October 24, 20017 – Antoine Dominique Fats Domino was born on February 26, 1928 in New Orleans, Louisiana, the youngest of eight in a Louisiana Creole family. At age 9, he started to learn piano, taught by his brother-in-law, jazz guitarist Harrison Verrett. By age 14, Domino was performing in New Orleans bars.
In 1947, Billy Diamond, a New Orleans bandleader, accepted an invitation to hear the young pianist perform at a backyard barbecue. Domino played well enough that Diamond asked him to join his band, the Solid Senders, at the Hideaway Club in New Orleans, where he would earn $3 a week playing the piano. Diamond nicknamed him “Fats”, for three reasons: Domino reminded him of the renowned pianists Fats Waller and Fats Pichon, and young Domino’s ferocious appetite.
Just two years later he found his first recording home at Imperial Records, where he would receive royalties on sales instead of a fee for each song. He stayed with Imperial until they sold out in 1963
He and A&R man and producer Dave Bartholomew, with whom he would write the bulk of his recordings, wrote “The Fat Man”, a toned down version of a song about drug addicts called “Junkers Blues”; the record had sold a million copies by 1951. Featuring a rolling piano and Domino vocalizing “wah-wah” over a strong backbeat, “The Fat Man” is widely considered the first rock-and-roll record to achieve this level of sales. In 2015, it would enter the Grammy Hall of Fame.
A couple of years later, in the mid fifties he crossed into mainstream popular music with the inimitable “Ain’t that a shame”, which went all the way up to number 14 on the Billboard pop singles chart, not withstanding that in this dark era of racial segregation, a much lighter version of the title, performed by crooner/copycat Pat Boone, made it to number 1, because it just received wider airplay. The disgrace of a racist nation.
Nevertheless, one of the pioneers of rock and roll music, Domino sold more than 65 million records. Between 1955 and 1960, he had eleven Top 10 hits and Chuck Berry remembered Domino making $10,000 a week in 1955. His humility and shyness however, may be one reason his contribution to the Rock and Roll genre has been sorely overlooked.
As far as Fats was concerned, he was just playing what he’d already been doing in New Orleans for years, and would continue to play and sing in pretty much the same fashion even after his music was dubbed “rock & roll.”
During his career, Domino had 37 records in the U.S. Billboard Top 40, and five of his pre-1955 records sold more than a million copies, being certified gold. Sadly none of his records made it to the number 1 spot on the Pop charts, not even his magnificent rendition of “Blueberry Hill”, a 1940 song by Vincent Rose, Al Lewis and Larry Stock (which had previously been recorded by Gene Autry, Louis Armstrong and others), reached number 2 on the Billboard Juke Box chart for two weeks and was number 1 on the R&B chart for 11 weeks. It was his biggest hit, selling more than 5 million copies worldwide in 1956 and 1957. The song was subsequently recorded by Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Led Zeppelin.
“Walking to New Orleans,” “Whole Lotta Loving,” “I’m Walking,” “Blue Monday,” and “I’m in Love Again” were also huge successes.
After Fats left Imperial for ABC-Paramount in 1963, he would only enter the Top 40 one more time. “I stuck with them until they sold out,” he said in 1979. In all, he recorded over 60 singles for Imperial, placing 40 songs in the top 10 on the R&B chart and 11 in the top 10 on the Pop chart. Twenty-seven of which were double-sided hits.
The surprise was not that Fats fell out of fashion during the huge “British Invasion”, but that he’d maintained his popularity so long while the essentials of his style remained unchanged. This was during an era, remember, when most of rock’s biggest stars had their careers derailed by death or scandal, or were made to soften up their sound for mainstream consumption.
Although an active performer in the ensuing decades, his career as an important artist was essentially over in the mid-’60s. He did stir up a bit of attention in 1968 when he covered the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna” single, which had been an obvious homage to Fats’ style.
In 1986 Domino was one of the first musicians to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He also received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987. Domino’s last album for a major label, “Christmas is a Special Day”, was released in 1993.
Domino lived in a mansion in a predominantly working-class neighborhood in the Lower Ninth Ward, where he was a familiar sight in his bright pink Cadillac automobile. He made yearly appearances at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and other local events. He was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987.
After being ill while on tour in Europe in 1995, Domino decided he would no longer leave the New Orleans area, having a comfortable income from royalty payments and a dislike of touring and claiming he could not get any food that he liked anywhere else. In the same year, he received the Rhythm & Blues Foundation’s Ray Charles Lifetime Achievement Award.
In 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded him the National Medal of Arts. Domino declined an invitation to perform at the White House.
In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked him number 25 on its list of the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time” in an essay written by Dr. John.
As Hurricane Katrina approached New Orleans in August 2005, Domino chose to stay at home with his family, partly because his wife, Rosemary, was in poor health. His house was in an area that was heavily flooded.
Domino was rumored to have died and his home was vandalized when someone spray-painted the message “RIP Fats. You will be missed”. On September 1, talent agent Al Embry announced that he had not heard from Domino since before the hurricane struck. Later that day, CNN reported that Domino had been rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter. Until then, even family members had not heard from him since before the storm. Embry confirmed that Domino and his family had been rescued. The family was then taken to a shelter in Baton Rouge, after which they were picked up by JaMarcus Russell, the starting quarterback of the Louisiana State University football team, and the boyfriend of Domino’s granddaughter. He let the family stay in his apartment. The Washington Post reported that on September 2, they had left Russell’s apartment after sleeping three nights on the couch. “We’ve lost everything,” Domino said, according to the Post.
President George W. Bush made a personal visit and replaced the National Medal of Arts that President Bill Clinton had previously awarded Domino. The gold records were replaced by the RIAA and Capitol Records, which owned the Imperial Records catalogue.
Domino returned to stage on May 19, 2007, at famous Tipitina’s in New Orleans, performing to a full house. This would be his last public performance. The concert was recorded for a 2008 TV presentation entitled Fats Domino: Walkin’ Back to New Orleans. This was a fund-raising concert, featuring a number of artists; Domino donated his fee to the cause. Later that year, a Vanguard record was released, Goin’ Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino featuring his songs as recorded by Elton John, Neil Young, Tom Petty, Robert Plant, Willie Nelson, Norah Jones, Lenny Kravitz, and Lucinda Williams. A portion of the proceeds was to be used by the Foundation to help restore Domino’s publishing office which had been damaged by the hurricane.
In September 2007, Domino was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. He was also inducted into the Delta Music Museum Hall of Fame in Ferriday, Louisiana.
In May 2009, Domino made an unexpected appearance in the audience for the Domino Effect, a concert featuring Little Richard and other artists, aimed at raising funds to help rebuild schools and playgrounds damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
In October 2012, Domino was featured in season three of the television series Treme, playing himself. On August 21, 2016, Domino was inducted into the Rhythm and Blues Music Hall of Fame. The ceremony was held in Detroit, Michigan. The other inductees were Dionne Warwick, Cathy Hughes, Smokey Robinson, Prince, and the Supremes. He had received the Rhythm & Blues Foundation’s Ray Charles Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995.
Domino was one of the most consistent artists of early rock music, the best-selling African-American rock-and-roll star of the 1950s, and the most popular singer of the “classic” New Orleans rhythm and blues style.
He died at his home on October 24, 2017 from natural causes at age 89.