NEW ORLEANS (AP) – Fats Domino didn’t look like a typical teen idol. He stood 5-feet-5 and weighed more than 200 pounds, with a wide, boyish smile and a haircut as flat as an album cover.
But Domino sold more than 110 million records, with hits including Blueberry Hill, Ain’t That a Shame and other standards of rock ‘n’ roll.
The amiable rock ‘n’ roll pioneer whose steady, pounding piano and easy baritone helped change popular music, even as it honored the grand, good-humored tradition of the Crescent City, died last Tuesday of natural causes at the age of 89.
Domino’s dynamic performance style and warm vocals drew crowds for five decades. One of his show-stopping stunts was playing the piano while standing, throwing his body against it with the beat of the music and bumping the grand piano across the stage. He kept performing long after his last hit, a 1968 remake of the Beatles’ Lady Madonna that featured his pumping piano riff. He said he stopped making records after that because he refused efforts to change his style, saying “it just wouldn’t be me.”
Domino’s 1956 version of Blueberry Hill was selected for the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry of historic sound recordings worthy of preservation. The preservation board noted that Domino insisted on performing the song despite his producer’s doubts, and that Domino’s “New Orleans roots are evident in the Creole inflected cadences that add richness and depth to the performance.”
He was one of the first 10 honorees named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Rolling Stone Record Guide likened him to Benjamin Franklin, the beloved old man of a revolutionary movement.
Domino became a global star but stayed true to his hometown, where his fate was initially unknown after Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005. It turned out that he and his family had been rescued by boat from his home, where he lost three pianos and dozens of gold and platinum records, along with other memorabilia.
Many wondered if he would ever return to the stage. Scheduled to perform at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2006, he simply tipped his hat to thousands of cheering fans. His friend Haydee Ellis said then that Domino was “OK, but he doesn’t feel up to performing.”
But in May 2007, he was back, performing at Tipitina’s music club in New Orleans. Fans cheered – and some cried – as Domino played I’m Walkin’, Ain’t That a Shame, Shake, Rattle and Roll, Blueberry Hill and a host of other hits.
That performance was a highlight during several rough years. After losing their home and almost all their belongings to the floods, his wife of more than 50 years, Rosemary, died in April 2008.
Domino moved to the New Orleans suburb of Harvey after the storm but would often visit his publishing house, an extension of his old home in the Lower 9th Ward, inspiring many with his determination to stay in the city he loved.
“Fats embodies everything good about New Orleans,” his friend David Lind said in a 2008 interview. “He’s warm, fun-loving, spiritual, creative and humble. You don’t get more New Orleans than that.”
The early years
The son of a violin player, Antoine Dominique Domino Jr. was born Feb. 26, 1928. He was raised in a family of nine children. As a youth, he taught himself popular piano styles – ragtime, blues and boogie-woogie – after his cousin left an old upright in the house. Fats Waller and Albert Ammons were early influences.
He quit school at age 14 and worked days in a factory while playing and singing in local juke joints at night. In 1947, he married Rosemary – together they raised eight children in the same ramshackle neighborhood where he grew up, but they did it in style – in a white mansion, trimmed in pink, yellow and lavender. The front double doors opened into an atrium with chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and ivory dominos set in a white marble floor.
That same year, he began playing piano for Billy Diamond. In 1949, Domino was playing at the Hideaway Club for $3 a week when he was signed by Imperial record company.
He recorded his first song, The Fat Man, in the back of a tiny French Quarter recording studio.
“They call me the Fat Man, because I weigh 200 pounds,” he sang. “All the girls, they love me, ‘cause I know my way around.”
Fat Man sold more than 1 million copies and has been called the first rock ‘n’ roll record. That’s not a unique claim in the music world, but Domino, with help from songwriting partner Dave Bartholomew, shaped the new genre by providing Imperial with rhythm and blues hits for the next five years, including Rockin’ Chair and You Done Me Wrong.
In 1955, he broke into the White pop charts with Ain’t It A Shame – in which he sang the lyrics as “… ain’t that a shame.” It was covered blandly by Pat Boone as Ain’t That a Shame and rocked out years later under that title by Cheap Trick and many others. Domino enjoyed a parade of successes through the early 1960s, including Be My Guest and I’m Ready. Another hit, I’m Walkin’, became the debut single for Ricky Nelson.
Domino appeared in the rock ‘n’ roll film The Girl Can’t Help It and was among the first Black performers to be featured in popular music shows, starring with Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers. He also helped bridge rock ‘n’ roll and other styles – even country/western, recording Hank Williams’ Jambalaya and Bobby Charles’ Walkin’ to New Orleans.
Like many of his peers, Domino’s popularity tapered off in the 1960s as British and psychedelic rock held sway. “I refused to change,” he told Ebony magazine.
But his old recordings kept selling, his concerts kept selling out, and his influence continued to be felt.
It was in Bob Dylan’s Nothing Was Delivered, in numerous songs by Randy Newman, and, at least in spirit, on Van Morrison’s horn-driven tribute, Domino. A Philadelphia chicken plucker named Ernest Evans changed his name to a parody of Domino’s, Chubby Checker, and found dance immortality with The Twist.
Domino sang and played in Las Vegas for more than 10 years, where he passed time between shows in the gambling room. In the 1974 Ebony interview, he said he lost more than $2 million before he was cured of the gambling habit in 1972.
In 1988, all of New Orleans seemed to be talking about him after he reportedly paid cash in one pop for two Cadillacs and a $130,000 Rolls-Royce. When the salesman asked if he wanted to call his bank about financing, Domino smiled and said, “I am the bank.”
In 1998, he became the first purely rock ‘n’ roll musician to be awarded the National Medal for the Arts. But he cited his age and didn’t make the trip to the White House to get the medal from President Clinton.
That was typical. Aside from rare appearances in New Orleans, he dodged the spotlight in his later years, refusing to appear in public or even to give interviews.
Associated Press writers Hillel Italie and Kevin McGill contributed to this story.