Fats Domino, New Orleans rock ‘n’ roll pioneer, dies at 89
NEW ORLEANS —Fats Domino, the amiable rock ‘n’ roll pioneer whose steady, pounding piano and easy baritone helped change popular music while honoring the traditions of the Crescent City, has died. He was 89.
Mark Bone, chief investigator with the Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, coroner’s office, said Domino died of natural causes early Tuesday.
In appearance, he was no matinee idol. He stood 5-feet-5 and weighed more than 200 pounds, with a wide, boyish smile and a haircut as flat as an album cover. But Domino sold more than 110 million records, with hits including “Blueberry Hill,” “Ain’t That a Shame” — originally titled “Ain’t It A Shame”— and other standards of rock ‘n’ roll.
He was one of the first 10 honorees named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Rolling Stone Record Guide likened him to Benjamin Franklin, the beloved old man of a revolutionary movement.
“We’ve lowered the flag and we’re playing his music all day,” said Greg Harris, CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“Fats is the godfather of rock and roll,” Harris said.
“On behalf of the people of New Orleans, I am eternally grateful for his life and legacy,” New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said in a news release Wednesday morning. “Fats Domino added to New Orleans’ standing in the world, and what people know and appreciate about New Orleans.”
“I can’t wrap my arms around him being gone,” said Quint Davis, producer of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and a decades-long friend of Domino. “There are only two people from New Orleans, of New Orleans, that have changed the music of the world, and that’s Louis Armstrong and Fats Domino. Louis brought jazz in his own personal way from New Orleans to a world that really didn’t know it, and Fats was right there with Elvis and the birth of rock ‘n’ roll and brought that to the world.”
Domino’s dynamic performance style and warm vocals drew crowds for five decades. One of his show-stopping stunts was playing the piano while standing, throwing his body against it with the beat of the music and bumping the grand piano across the stage.
His 1956 version of “Blueberry Hill” was selected for the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry of historic sound recordings worthy of preservation.
Domino became a global star but stayed true to his hometown, where his fate was initially unknown after Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005. It turned out that he and his family were rescued by boat from his home, where he lost three pianos and dozens of gold and platinum records, along with other memorabilia.
Many wondered if he would ever return to the stage.
But in May 2007, he was back, performing at Tipitina’s music club in New Orleans. Fans cheered — and some cried — as Domino played “I’m Walkin’,” “Ain’t It a Shame,” “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” “Blueberry Hill” and a host of other hits.
That performance was a highlight during several rough years. After losing their home and almost all their belongings to the floods, his wife of more than 50 years, Rosemary, died in April 2008.
Domino moved to the New Orleans suburb of Harvey after the storm but often visited his publishing house, an extension of his old home in the Lower 9th Ward, inspiring many with his determination to stay in the city he loved.
“Fats embodies everything good about New Orleans,” his friend David Lind said in a 2008 interview. “He’s warm, fun-loving, spiritual, creative and humble. You don’t get more New Orleans than that.”
The son of a violin player, Antoine Domino Jr. was born Feb. 26, 1928, one of nine children. As a youth, he taught himself popular piano styles — ragtime, blues and boogie-woogie.
He quit school at age 14, and worked days in a factory while playing and singing in local juke joints at night. In 1949, Domino was playing at the Hideaway Club for $3 a week when he was signed by Imperial record company.
He recorded his first song, “The Fat Man,” in the back of a tiny French Quarter recording studio.
“They call me the Fat Man, because I weigh 200 pounds,” he sang. “All the girls, they love me, ‘cause I know my way around.”
In 1955, he broke into the white pop charts with “Ain’t it a Shame,” covered blandly by Pat Boone as “Ain’t That a Shame” and rocked out decades later under that title by Cheap Trick and others. Domino enjoyed a parade of successes through the early 1960s, including “Be My Guest” and “I’m Ready.” Another hit, “I’m Walkin,’” became the debut single for Ricky Nelson.
Domino appeared in the rock ‘n’ roll film “The Girl Can’t Help It” and was among the first black performers featured in popular music shows, starring with Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers. He also helped bridge rock ‘n’ roll and other styles — even country/western, recording Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya” and Bobby Charles’ “Walkin’ to New Orleans.”
Like many of his peers, Domino’s popularity tapered off in the 1960s as British and psychedelic rock held sway.
“I refused to change,” he told Ebony magazine. “I had to stick to my own style that I’ve always used or it just wouldn’t be me.”
In 1988, all of New Orleans seemed to be talking about him after he reportedly paid cash for two Cadillacs and a $130,000 Rolls-Royce. When the salesman asked if he wanted to call his bank about financing, Domino smiled and said, “I am the bank.”
In 1998, he became the first purely rock ‘n’ roll musician to be awarded the National Medal for the Arts. But he cited his age and didn’t make the trip to the White House to get the medal from President Clinton.
That was typical. Aside from rare appearances in New Orleans, including a 2012 cameo spot in the HBO series “Treme,” he dodged the spotlight in his later years, refusing to appear in public or even to give interviews.
Associated Press writer Hillel Italie in New York City contributed to this story.