Antoine “Fats” Domino, Jr., one of the early pioneers of a musical style that came to be known as rock ‘n’ roll, whose iconic voice and boogie-woogie piano playing helped inspire entire eras of brilliant songwriting, passed away on October 25, 2017. He was 89.
With his flat-top haircut, rotund figure, and buoyant personality, Domino cut a wide swath through the early rock landscape. His towering talent, coupled with an easygoing persona and an infectious smile, was a recipe for success. And it all started with an old piano his family brought in.
From the age of 10, he began teaching himself to play by listening to any record he could get his hands on and imitating it. From there, he developed his own unique style using triplets — a sound which soon became iconic and synonymous with early rock ‘n’ roll.
It didn’t take long for him to start packing honky-tonks and dive bars with crowds eager to hear him play, oftentimes for just a few pennies. A local bandleader nicknamed him “Fats” because he reminded him of legendary jazz pianist Fats Waller in both his ability and appetite, and the name stuck. Later, Fats Domino ended up inspiring Chubby Checker’s nickname!
The New Orleans native was among the very first 10 inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — and rightfully so. One of his first recordings, “The Fat Man,” is widely believed to be the first rock ‘n’ roll song ever and had an enormous effect on listeners worldwide — despite the fact that it was first released as the B-side to the “Detroit City Blues” single in 1950! By the time these singles were compiled into a full-length debut album in 1955, that single had sold over one million copies.
With songs like “Blueberry Hill,” “Ain’t That a Shame,” and “I’m Walkin’,” Domino easily took his place at the forefront of rock’s pantheon of idols — rivaling only Elvis Presley in albums sold. Throughout his career, Domino had 35 Top 40 hits to his name, a substantial feat for any artist.
His hard-won success was even more impressive considering the era in which he made his mark. Back then, radio was segregated, and the vast majority of white radio stations wouldn’t play African-American artists. Many of Domino’s hits had to be covered by a white artist in order to get any sort of mainstream airplay.
African-American artists also faced persecution while touring. Most were hard-pressed to find hotels willing to accept them in some parts of the country, and those who were willing were often located in segregated parts of the city and state, miles away from the venue. Domino was even forced to watch a movie he starred in from the second-floor balcony due to Jim Crow laws.
Despite all this, his music helped bridge racial divides; radio disc jockeys like Alan Freed and television shows like The Ed Sullivan Show introduced him to a white audience for the first time. For the African-American population, it was inspiring to see one of their own do so well in this time of great racial injustice. At the height of his fame in the mid-1950s, Domino raked in over half a million dollars per year.
In all of this, Domino took great pride in being a native son of New Orleans. He never left the city he loved, and while he largely stopped touring in the ’80s, he remained a fixture on the local music scene. Once he had quit road life for good, few things could get him to leave his home city; not the Grammy he received, not the Medal of Arts, and not even Hurricane Katrina.
When the hurricane struck the city in 2005, Domino refused to leave, partially because his wife, Rosemary, was in poor health. He was quickly assumed dead in the devastation; someone even spray-painted “RIP Fats. We will miss you” on the walls of his home. Domino proved resilient, though: he was rescued by a helicopter, although he lost most of his belongings. He subsequently (and hilariously) released the aptly titled album Alive and Kickin’, the proceeds of which were donated to Tipitina’s Foundation to support other New Orleans musicians who had lost their homes and belongings.
It is almost impossible to overstate Fats Domino’s influence — his songs have been covered by everyone from the Beatles to Cheap Trick to early punk innovator Richard Hell. It’s quite probable we wouldn’t even have rock ‘n’ roll — at least as we know it today — without his music and the incredibly popular response to it.
Other creative pioneers are quick to point this out as well. In 1969, during an interview in Las Vegas, a reporter referred to Elvis as the “king of rock ‘n’ roll,” prompting Elvis to interrupt and correct them by saying, “No… That’s the king of rock ‘n’ roll.” He pointed to Domino, who was also in the room at the time.
Rest in peace, Fats Domino. And thanks for all the music.