Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Antoine “Fats” Domino died yesterday at the age of 89. Domino is counted among rock 'n' roll’s pioneers, and in his heyday during the 1950s he racked up more than 100 combined Billboard pop and rhythm and blues hits. Although possessing a more mild-mannered persona than many of his musical contemporaries, with 65 million records sold, Domino was the most successful of them all (except for Elvis Presley), and his music was a primary influence for superstars such as the Beatles, Elton John and Billy Joel, to name just a few.
Antoine Dominique Domino Jr. came into the world on February 26, 1928, the youngest of eight children born to French-speaking Creole parents living in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. Although Domino’s father was a fiddle player, it was his older brother-in-law Harrison Verrett who taught the young Domino to play piano and sing, eventually introducing him to New Orleans’ thriving music scene. A natural talent, Domino was performing in the city’s honky-tonk clubs by the age of 10, and by age 14 he had quit school to devote himself to music. He worked various jobs during the day to support himself, while at night mastering the New Orleans R&B style that would become his signature.
By the mid-1940s, things were looking up for Domino. In 1947 he married Rosemary Hall, with whom he would have eight children and stay together until her passing in 2008. He also caught the eye of Billy Diamond, one of the city’s top bandleaders, who bestowed Domino with the nickname “Fats” and invited him to join his group for gigs at the Hideaway Club. While performing at the Hideaway, Domino began to attract crowds in his own right, and in August 1949 local bandleader and record producer Dave Bartholomew helped him earn a contract with Imperial Records. Bartholomew would become Domino’s primary collaborator, and their partnership would prove to be one of the most successful of the era.
In late 1949, Fats Domino’s first single, “The Fat Man,” was released by Imperial Records. The track established Domino’s signature sound, which consisted of his Creole-inflected baritone and New Orleans boogie-woogie piano played over simple saxophone and drum lines that emphasized the downbeat. “The Fat Man”—which has been credited by some music historians as the first rock 'n' roll song—rocketed to No. 2 on the R&B charts and eventually sold as many as 1 million copies.
While more R&B successes quickly followed, it wasn’t until 1955 that Fats Domino achieved his first major breakthrough, with the release of the single “Ain’t That a Shame.” The song reached No. 10 on the pop charts, a true crossover hit that, for the first time, exposed him to a wider—and whiter—audience. “Ain’t That a Shame” remains one of Domino’s best-known tracks, and it has been recorded by numerous artists over the years, including Pat Boone, whose watered-down cover version was released shortly after Domino’s and surpassed the original, topping the pop charts for two weeks.
But the following year it was Fats Domino who topped himself, with his rendition of “Blueberry Hill.” The song reached No. 2 on the charts and went on to sell more than 5 million copies. Domino’s growing popularity also landed him appearances in the 1956 rock 'n' roll films The Girl Can’t Help It and Shake, Rattle and Rock, and over the next eight years, he would compile nearly 40 crossover hits, including “I’m Walkin’” (No. 4), “Whole Lotta Loving” (No. 6) and “Walking to New Orleans” (No. 6).
In the early ’60s, Fats Domino’s impressive run finally came to end. In 1963, Imperial Records was sold, essentially ending his fruitful collaboration with Bartholomew. The arrival of the Beatles in 1964 and the ensuing British Invasion further eclipsed the careers of Domino and other early rock 'n' rollers, and Domino’s popular successes during the 1960s were relatively few. Somewhat ironically, perhaps, his last song to reach the Top 100 would be a 1968 cover of the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna.”
During the 1970s a renewed interest in early rock 'n' roll led to cover versions of his songs by artists such as John Lennon and Cheap Trick, and Fats Domino continued to perform in revival shows and record albums. During the 1980s, however, both weary of the road and able to live quietly and comfortably off his royalties, Domino went into semi-retirement, vowing not to leave New Orleans. True to his word, in 1986 Domino did not attend his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 1987 he elected to forego traveling to Los Angeles to accept a Lifetime Achievement Grammy. Except for a brief European tour in 1995, his few performances in the decades that followed were almost exclusively in his beloved New Orleans.
In 2005, however, Fats Domino’s world was turned upside down, when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast. The resulting flooding wreaked havoc on the Ninth Ward, and it was initially rumored that Domino had drowned. Though in truth he had been rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter, Domino lost everything in the storm, including his piano and all of his gold records. Yet this tragedy only served to deepen Domino’s attachment to the city of his birth, and indeed much of the work he would do for the remainder of his life would be focused on helping to rebuild it.
In early 2006 he recorded the album Alive and Kickin’ to benefit Tipitina’s Foundation, an organization dedicated to supporting local musicians and culture. In 2007 the Katrina benefit album Goin’ Home, which featured covers of Fats Domino songs by the likes of Elton John, Paul McCartney, Neil Young and Norah Jones, was released. In 2009 Domino took to the stage at “The Domino Effect,” a benefit concert for schools damaged by Katrina.
Fats Domino has been the subject of the documentaries Fats Domino: Walking Back to New Orleans and 2014’s The Big Beat, which was released at the New Orleans Film Festival. He received the National Medal of the Arts and was also inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame and the Delta Music Museum Hall of Fame. He is survived by his eight children, as well as a profound musical legacy that, among his other accolades, once earned him the No. 25 spot on Rolling Stone’s list of the greatest artists of all time.