Fats Domino, piano-playing prodigy and rock and roll legend, dies at 89

Fats Domino, a portly piano-playing prodigy from the Lower 9th Ward whose boogie-woogie way with rhythm and blues made him a pioneer in the development of rock ‘n’ roll with songs such as “Ain’t That a Shame,” “Blue Monday” and “I’m Walkin’,” has died. He was 89.

Domino died at 3:30 a.m. on Tuesday (Oct. 24), according to the Jefferson Parish coroner’s office.

Mr. Domino, a lifelong New Orleanian who dominated pop and R&B charts from 1949 until the early 1960s, lived in splendor in a house on Caffin Avenue until floodwaters overwhelmed his home, along with the rest of the Lower 9th Ward, when Hurricane Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005. After days of media speculation about whether he had survived, Mr. Domino was rescued from his second-floor balcony by boat. From then on, he lived with his daughter Adonica in Harvey.

The floodwaters filled his house with mud, washed away many of his two dozen gold records that had hung on the walls and trashed his grand piano, which has since been put on display, in its ruined condition, in the Louisiana State Museum.

Nevertheless, Mr. Domino was philosophical about the loss when he walked through his home a month after the storm. In “Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Rick Coleman quoted him as saying, “Whatever goes up gotta come down some kinda way.”

In describing Mr. Domino’s sunny, infectious style, which made people want to get up and start dancing, Peter Watrous wrote in The New York Times in 1991 that Mr. Domino “brought the city’s sense of joy, along with its rhythms and anarchic sensibility, to the rest of the country.”

“It’s something about his person that drew a lot of people in,” said Billy Diamond, a bassist and band leader, in “Fats Domino and the Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” a documentary in the “American Masters” series on PBS.

Diamond gave Mr. Domino his nickname during a 1948 gig at the Robin Hood Club, Coleman wrote, because he felt the young man would be as famous as two other noted pianists with that moniker, Fats Waller and Fats Pichon.

The prospect of fame wasn’t the only reason he thought of that nickname that night. Diamond told Coleman that he had thought, “If he keeps eating, he’s gonna be just as big.”

In addition to entertaining people, Mr. Domino inadvertently helped break down racial barriers during a career that began in the waning days of Jim Crow laws that had been designed to keep races apart. The trade newspaper Variety reported that white fans at Mr. Domino’s concerts outnumbered African-Americans by three to one, Coleman wrote, and Ruth Cage wrote in Down Beat magazine that Mr. Domino’s music was “doing a job in the Deep South that even the U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t been able to accomplish” with its groundbreaking 1954 decision outlawing school segregation.

Mr. Domino, whose formal education stopped at the fourth grade, never tried to analyze the spell he and his music cast.

“As far as I know, the music makes people happy,” he said in a television interview. “I know it makes me happy.”

Mr. Domino’s style was credited as paving the way for rock ‘n’ roll in the mid-1950s. In acknowledgment of this contribution and his steady stream of hits, Mr. Domino was one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s first 10 inductees.

But in a 1956 interview, Mr. Domino said, “What they call rock and roll is rhythm and blues, and I’ve been playing it for 15 years in New Orleans.”

What Mr. Domino did “was almost a carbon copy” of the style of Smiley Lewis, a singer and guitarist with a tenor voice so powerful that he didn’t need a microphone, said Jon Cleary, the British-born, New Orleans-based pianist, in a 2014 interview on the public-radio show “Music Inside Out With Gwen Thompkins.”

But there was a difference. Although Mr. Domino was performing music that was familiar to New Orleans audiences, and although he was less innovative than such contemporaries as Professor Longhair and James Booker, he was the first to gain nationwide attention in the genre that became known as rock ‘n’ roll, Cleary said.

Mr. Domino “did it so well, and the package was so appealing commercially that he made great headway with it,” Cleary said. “It is important to know he did that before Chuck Berry or Little Richard or Elvis Presley … and Jerry Lee Lewis, the big names you associate with rock ‘n’ roll. He was the first one to really bust open the gates.”

Antoine Dominique Domino Jr., who was born Feb. 26, 1928, in the Lower 9th Ward, demonstrated a love of music early on. His family played 78 rpm records on a gramophone that listeners had to wind up with a crank. When the winding string broke, Coleman wrote that Mr. Domino twirled records with his fingers to keep the music going.

The family acquired an old upright piano when he was 10, Coleman wrote, and Mr. Domino taught himself to play songs he had heard on the radio. His brother-in-law, Harrison Verrett, wrote the notes on the keys, and the boy practiced so much that his parents put the piano in the garage.

Although audiences knew Mr. Domino as a cheerful, rambunctious performer who would bump his grand piano across the stage with his ample stomach, he grew up shy and played hooky so he wouldn’t have to stand in front of his class, Coleman said.

After leaving school, he held a variety of odd jobs, including delivering ice to homes that didn’t have refrigerators, fitting springs into bed frames, working in an auto-repair shop that a cousin owned and tending the cousin’s bar next door.

But, Coleman wrote, he kept playing the piano, chiefly around his neighborhood, and he sat in with Dave Bartholomew’s band. When Billy Diamond heard Mr. Domino play at a backyard barbecue in 1947, he invited the young pianist to join his band, the Solid Seekers, at the Hideaway Club.

One night, Bartholomew, a trumpeter who also was a talent scout for Imperial Records, brought Lew Chudd, the label’s owner, to the club to hear Mr. Domino. According to the PBS documentary, Chudd signed Mr. Domino to a contract after hearing him play “Junker Blues.”

Mr. Domino’s first recording, in 1949, was “The Fat Man,” featuring his “wah-wah” vocals over a strong backbeat. Widely regarded as the first rock ‘n’ roll record, it sold 1 million copies by 1953, according to Paul Friedlander’s “Rock and Roll: A Social History.”

On “American Masters,” the New Orleans pianist Jon Cleary said Mr. Domino had told him he had simply given a new name to “Junker Blues.”

The impact was seismic, Robert Christgau wrote in 2015 in The Village Voice.

While Mr. Domino’s “bouncy boogie-woogie piano and easy Creole gait were generically 9th Ward, they defined a pop-friendly second-line beat that nobody knew was there before he and Dave Bartholomew created ‘The Fat Man,'” Christgau wrote. “In short, this shy, deferential, uncharismatic man invented New Orleans rock and roll.”

“The Fat Man” was the first of a string of hits that Mr. Domino recorded in Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studio at North Rampart and Dumaine streets with Bartholomew’s band.

Mr. Domino and Bartholomew were responsible for turning out more than 40 hits for Imperial, including “I’m Walkin’,” “Whole Lotta Loving,” “I Want to Walk You Home,” “Valley of Tears” and “Ain’t That a Shame.”

In 1955, Pat Boone reached a wider audience with a milder version of “Ain’t That a Shame” that was geared for white listeners during the last years of racial segregation. In that same vein, Ricky Nelson recorded “I’m Walkin'” two years later. But Nelson, unlike Boone, faced up to the man who had made the song famous: Nelson and Mr. Domino sang it at a 1985 concert in Los Angeles. The performance is on YouTube.

Among other Domino successes during this period were “I’m in Love Again”; “Walking to New Orleans”; “Blue Monday,” which Bartholomew wrote; and “Blueberry Hill,” which was Mr. Domino’s biggest hit, selling more than 5 million copies.

“Blueberry Hill” was not new. Gene Autry, who had achieved stardom as a singing cowboy, had introduced the song, and Louis Armstrong was among the other artists who had recorded it.

But that fact didn’t matter because Mr. Domino put his distinctive imprint on that song and everything else he played, the pianist and composer Allen Toussaint said on the “American Masters” program.

Regardless of whether a song was his or someone else’s, “Fats played it as if it was his own,” Toussaint said. “It was very final when Fats played. If you had never heard who played the original (and) if you heard Fats Domino’s version, it was enough. You can just take it from there.”

Eventually, Mr. Domino had 37 Top 40 singles. Steve Allen, on his television show, gave Mr. Domino a plaque recognizing him as the most-played R&B artist of 1956. Only Elvis Presley sold more records during the 1950s.

By this time, Mr. Domino was appearing in movies, including “The Big Beat” and “The Girl Can’t Help It,” and he performed onstage on Perry Como’s variety show with Como, Jo Stafford and Jackie Miles. Mr. Domino played on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” too, but he was alone before the camera; his band was behind a curtain.

And he was touring, racking up 30,000 miles in 1957 to play 355 shows around the United States. In Mr. Domino’s home state, he was extremely popular in Cajun country, Cleary said, and his variations on Cajun music helped give rise to the genre that became swamp pop.

Mr. Domino’s reign at the top of the charts came to an end in the early 1960s, falling victim to the overwhelming popularity of British rock groups such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

The Beatles, however, were quick to cite Mr. Domino’s influence. John Lennon said “Ain’t That a Shame” was the first song he learned, and Paul McCartney cited Mr. Domino’s style as an influence when he wrote “Lady Madonna.” Incidentally, Mr. Domino’s 1968 cover of that song was his last Top 100 record.

When the Beatles came to New Orleans in September 1964, Mr. Domino visited with them in their trailer shortly before their performance in City Park Stadium (now Tad Gormley Stadium).

Mr. Domino kept performing, in New Orleans and on the road. In 1968, he and his band stayed in the Lorraine Motel just two weeks before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stayed there – and was assassinated as he stood on a motel balcony. According to the PBS documentary, Mr. Domino had come to town to play for striking garbage workers, whom King also came to address and support.

Although Mr. Domino stopped recording regularly in the early 1970s, he kept playing concerts. But he stopped touring after a three weeks of European gigs in 1996, and he didn’t attend his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Mr. Domino, a shy man throughout his life, seemed content to stay in the Lower 9th Ward, tooling around the neighborhood in his pink Cadillac convertible.

Meanwhile, the honors piled up. He received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987 and the National Medal of Arts in 1998. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked him No. 25 in its list of the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time.”

This happy existence changed on Aug. 29, 2005, when Katrina roared through New Orleans. When the levees failed, 80 percent of the city was under water, including the Lower 9th Ward.

Rumors spread that Mr. Domino had perished; someone even spray-pained “RIP Fats. You Will Be Missed” on the facade of his home.

Mr. Domino, who had refused to evacuate because his wife, Rosemary, was ill, was rescued, along with other family members, by boat.

Despite the areawide devastation, plans went ahead for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival the following spring; in addition to its traditional mission of celebrating local music, food and crafts, the 2006 version was designed to be a show of resilience and defiance in the face of catastrophe.

Mr. Domino was to be an embodiment of that spirit. He was the subject of that year’s festival poster, and he was scheduled to perform on the last afternoon.

A crowd gathered, not knowing that Mr. Domino had told friends that morning that he didn’t feel well, even though tests at Ochsner Medical Center found nothing amiss. Eric Paulsen, a television newsman and friend, drove Mr. Domino to the Fair Grounds in his black Jeep, where Mr. Domino took the stage and said: “I’m sorry I’m not able to perform. I love you all and always will. Thank you very much.”

Mr. Domino performed on the HBO series “Treme,” and a video of him on the keyboard is part of the “American Masters” documentary. His last concert was a 32-minute set at Tipitina’s in May 2007.

Tipitina’s Foundation, an offshoot of the Uptown music club that provides band instruments for schools, set to work restoring Mr. Domino’s Caffin Avenue home. To help pay for this initiative and the foundation’s other programs, a two-CD album, “Goin’ Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino,” was released in 2007 with a stellar lineup of artists —
Elton John, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, Bonnie Raitt and Irma Thomas, to name a few – performing Mr. Domino’s hits.

Mr. Domino showed up at the release party at Tipitina’s, but he sat silently in the balcony for a few minutes before leaving in a glossy black SUV.

To promote the album, Mr. Domino made a three-day trip to New York to appear on “Today” in November 2007. But Keith Spera, who wrote about the journey for The Times-Picayune, said Mr. Domino was edgy and eager to get back home.

In recent years, Mr. Domino didn’t stray far from that cocoon. Although Haydee Ellis, a longtime friend, said he was frail, she said he could still pick up on song cues.

“I’d say, ‘Hello, Josephine,’ and he’d say, ‘How do you do?'” she said, chuckling.

When Cleary visited, he told Thompkins that the older man’s eyes would light up when Cleary started playing the piano.

The music put a “big smile on his face,” Cleary said. “It takes a while, but eventually I can coax him on to the piano. (I) play the left hand, and he plays the right hand. It is great. Best medicine in the world to have some New Orleans music.”

Cleary sized up Mr. Domino’s impact after seeing one of his last New Orleans concerts.

“He never really changed what he did from Day One,” he told Thompkins. “He stumbled across a formula that didn’t require improvement. … Fats was, last time I saw him, singing exactly how (he) would have sounded half a century before. It was still the best thing you ever heard in your life.”

His wife, Rosemary Domino, died in 2008.

Survivors, all of whom live in the New Orleans area, include two sons, Anatole and Antonio Domino; three daughters, Antoinette Smith, Anola Hartzog, Adonica Domino and Andrea Brimmer; numerous grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.


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