Herb Hardesty, a tenor saxophonist whose name was synonymous with New Orleans rhythm and blues and early rock ’n’ roll and whose lyrical solos were heard on nearly all of Fats Domino’s hit songs, died on Dec. 3 in Las Vegas. He was 91.
The Rhodes Funeral Home in New Orleans said the cause was cancer.
Mr. Hardesty had been discharged from the Army and was playing in Dave Bartholomew’s band when he first worked with Mr. Domino, though he was unaware of him at the time. Mr. Hardesty thought that he and his bandmates were going to record for “The Fat Man,” a radio detective drama, not accompany Mr. Domino, whose given name is Antoine, on his 1949 song “The Fat Man.”
In the liner notes to “They Call Me the Fat Man,” a Fats Domino anthology, Mr. Hardesty wrote that from the first recording, “I spent many hours in the studio helping build up Fats’s repertoire. His record sales were great, and the singles almost always made the charts, proving Fats and Dave to be a magical combination.”
Mr. Bartholomew produced and was a writer on many of Mr. Domino’s songs, which are regarded as part of the foundation of rock ’n’ roll.
Mr. Hardesty played on the sessions that created hits like “I’m Walkin’,” “My Blue Heaven,” “Ain’t It a Shame” and “Let the Four Winds Blow.” For the recording of “Blue Monday,” he played the baritone sax for what he said was the first time.
In all, he and Mr. Domino collaborated in the studio and onstage for nearly 50 years.
Mr. Hardesty’s tenor sax produced a big, meaty tone with blues and laughter in it. John Broven, the author of “Rhythm & Blues in New Orleans,” described Mr. Hardesty in a phone interview as an ideal sideman for Mr. Domino.
“Part of Domino’s success was that his songs were memorable and very hummable, and Hardesty was able to translate the lyrics into a melodic, saxophone sound,” Mr. Broven said. “One of the things Fats said that he liked about Herb was the tone of his saxophone. When you heard Fats live, with Herb in the band, you were hearing the original studio sound.”
With the portly Mr. Domino on piano projecting an infectious sweetness, Mr. Hardesty stepped forward, or stood up, and offered a quiet coolness with his solos. But he could also cut loose onstage, running and sliding across the floor and on his back all while blowing his sax. “He did that more in black clubs and toned it down for white audiences,” Rick Coleman, author of “Blue Monday,” a biography of Mr. Domino, said in a phone interview.
Mr. Hardesty would drive the Domino band to engagements in a bus or station wagon — Mr. Domino traveled separately in his Cadillac — with a “dedicated mission to get them into as many white hotels as he could,” Mr. Coleman said. At times, the band would be stopped by the Ku Klux Klan, recalled Mr. Hardesty’s longtime partner, Marty de la Rosa, who said the Klansmen would leave them alone when they knew it was Mr. Domino’s men.
Mr. Hardesty also played with Little Richard, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. With Mr. Domino, he accompanied Lloyd Price on “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.” He also accompanied Tom Waits on his album “Blue Valentine” and then toured with him.
Herbert Hardesty was born in New Orleans on March 3, 1925. From the front porch of his home in the 12th Ward, he watched bands march by on Claiborne Avenue. He started playing the trumpet at age 6 and was still in elementary school when he got his first gig, at a local movie theater, where, he recalled, someone gave him a drink that was actually moonshine.
“Boom! I get up to take a solo and fell back into the screen,” he told The Las Vegas Review-Journal.
He played in various bands before entering the Army, where, as a member of the all-black unit the Tuskegee Airmen, he served as a radio technician in Germany, Italy and Morocco during World War II. He did not begin playing tenor sax until he returned home to New Orleans.
His survivors include Ms. de La Rosa, who met Mr. Hardesty after a concert by Mr. Domino and his band; his daughter, Shari Weber, and two sons, Michael and Kirk Hardesty, and 17 grandchildren. His two marriages ended in divorce.
Mr. Hardesty moved to Las Vegas in the 1970s and in recent years was part of quintet that played at schools there.
Throughout his career, he was guided by a straightforward credo, he said. “When you play, play what’s in your heart, what’s in your mind, not what somebody else plays,” he told The Review-Journal in 2013. “You have to be yourself.”Correction: December 10, 2016
An earlier version of this obituary misstated the given name of Mr. Hardesty’s longtime partner. She is Marty de La Rosa, not Tony.