Antoine “Fats” Domino was born on February 26, 1928. Domino was one of the creators of rock and roll. His New Orleans boogie-woogie piano playing, rich voice, and warm personality made him one of the biggest stars of the 1950s.
Domino was born and raised in New Orleans, the youngest of eight children and his first language was Louisiana French Creole. He began playing the piano at about the age of ten, taught by his brother-in-law, who was a jazz guitarist. By the time he was 14, Domino was performing in New Orleans bars and nightclubs.
In 1947, he joined a popular local band, the Soul Senders, and was paid three dollars a week as their piano player. The band’s leader gave him the nickname “Fats,” both for his size and because Domino reminded him of Fats Waller.
Two years later, Domino signed with Imperial Records, where he was paired with writer/producer Dave Bartholomew. Together, they wrote “The Fat Man,” which sold a million copies by 1951. The birth of rock and roll was a gradual thing, and it’s nearly impossible to point to any one specific record and say “this is where rock and roll began,” but “The Fat Man” has as good a claim as any to be the first million-selling rock record. The record was added to the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2015.
As with most artists of this era, it’s easier to find the greatest hits collections than their original albums, and those collections usually give you a better sense of the importance of the artists. Unless they’re linked elsewhere, you’ll find all of the singles mentioned in this blog post, including “The Fat Man,” on the greatest hits collection Walking to New Orleans. If you’d like to dive deeper, The Complete Imperial Singles includes the A and B sides from the label where Domino had his greatest success.
In the early part of his career, Domino continued to work occasionally as a studio musician for other artists. Notably, his recognizable piano style can be heard on Lloyd Price’s 1952 hit “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.”
Also in 1952, Domino had the first of his nine #1 singles on the R&B chart, “Goin’ Home.” In much of the United States, radio stations were still strictly segregated; white artists were played on pop stations, and black artists were played on R&B stations. That largely explains why Domino never had a #1 hit on the pop charts and makes it even more impressive that he managed to make the pop top ten eight times.
His first pop crossover hit was “Ain’t That a Shame” in 1955. That song did become a #1 pop hit, but for Pat Boone, not for Domino. As was common in the 1950s, Boone recorded a cover version that smoothed out the rougher R&B elements of the original, making it more palatable to the most conservative pop radio stations.
Unlike some black artists of the day, Domino took no offense at this. He reportedly liked Boone’s version of the song, and since he (with Bartholomew) had written the song, he made money from both versions. He once brought Boone on stage during a concert, showed the audience a flashy ring, and told them, “Pat Boone bought me this ring.”
Domino had his biggest hit in 1956, when “Blueberry Hill” spent 11 weeks at the top of the R&B charts. It was a standard from the pre-rock era, as was one of his other 1956 hits, “My Blue Heaven.” Another common theme for Domino was walking. He reached the top ten of the pop charts with three different “walking” songs—“I’m Walkin’,” “I Want to Walk You Home,” and “Walking to New Orleans.”
Domino continued to appear regularly on both the pop and the R&B charts through 1962. In 1963, Imperial Records was sold, and Domino left the label for ABC-Paramount Records. That ended his collaboration with Dave Bartholomew, and as we’ve seen in other “Music Memories” posts, separating a successful artist-producer duo often doesn’t turn out well. Domino’s new producers at ABC changed his sound, often adding a syrupy background chorus, and Domino had only one top 40 hit during his years at ABC, 1963’s “Red Sails in the Sunset.”
The British Invasion of 1964 marked a change in musical styles and taste, and Domino’s chart career was essentially over. He recorded two albums for Reprise, 1968’s Fats Is Back and 1971’s Fats. The 1968 album included a cover of the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna,” a song which Paul McCartney had written in imitation of Domino’s style; it just barely scraped onto the pop charts, spending a week at #100.
Domino continued to be a popular touring act for the next 25 years, including several long residencies in Las Vegas. He recorded only occasionally. He made a cameo appearance in the 1980 movie Any Which Way You Can, and the soundtrack song “Whiskey Heaven” was a minor country hit.
In 1986, Domino was among the first class of inductees into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He made his last tour in 1995, spending three weeks in Europe. He took ill during the tour and decided not to leave New Orleans again. He’d never liked touring very much, and the royalty payments from his earlier work were more than enough for him to live on.
Domino was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1998 by President Bill Clinton, but he declined the invitation to perform at the White House.
In 2005, Domino chose not to evacuate his New Orleans home during Hurricane Katrina, largely because his wife’s ill health made leaving difficult. His friends and family lost touch with him for several days after the storm, and there were rumors that he had been killed. It turned out that he had been rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter, but his home was destroyed. President George W. Bush made a personal visit to New Orleans to present him with a new National Medal of Arts to replace the one that had been lost.
Fats Domino died on October 24, 2017, of natural causes.
In 2007, a variety of rock and R&B stars (among them Tom Petty, Elton John, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, and Irma Thomas) recorded the Domino tribute album Goin’ Home. For a tribute from a less expected corner, there’s the 1959 album from cabaret singer Frances Faye, Frances Faye Swings Fats Domino. Rick Coleman’s biography is called Blue Monday.