Fats Domino was an American pianist and singer-songwriter, who was one of the pioneers of rock and roll music, as well as, an early rhythm-and-blues star. Helping to define the New Orleans sound with his relaxed, stylized recordings of the 1950s and ’60s, he sold more than 65 million records.
His “The Fat Man” song released in 1949 is widely regarded as the first million-selling rock and roll record while his songs “Ain’t That A Shame” and “Blueberry Hill” are beloved.
For a man who between 1955 and 1960 had 11 Top 10 hits, what then accounts for his near obscurity? Domino was a shy person and always wanted to be away from the public and media glare.
Domino, born Antoine Domino Jr., on February 26, 1928 in New Orleans, forged a formidable partnership with producer Dave Bartholomew when he got signed by Imperial Records label owner Lew Chudd in 1949.
Together with Bartholomew they co-wrote many of the hits Domino had. After recording an impressive 37 different Top 40 hits for Imperial, Domino left in 1963 and joined ABC-Paramount Records. His successful union with longtime sidekick, Bartholomew was also broken. From then on, Domino found his music less commercially popular than before.
He continued to tour for the next two decades, but after a health scare experienced during tour dates in Europe in 1995, Domino rarely left New Orleans, preferring to live comfortably at home with his wife, Rosemary, and eight children off the royalties from his earlier recordings.
So private he became that he generally shunned publicity of all kinds and when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, he refused to attend the ceremony. He equally turned down an invitation to perform at the White House, the exception being when he accepted the National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton in 1998.
Another incident involving Domino’s digging of heels was when he was urged to leave New Orleans prior to Hurricane Katrina striking the city in 2005. He 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. He lost virtually all his possessions.
Many feared he was dead, but the Coast Guard rescued Domino and his family on September 1. Domino quickly released 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.
But Katrina took its toll on him. Friends and rock stars alike recorded a charity tribute album, Goin’ Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino to raise money for repairs of his home.
Domino hailed from a musical family, receiving early training from his brother-in-law, guitarist Harrison Verrett. He began performing in clubs in his teens and in 1949 was discovered by Bartholomew – the bandleader, songwriter, and record producer, who became Domino’s exclusive arranger.
Domino’s piano playing consisted of simple rhythmic figures accompanied by smooth, gently swinging vocals he delivered in a small, middle baritone range with even dynamics and a slight New Orleans accent.
With “Ain’t That a Shame” (1955) Domino became a favorite of white as well as black audiences. “Blueberry Hill” (1956), his most popular recording, was one of several rock-and-roll adaptations of standard songs. Then there was “I’m Walkin’” (1957) and “Walking to New Orleans” (1960). He appeared in the 1956 film The Girl Can’t Help It. One of his last hits was a version of the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna” (1968).
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.
Domino, one of the most popular performers of the early rock era died of natural causes on October 24, 2017, at the age of 89.