Fats Domino was born in 1928, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Introduced to music early in life, he began performing in clubs in his teens and in 1949 was discovered by Dave Bartholomew, who became Domino's exclusive arranger. His first recording, “The Fat Man” (1949), was one of a series of rhythm-and-blues hits that sold 500,000 to 1,000,000 copies. He found success in mainstream America with his 1955 song "Ain't It A Shame,” which was retitled to its now widely known, "Ain't That A Shame." The next year, his cover of “Blueberry Hill” became his highest charting hit. He solidified his popularity with teenagers when he appeared in two films, Shake, Rattle & Rock and The Girl Can't Help It. During his career, Domino endured the challenges of racial discrimination to become one of the defining pioneers of rock and roll music. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. A documentary about his life, Fats Domino and the Birth of Rock 'n' Roll, premiered on PBS in 2016.
Rise to Fame
Born in New Orleans, Louisiana on February 26, 1928, singer and musician Antoine "Fats" Domino was one of nine siblings in a musical family. He spoke Creole before he spoke English. When he was seven, 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, Domino was already performing as a singer and pianist. At 14, he dropped out of high school to pursue his musical dreams, taking on odd jobs like factory work and hauling ice just 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, Fats Domino met collaborator Dave Bartholomew and signed to Imperial Records, where he would stay until 1963. Domino's first record was The Fat Man, based on his nickname, a song co-written with Bartholomew. It became the first rock and roll record ever to sell over a million copies, peaking at No. 2 on the R&B charts in 1950. Domino and Bartholomew continued to churn out R&B hits and Top 100 records for years. Domino's distinctive style of piano playing, accompanied by simple saxophone riffs, drum afterbeats, and his mellow baritone voice, made him stand out in the sea of 1950s R&B singers.
Fats Domino found mainstream success in 1955 with his song "Ain't It A Shame," which was covered by Pat Boone, who recorded it 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. Domino soon re-recorded it under the revised name, which remains the popular title/version today. (It also happened to be the very first song John Lennon ever 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; his hit "The Big Beat" was featured on Dick Clark's television show American Bandstand in 1957. Still, 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. Riding high on his success during the end of the 1950s and into the early 1960s, Domino churned out even more rocking hits in 1959 like “Whole Lotta Loving,” “I’m Ready,” and “I Want to Walk You Home.”
Domino has described his songwriting process as taking inspiration from everyday events: "Something that happened to someone, that's how I write all my songs. I used to listen to people talk every day, things would happen in real life. I used to go around different places, hear people talk. Sometimes I wasn't expecting to hear nothin', and my mind was very much on my music. Next thing I'd hear, I would either write it down or remember it good." 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, Fats 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. He 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 and 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 he experienced during tour dates in England in 1991, 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's 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.
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, three days into the city's crisis. 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, Fats Domino made some public appearances around his home city of New Orleans. One of his concerts was recorded for a PBS documentary, Fats Domino: Walkin' Back to New Orleans, which aired in 2007. A greatest hits album was also released in 2007, allowing a whole new generation to fall for Fats Domino all over again.
In recent years, however, Domino has largely stayed out of the spotlight and hasn't performed. His beloved wife died in 2008. The following year, he attended a benefit concert to watch such other musical legends as Little Richard and B.B. King perform, but he stayed off the stage. A documentary about his life, Fats Domino and the Birth of Rock 'n' Roll, premiered on PBS in 2016. Now in his eighties, Domino will always be remembered as one of rock's earliest and most enduring stars, as well as an influencer of Jamaican ska music. He and his music also helped break down color barriers, getting white stations to play his songs and playing to racially diverse audiences.
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