Fats Domino’s Low-Key Brilliance: A Rock and Roll Pioneer, Criminally Overlooked
Antoine “Fats” Domino passed away on October 24 at the age of 89. And far too many people aren’t aware of just how influential he was to rock and roll music.
“What they call rock and roll now is rhythm and blues I’ve been playing for 15 years in New Orleans…”
The death of Antoine “Fats” Domino on October 24 was the closing of another major chapter in the history of American music and culture. A little over six months after Chuck Berry’s passing at age 90, the man who’d first brought the sound of rock and roll to the mainstream left this world aged 89, and with a legacy that rivals any of his more hypervisible contemporaries.
Fats Domino had always been more of an everyman than many of his peers. As rock and roll crashed the American mainstream in the mid-1950s—to the shock and chagrin of the white American establishment—artists like Little Richard and Elvis Presley seemed to represent a sort of cultural rebellion and loss of inhibition. Domino’s music was very much at the forefront of that wave—even if his image wasn’t as “dangerous.”
Fats wasn’t the wild man a la Little Richard or the notorious gunslinger of Chuck Berry or Presley’s sex symbol; there was an aw shucks quality to Domino, and it tended to be overemphasized during his nationally televised performances on programs like The Perry Como Show. At a time when blackness on the small screen was still a novelty, and with rock and roll and race-mixing viewed with disdain and apprehension, Fats was presented in the safest characterization possible.
He became one of the biggest rock and roll stars of the 1950s; he scored more chart hits than Berry, Richard, and Buddy Holly combined—only Elvis Presley sold more. And Fats did it without the boost of hit movies. From 1950 to 1963, Fats Domino scored an astounding 37 Top 40 hits.
The beloved rock and roller was of course synonymous with New Orleans. The Ninth Ward was his home and his heart, and no matter where he was—even as one of the biggest stars of his generation—he found his way back. He was always reluctant to leave New Orleans even at the height of his fame; he’d even take trunks of cookware to make his hometown favorites on the road.
Domino had been introduced to music through his family. His brother-in-law was a trumpet player named Harrison Verret, who’d introduced Antoine to music hotbeds around New Orleans. He’d develop his style from hearing players like Professor Longhair and Charles Brown. Teenage Antoine Domino was delivering ice at local jook joints when he started sitting in at various spots that had pianos. He would moonlight at speakeasies like The Hideaway Club and at spots on the outskirts of town. He cut his teeth making very little money playing raggedy pianos for rowdy crowds. Fats would perform his early influences like “Low Down Dog” by Big Joe Turner and the hit songs of Louis Jordan.
But playing at The Hideaway helped Domino hone his stage persona—and it’s where he’d gotten his nickname. Bassist Billy Diamond, who helped Domino book gigs, dubbed him “Fats” after the legendary Fats Waller. The Hideaway would be where he met Dave Bartholomew, a trumpet player and big band leader who was a talent scout for Imperial Records (Bartholomew’s Dew Droppers were New Orleans’ premiere R&B outfit). He’d been recording since 1947 for Lew Chudd’s Imperial Records. Bartholomew met Fats but initially didn’t like Fats’ boogie-woogie style when he sat in with his band. After Dave saw him perform and The Hideaway crowd’s reaction, however, he brought the young piano player to Cosimo Matassa’s studio on Rampart Street and they recorded “The Fat Man,” essentially a rewrite of Champion Jack Dupree’s 1940 blues standard “Junker’s Blues.” Released at the end of 1949, the single reached No. 2 and eventually became a million-seller, and Fats Domino’s first big hit.
Fats and Bartholomew’s creative partnership would become the cornerstone of ‘50s rock and roll. Fats would shoot to stardom with R&B hits like “Rockin’ Chair,” “Goin’ Home,” and “Every Night About This Time,” and his rollicking piano and steady backbeat informed contemporaneous hits like Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88” and—in a much more literal sense—Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” on which Domino played the distinctive intro and solo.
Starting around 1955, Fats’ own hits began crossing over to the pop charts on a regular basis. His single “Ain’t It a Shame” would become the first of a whopping 37 crossover hits over the next eight years. In 1956, Fats’ rock and roll cover of “Blueberry Hill” would become his biggest hit, spending three weeks at No. 2 on the Billboard Top 40. “Blueberry Hill” had been the latest in a string of standards that Fats had covered as transparent attempts to further the rocker’s middle-of-the-road appeal. But the appeal of Fats Domino was that he was Fats Domino, and Bartholomew decided to record this particular standard like Fats Domino.
Fats’ success in the pre-Civil Rights Movement era was indubitably clouded by racism. He and his band would often be forced to drive miles out of their way to find lodgings on the road—despite Fats Domino being a major star. Elvis Presley was known to earn substantially more than his closest musical rival in terms of appearances and shows. And “Ain’t That A Shame” was whitewashed by crooner Pat Boone within weeks of its release, with Boone’s version going all the way to No. 1. Fats would later bring Boone onstage at a show and joke about the royalties he’d earned from Boone’s hit cover: “Pat Boone bought me this ring.”
But throughout the mid-to-late 1950s, Fats Domino became one of rock and roll’s most consistent and beloved stars. He wasn’t entirely without controversy. Riots at Domino shows led to speculation that the music and the mixes of the races made rock and roll a cultural menace—a charge Fats dismissed. All the while, his music became one of the cornerstones of a movement.
“He’d find the simplest way to play something and he could sing it and made that a trademark,” legendary singer-songwriter Dr. John said in 2008. “Theoretically it is simple—there is a formula you can describe,” explained Allen Toussaint, who began his career as a teenager playing with Fats. “However, when Fats plays it…you always have to say that’s how it really should sound.”
The people and the music of New Orleans defined and sustained Fats Domino. He served as a godfather for the city’s R&B heritage, and a linchpin for three generations of music to come out of the Big Easy. He would leave Imperial after the label was sold in 1963; his subsequent years with ABC-Paramount and Mercury saw sporadic success as a new generation of artists that he’d influenced came to the fore. But even as the hits stopped and his lucrative partnership with Dave Bartholomew came to an end, Fats Domino was still an in-demand performer and one of the most revered artists of the 1950s.
He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 as part of the Hall’s inaugural class and remained a fixture in the Ninth Ward, eventually deciding to stop going on the road and just focus on the city that he loved. He would become a regular at the city’s musical and cultural events like the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. His ties to his hometown would be thrust into the international spotlight in 2005, when there were reports that the legendary rocker had died in the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Despite various stories and widespread speculation, fans’ fears were quelled after Domino and his wife Rosemary were found in their home and rescued by the New Orleans Police Department.
The specter of Katrina loomed large over Fats in the immediate aftermath of the disastrous storm. A scheduled appearance at that year’s Jazz Festival fell through when he became stricken with anxiety before he was set to take the stage. President George W. Bush replaced Fats’ National Medal of Arts (originally awarded to him by President Bill Clinton) after it was lost in the flood; and Capitol Records and the Recording Industry of America replaced his gold records. Several notable stars like Herbie Hancock, Elton John, Paul McCartney, Norah Jones, Tom Petty, Randy Newman and Allen Toussaint would contribute to 2008’s Goin’ Home: The Music of Fats Domino to raise money for the Ninth Ward’s post-Katrina reconstruction efforts. And also in 2008, Fats performed a well-received set at Tipitina’s in New Orleans that would be filmed for the television special Fats Domino: Walkin’ Back to New Orleans.
With his death, Fats Domino’s legacy will be celebrated by historians, enthusiasts and scholars. He’s the artist who best embodies rhythm and blues’ cultural transition into rock and roll, he epitomizes the soul and beat of New Orleans, and he’s the archetype for the piano-driven rocker that would be further defined by later stars from Little Richard to Elton John and Billy Joel. When discussing Chuck Berry’s influence, Little Richards’ spirit or Elvis Presley’s fame, never ignore Fats Domino. He was there before any of those guys, and he was still there throughout rock and roll’s first takeover of popular culture. We took Fats Domino for granted because Fats Domino never cared much for the spotlight or stardom. He was the most unassuming legend of his generation, but we owe it to the brilliance of his art and energy to celebrate him like the star that he was. We should always salute Antoine Domino—this stout guy from the Ninth Ward, this brilliant piano player who battled Elvis Presley for chart dominance. Because too many younger people didn’t realize his power and influence.
And ain’t that a shame?