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RIP: Herb Hardesty, Fats Domino's saxophonist, dies at 91

Herb Hardesty, best known as Fats Domino's saxophonist, dies at 91

Herb Hardesty, the saxophonist whose distinctive sound could be heard on nearly every Fats Domino song recorded and performed during their 57-year partnership , died Saturday. He was 91.

Hardesty died in Las Vegas, where he had lived for many years, according to Fats Domino biographer Rick Coleman, who in a Facebook post Sunday called Hardesty “one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll and R&B saxophonists.”

If listeners didn’t know Hardesty’s name, they would certainly know his saxophone, which is heard on such Fats Domino-Dave Bartholomew hits as “Ain’t That a Shame,” “I’m Walkin’,” “Blue Monday,” “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday” and even Lloyd Price’s 1952 classic “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.”

"A great New Orleans musician," remembered WWL-TV anchor Eric Paulsen. "Not only a wizard on the saxophone but a true gentleman."

Coleman points out that Hardesty’s tenor saxophone (and even baritone sax, which he picked up on the spot for a solo in “Blue Monday”) could be heard on most Fats Domino recordings and live performances from his first – “The Fat Man” in 1949 – to his final concert at Tipitina’s in 2006. Hardesty met Domino through Dave Bartholomew, the legendary producer/composer/arranger who helped kick off Domino’s career in 1949 and never looked back.

According to Coleman, Hardesty also appears on many recordings by iconic New Orleans musicians Smiley Lewis, Shirley and Lee, Bobby Mitchell and Roy Brown. He was also a trumpeter, which added to his musical versatility, according to Coleman.

A New Orleans native, Hardesty began trumpet lessons in grammar school and by the late 1930s was performing in local bands. A stint in the U.S. Army during World War II (including service alongside the famed Tuskegee Airmen) was followed by a few years at Dillard University.

Hardesty began performing again at local clubs after the war, and met bandleader/arranger/composer Dave Bartholomew in 1946. The two began performing together and Hardesty also became part of the studio band on many recordings at Cosimo Matassa's studio, which were led by Bartholomew. As recordings by Domino hit the charts in the 1950s, Hardesty joined his band full-time and began touring with Domino.

Hardesty also made several solo recordings (compiled in a 2012 Ace Records release called "The Domino Effect") and recorded and toured with singer/songwriter Tom Waits in the 1970s.

Hardesty continued to tour with Domino until the 1970s, when he moved to Las Vegas, where he was a member of the Duke Ellington and Count Basie Orchestras and backed singers including Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald. He also performed with Dr. John for many years.

He performed again with Domino beginning in the 1980s and remained a presence at Domino’s many appearances locally and across the country, including at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

"All hail Herb Hardesty, one of the few remaining alums of the J&M Studio Band whose talents helped create so many hits and classic songs for Fats Domino, Little Richard, Shirley and Lee, and so many others. His presence and fine soloing in Dr. John's sets this Jazz Fest added to the New Orleans feel in Dr. John's new songs,” wrote a Gambit reviewer in 2012.