One of the biggest stars of the first wave of American rock and roll in the early 1950s, Antoine "Fats" Domino was a New Orleans-based singer and pianist who brought his city's loose, funky vibe to international audiences through such smash hits as "Ain't That a Shame," "Blueberry Hill" and "Walkin' to New Orleans." A professional performer since his teens, Domino began his recording career in 1949, but did not have a hit on the pop charts until 1955 with "Shame." Thirty-five Top 40 hits followed in its wake, establishing Domino as one of New Orleans' greatest musical ambassadors and one of rock's most successful pioneers. Though his music faded from the charts by the mid-1960s, he remained a popular figure on the touring circuit. The ebullience and joy of his best recordings also never lost their luster, which assured him immortality as long as new listeners wanted to hear great American music. His death on October 24, 2017 at the age of 89 occasioned international mourning from generations of fans and peers, especially in his hometown of New Orleans, where he had loomed over the local music scene like a Mardi Gras Zulu King for decades.
Born Feb. 26, 1928, Antoine Dominique Domino grew up speaking French in his home in New Orleans, LA. A brother-in-law taught him to play piano, which he picked up with remarkable ease; by the age of 10, Domino was performing in public and by 14, he had left school to make a living on the Crescent City's difficult and often dangerous nightclub circuit. Domino's influences were the boogie-woogie and stride piano players of the period, most notably Albert Ammons and Fats Waller, as well as blues men like Little Willie Littlefield, whose music had a strong influence on Domino's early recorded sides. Domino was discovered in 1949 by Dave Bartholomew, a local trumpeter who worked as an arranger and talent scout for Imperial Records. Bartholomew signed Domino to Imperial and served as producer and co-writer for most of the artist's subsequent hits, beginning in 1949 with "The Fat Man," a lascivious R&B number about watching Creole women at the corner of Rampart and Canal Streets. Recorded at the legendary J&M studio with engineer Cosimo Matassa behind the board and flawless sidemen Earl Palmer (drums) and Alvin "Red" Tyler (saxophone) laying down a variation on the classic New Orleans boogie woogie number "Junker's Blues," the track established the young man as a notable talent for his languid stride piano and earthy, trumpet-like vocals. Considered by many to be among the first rock and roll records, it was a colossal hit, reaching No. 2 on the R&B charts and selling over a million copies.
With Bartholomew as producer and co-writer, Domino began releasing a steady stream of singles between 1949 and 1955, all in the vein of "The Fat Man" - effortlessly danceable and unmistakably from New Orleans. Most charted in the Top 10 on the R&B charts, and a few - like 1952's "Goin' Home" and 1953's "Going to the River" - brought into the Top 40 on the U.S. pop charts. But in 1955, his single "Ain't That a Shame" brought him national recognition and minted him as one of the first rock and roll stars of the genre's early days. However, it wasn't Domino's version that propelled the tune and the singer to fame, but rather, a cover by white pop crooner Pat Boone. Radio, like so many other facets of American life, was deeply segregated in certain regions, and Domino's version of "Shame" didn't reach the widest audience it could. However, Boone's cover shot to the top of the pop charts in 1955, which in turn helped Domino's original sell a million copies. Audiences clamoring for more of the same sought out Domino's other material, and in turn, helped to make him a favorite among white and black audiences alike. By all accounts, Domino was bemused by his status as a pop idol - a considerably large man, he was no one's idea of pin-up material, and he hadn't changed a thing about the way he recorded his songs since releasing "The Fat Man" in 1949. In fact, he was still using most of the same players from that track on his new material, including Palmer, Tyler and sax man Lee Allen. If he was displeased about Boone reaching No. 1 with "Shame" before him, he did not show it. Boone later stated that Domino once invited him on stage to perform the tune with him, and showing the audience a massive ring on his finger that Boone's cover had bought for him.
From 1955 to 1963, Domino was an unqualified success, amassing some 35 Top 40 singles. The biggest and best known of these was undoubtedly "Blueberry Hill," a 1940 chestnut that had yielded similar returns for Gene Autry, Louis Armstrong, Glenn Miller and Kay Kyser in the World War II years. It reached No. 2 on the pop charts and sold two million copies, and was followed in quick succession by such classics as "My Blue Heaven" (No. 19, 1956), "I'm Walkin'" (No. 4, 1957), "I Want to Walk You Home" (No. 8, 1959) and "Walking to New Orleans" (No. 6, 1960). Domino also turned up on television, performing "The Big Beat" on "American Bandstand" (ABC/USA Network, 1952-1989) in 1957 and in several feature films that exploited the growing popularity of rock and roll. The best and most outrageous of these was Frank Tashlin's "The Girl Can't Help It" (1956), which saw him strolling through "Blue Monday" in vibrant DeLuxe Color and Cinemascope.
In 1963, Domino parted ways with Imperial after the company was sold to Liberty Records. He signed to ABC-Paramount, which had generated major hits for other R&B singers like Ray Charles, but Domino would not find the same success there. He was taken out of his home turf in New Orleans and dispatched to Nashville to record with producer Felton Jarvis and arranger Bill Justis. He was also given a new sound that echoed the lush, pop-oriented material coming out of Nashville at the time, complete with a largely soulless vocal chorus that clashed mercilessly with his funky New Orleans roots. The result was a complete about-face from the record-buying public that had devoured his Imperial output. Only one track, 1963's "Red Sails in the Sunset," broke the Top 40, and by 1965, Domino had parted ways with the label. The move came a year too late for him; the British Invasion, led by the Beatles - who had cut their teeth on Domino's records as teens in Liverpool - had changed the course of popular music forever. Ironically, one of his last singles to chart during the decade was a cover of the Beatles' "Lady Madonna," a song the band had originally recorded in Domino's unmistakable style.
If Domino regretted the fall from popularity, he certainly did not make any bones about it. His record sales allowed him to live comfortably in a mansion in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, and a steady schedule of touring kept the coffers even fuller. By the 1980s, he essentially refused to leave his beloved city at all, citing his level of economic comfort and the fact that he could not find food that he liked anywhere else. Not even induction into the inaugural class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and an invitation to perform for President Bill Clinton at the White House could shake him loose from New Orleans. He much preferred to cruise its streets in his pink Cadillac and make annual appearances at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, where he romped through his catalog with his trademark charm and cool. In 1987, Domino received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences; President Clinton did them one better the following year by presenting him with the National Medal of Arts.
Domino remained largely off the national radar aside from airplay on oldies stations and his appearances in Louisiana until 2005, when he, along with millions of other New Orleans residents, lost everything in Hurricane Katrina. For a brief time during August of that year, it appeared that Domino had succumbed to the floodwaters that had destroyed his home and wiped out decades of priceless material; his agent reported to news agencies that he had not heard from the performer since prior to the hurricane's arrival. However, Domino was reported alive and well in early September. He and his family had been rescued by the National Guard and had been taken to Baton Rouge. Work on repairing Domino's home and office began in January 2007. Very little of his possessions had survived the disaster, though President George W. Bush arrived in August 2006 to personally replace the National Medal Domino had received from President Clinton. Domino was announced as the first artist to perform at the 2006 Jazz and Heritage Festival, but ill health prevented him from doing so. However, he released a new album, Alive and Kickin', that same year, which featured music from the 1990s as well as material recorded in the wake of Katrina. He finally returned to performing in 2007, the same year he was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame and the Hit Parade Hall of Fame. Entering his 80s and in poor health, Domino did not stay in the spotlight long: after playing himself in a cameo appearance in the series "Treme" (HBO 2010-13), David Simon's love letter to music in post-Katrina New Orleans, he quietly moved back into retirement. Fats Domino died at his daughter's home in Harvey, Louisiana on October 24, 2017. He was 89 years old.