New Orleans" (1993, 8 CD's).
- * Liner notes for the 4-CD EMI set "They Call Me the Fat Man : The Legendary Imperial Recordings" (1991). Includes "A note from a friend" by Herb Hardesty (page 40).
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