Singer and pianist Fats Domino channeled his roots in New Orleans’ thriving music scene to become a pioneering rock ‘n’ roll star. He made a splash with his first release, “The Fat Man” (1949), and later earned widespread fame with tracks like “Ain’t That a Shame” (1955) and “Blueberry Hill” (1956). Although his string of hits largely dried up by the early 1960s, Domino continued to record and tour, and he was among the charter members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The music icon died of natural causes in his beloved hometown of New Orleans on October 24, 2017. Legendary musician Antoine “Fats” Domino Jr. was born on February 26, 1928, in New Orleans, Louisiana. The youngest of eight children in a musical family, he spoke Creole French before learning English. When Domino was 7, his brother-in-law Harrison Verret taught him to play the piano and introduced him to the vibrant New Orleans music scene; by age 10, the talented boy was already performing as a singer and pianist.
At 14, Domino dropped out of high school to pursue his musical dreams, taking on odd jobs like factory work and hauling ice to make ends meet. He was inspired by the likes of boogie-woogie piano players like Meade Lux Lewis and singers like Louis Jordan. In 1946, Domino started playing piano for the well-known New Orleans bass player and band leader Billy Diamond, who gave Domino the nickname “Fats.” Domino’s rare musical talents quickly made him a sensation, and by 1949 he was drawing substantial crowds on his own. “I knew Fats from hanging out at a grocery store. He reminded me of Fats Waller and Fats Pichon. Those guys were big names and Antoine—that’s what everybody called him then—had just got married and gained weight. I started calling him ‘Fats’ and it stuck.” – Billy Diamond
In 1949, Domino met collaborator Dave Bartholomew and signed to Imperial Records, where he would stay until 1963. Domino’s first release was “The Fat Man” (1949), based on his nickname, a song co-written with Bartholomew. It became the first rock ‘n’ roll record to sell 1 million copies, peaking at No. 2 on the R&B charts. The two continued to churn out R&B hits and Top 100 records for years, with Domino’s distinctive style of piano playing, accompanied by simple saxophone riffs, drum after beats, and his mellow baritone voice, making him stand out in the sea of 1950s R&B singers.
Domino found mainstream success in 1955 with his song “Ain’t It a Shame,” covered by Pat Boone as “Ain’t That a Shame”; Boone’s version hit No. 1 on the pop charts, while Domino’s original reached No. 10. The hit record increased Domino’s visibility and record sales, and he soon re-recorded it under the revised name, which remains the popular title/version today. (It also happened to be the first song John Lennon learned to play on guitar.)
In 1956, Domino had five Top 40 hits, including “My Blue Heaven” and his cover of Glenn Miller’s “Blueberry Hill,” which hit No. 2 on the pop charts, Domino’s top charting record ever. He cemented this popularity with appearances in two 1956 films, Shake, Rattle & Rock, and The Girl Can’t Help It, and his hit “The Big Beat” was featured on Dick Clark’s television show American Bandstand in 1957.
Despite his enormous popularity among both White and Black fans, when touring the country in the 1950s, Domino and his band were often denied lodging and had to utilize segregated facilities, at times driving miles away from the venue. Still, Domino continued to ride high on his success through the end of the decade, churning out more rocking hits like “Whole Lotta Loving” (1958), “I’m Ready” (1959), and “I Want to Walk You Home” (1959).
Domino described his songwriting process as taking inspiration from everyday events: “Something that happened to someone, that’s how I write all my songs,” he explained. “I used to listen to people talk every day, things would happen in real life. I used to go around different places, and hear people talk. Sometimes I wasn’t expecting to hear anything, and my mind was very much on my music. Next thing I’d hear, I would either write it down or remember it well.” Domino believed the success of his music came from the rhythm: “You got to keep a good beat. The rhythm we play is from Dixieland — New Orleans.”
After recording an impressive 37 different Top 40 hits for the label, Domino left Imperial Records in 1963 — later claiming “I stuck with them until they sold out” — and joined ABC-Paramount Records, this time without his longtime sidekick, Dave Bartholomew. Whether due to the change in sound or because of changing popular tastes, Domino found his music less commercially popular than before. By the time American pop music was revolutionized by the 1964 British Invasion, Domino’s reign at the top of the charts had reached its end.
Domino left ABC-Paramount in 1965 and returned to New Orleans to collaborate once again with Dave Bartholomew. The pair recorded steadily until 1970 but only charted with one more single: “Lady Madonna,” a cover of a Beatles song that, ironically, had been inspired by Domino’s own musical style. Still, Domino’s songs and New Orleans sound would continue to influence a generation of rock ‘n’ rollers as well as the growing ska music genre in Jamaica.
“There wouldn’t have been a Beatles without Fats Domino.” – John Lennon
Domino continued to tour for the next two decades, but after a health scare experienced during tour dates in Europe in 1995, he rarely left New Orleans, preferring to live comfortably at home with his wife, Rosemary, and eight children off the royalties from his earlier recordings. A quiet and private man, he occasionally performed at local concerts and at the famed New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival from time to time but generally shunned publicity of all kinds. Domino was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, but refused to attend the ceremony; likewise, he turned down an invitation to perform at the White House, though he accepted the National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton in 1998.
Four songs of Domino’s have been named to the Grammy Hall of Fame for their significance in music history: “Blueberry Hill” in 1987, “Ain’t It A Shame” in 2002, “Walking to New Orleans” in 2011, and “The Fat Man” in 2016. Domino was also presented with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987.
Hurricane Katrina Scare and Recovery
Despite being urged to leave New Orleans prior to Hurricane Katrina striking the city in 2005, Domino preferred to stay home with his wife, Rosemary, who was in poor health at the time. When the hurricane hit, Domino’s Lower Ninth Ward home was badly flooded and the legendary musician lost virtually all of his possessions. Many feared that he was dead, but the Coast Guard rescued Domino and his family on September 1. Domino quickly put the rumors of his demise to rest, releasing the album Alive and Kickin’ in 2006. A portion of the record sales went to New Orleans’ Tipitina’s Foundation, which helps local musicians in need.
Katrina had also devastated Domino personally. To raise money for repairs to Domino’s home, friends and rock stars alike recorded a charity tribute album, Goin’ Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino. The likes of Paul McCartney, Robert Plant, and Elton John lent their support to the early rock pioneer. After Katrina, Domino made a few public appearances around his home city of New Orleans. Footage from a 2007 concert was captured for a documentary, Fats Domino: Walkin’ Back to New Orleans, which aired the following year. A greatest hits album was also released around that time, allowing a whole new generation to fall for Fats Domino all over again.
In later years, Domino largely stayed out of the spotlight. His beloved wife died in 2008. The following year, he attended a benefit concert to watch such other musical legends like Little Richard and B.B. King perform but stayed off the stage. A documentary about his life, Fats Domino and the Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll premiered on PBS in 2016. The rock ‘n’ roll legend died of natural causes on October 24, 2017, at the age of 89, according to the Associated Press. He will be remembered as one of rock’s earliest and most enduring stars, who helped break down color barriers in the music industry.