Antoine “Fats” Domino Jr., arguably the greatest ambassador of New Orleans music, one of the founders of rhythm and blues, as well as rock ’n’ roll, died peacefully while in hospice care at his home in Harvey, Louisiana on October 24. He was 89. Domino, whose last performance was in 2006, had been in failing health for several years. Upon delayed word of his passing, tributes from New Orleanians and people from around the world poured in rapidly.
Along with Dave Bartholomew, Domino helped shape popular music for more than a decade. He has sold 65 million records and been awarded 23 gold records. His more than three dozen Top 40 hits include “I’m Walkin’,” “Ain’t That a Shame,” “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday,” “Three Nights a Week,” “Walkin’ to New Orleans,” “My Girl Josephine,” and of course “Blueberry Hill.”
Over the years, Domino’s accolades piled up. Among them, in 1986 he was named one of the original inductees in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and he was awarded a National Medal of the Arts in 1999. In 2006, Domino was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by this magazine.
“Fats Domino’s place in the birth of black music/rhythm and blues/rock ’n’ roll is in my opinion that he’s at the head of the class,” said Lloyd Price, a contemporary of Domino and fellow inductee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “If Fats Domino was not born with the gift of playing the piano, there never would have been a New Orleans sound.
“I was very fortunate that when he walked in Cosimo’s [J&M] Studio that day and played on ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’ because music has never been the same. The sound on those records changed the way the public heard music and revolutionized the world. It brought freedom to how people socially listened to music. No one has ever been able to copy his music.”
Price also stressed that despite his global popularity, Domino remained a humble man.
“Fame and fortune was never his reason for being even though he had a lot of both. It wasn’t his reason for being. I don’t think it meant anything to him because he loved playing the piano. I had a deal in the U.K. for him for five million dollars and he told me ‘No.’ He wanted to stay home and cook. His greatness and longevity came from the grain in his DNA. It was natural. He never took anything seriously.”
Obviously the piano was the cornerstone of Domino’s sound. During OffBeat’s 2007 tribute, several New Orleans pianists described the foundation of Domino’s style.
“He’s a guy that kept the boogie-woogie piano tradition going,” said Tom McDermott. “The straight ahead old time tradition of Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons and Jimmy Yancey. On songs like ‘Swanee River Hop’ he kept that tradition alive.”
“When he [Domino] came out he showed how effective simplicity could be,” added Henry Butler. “There were a lot of great musicians in New Orleans, but they weren’t able to focus on that ability into a message of simplicity. His ability to do that is probably why he sold so many records. The thing what one probably remembers is his use of triplets and trills as he did on ‘Blueberry Hill.’ But he used that on other songs as well.”
Antoine Domino Jr. was born February 28, 1928, the youngest of nine children. Domino’s family lived in the then-rural Lower Ninth Ward and his father supported the family working at the Fair Grounds Race Track. The family inherited a used piano when Domino turned 10 that became the center of the boy’s attention. Domino’s musical inspiration originally came from his brother-in-law Harrison Verret, a veteran Dixieland musician. Verret wrote the name of the keys on the piano keys and taught him chords and scales.
“He’s the one that taught me the foundations,” said Domino in 1991, referring to Verret. “Once he showed me the chords, I could play with any band.”
Domino didn’t advance past the fourth grade, eventually taking jobs hauling ice, laboring in a lumberyard and a bed spring plant and working with his father at the Fair Grounds. Playing the piano, though, eventually provided an escape from a life of labor: In 1947 he was invited to join Billy Diamond’s group, the Solid Senders. It was Diamond who first encouraged Domino to sing as well as play, and he quickly became the center of attention on gigs. Diamond was also the first person to refer to Domino as “Fats,” which at first irked Domino. But at 5’ 5”, 220 pounds, the name naturally fit.
By 1949, the Solid Senders were a regular attraction at the tiny Hideaway Club on Desire Street in the Lower Ninth Ward. On a tip one evening Imperial Records owner Lew Chudd and his newly hired A&R man Dave Bartholomew wandered in to the rough-and-tumble Hideaway to find out what all the fuss was about down on Desire Street.
“It was a Friday night and I wasn’t working, so Lew and I went down there,” said Bartholomew in 1982. “That was the first time we heard Fats. (The timing has been questioned on occasion by Bartholomew’s band mates.) He was singing this tune ‘The Junker’s Blues,’ and Lew really liked it. So at intermission Fats was introducedto Lew Chudd, and that’s how everything got started.”
Domino was offered an Imperial recording contract by Chudd when Domino’s brother-in-law interceded. It was Verret who suggested to Domino that he not sell his songs outright, but rather opt to earn steady royalties on the music he would record. The rest is history.
Domino’s first recording at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studio was an adaptation of a traditional New Orleans barrelhouse song, “The Junker Blues.” Bartholomew adapted the old standby, changing the lyrics, the tempo and the title. The boogie-woogie driven “The Fat Man” became Domino’s calling card and reached number six in the R&B charts. Domino wasn’t exactly off to the races, but the door had opened. Two years later, he scored his first number one R&B record with the chilling blues “Goin’ Home.” Ironically, “Goin’ Home” might well have stayed at the top of the chart longer (one week) if not for Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”—which Domino played on—that also went to number one, for seven weeks.
By 1955, Domino was an established star in black America. However, the rock ’n’ roll firecracker was about to explode and he was poised to be part of the fireworks. That same year, another Bartholomew-produced “Ain’t That a Shame” became his second record to top the R&B charts. It also briefly climbed the pop charts to the Hot 100, a first for Domino. The record undoubtedly would have sold more, though, had it not been covered by pop-star pretty boy Pat Boone.
The following year, Domino struck gold in a big way. Three of his Imperial singles made the top ten in the pop charts, including “I’m In Love Again” and his signature “Blueberry Hill.” While Domino continued to record straight-ahead, New Orleans rhythm and blues, he was becoming better known as a rock ’n’ roll artist, a fact that perplexed Domino.
“Everybody started calling my music rock ’n’ roll,” said Domino. “But it wasn’t anything but the same rhythm and blues I’d been playing down in New Orleans. I think Alan Freed was the first one to call it rock ’n’ roll.”
Bartholomew explained the formula for their records during that era.
“We were actually searching for a sound in those days. I never wanted to make things too complicated. It had to be a kind of thing that a seven-year-old could start whistlin’. I just kept it simple.
“I always felt Fats was a country singer because he didn’t sing from the bottom. Fats played triplets on the piano—he got that from a guy called Little Willie Littlefield. That was Fats’ style. Once he started it he couldn’t leave it, because that’s what people wanted to hear.”
The rock ’n’ roll boom of the 1950s was not lost on Hollywood. Domino appeared in several of these big screen epics, including Shake, Rattle & Rock!, The Big Beat and The Girl Can’t Help It. Domino and his band also toured relentlessly, often headlining rock ’n’ roll extravaganzas. Indeed, they once played 79 dates with only 2 nights off in one stretch.
The Domino hit parade continued through the late 1950s into the early 1960s as he continued touring and selling records in the pop and R&B charts. In 1962, Domino made his first trip to Europe, even meeting the Beatles in a Hamburg club. In 1963, he left Imperial and went on record for ABC, and later Mercury, Broadmoor and Reprise. This move, combined with the “British Invasion,” caused a precipitous drop in Domino’s record sales. Ironically, his last charting record, “Lady Madonna” (from 1968) was a cover of a Beatles hit, a song inspired by Domino/Smiley Lewis’ “Blue Monday.” By the late 1960s, Domino and his band had become fixtures on the Las Vegas Strip.
During the 1970s, Domino toured and still played the Vegas casinos, usually for 10 months of the year. On the road, Domino travelled with a hot plate, as well as his pots and pans, cooking up New Orleans favorites like red beans, gumbo and everyone’s favorite, chitlins, in his hotel suite.
By the 1980s, Domino tired of the road, choosing to stick close to his Ninth Ward home. His few live performances were mostly restricted to the Jazz and Heritage Festival and the Riverboat President.
In 1986, he was persuaded to make the trek to New York City, where he was inducted into the inaugural class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Later that year, Domino starred in the Cinemax special Fats & Friends with fellow Hall inductees Ray Charles and Jerry Lee Lewis, which was filmed at the old Storyville Hall.
Filmmaker David McBurnett, who produced 1986’s Fats & Friends, still remembers the shoot well.
“The filming was pretty simple. Fats wanted a little more money at the last minute, but that was no big deal. Having Dave [Bartholomew] there made it a lot easier because he was running the band. Fats was really honored to be working with Ray and Jerry Lee because they’d been friends for a long time. I think Fats thought he was finally getting his due and he liked being appreciated.
“After the first set he wandered into the video truck and wanted to see the replay because he wanted to see how he looked. He wanted to be happy, but he also wanted us to be happy too.
“I’ve seen Fats a lot, but this was historic. Fats still had it and so did Jerry Lee and Ray. Those three were the pioneers of rock ’n’ roll. I don’t think either of them had put a show on like that that night in over 20 years.”
When asked about the impact of the loss of Domino, McBurnett chooses his words carefully.
“We really lost Fats after Katrina. Fats set the marker. He represented the heart of New Orleans and now he’s gone. He really touched us all.”
In 1993, Domino delivered Christmas Is a Special Day, his first new recording in several years. Increasingly reclusive (he rarely consented to interviews), in 1999 he was awarded the National Medal of the Arts by President Clinton, but sent daughter Antoinette to the White House to pick it up. In 1987 he passed on traveling to New York to receive his Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
When Katrina hit in 2005, Domino unwisely chose to ride out the hurricane at his home. After the Industrial Canal levee broke, Domino had to be rescued by boat by the New Orleans Harbor Police after floating up on a door to the second floor of a house. Initially, international news reports said Domino had died. Because the Caffin Avenue house was uninhabitable, Domino eventually stayed briefly with a niece in Baton Rouge before checking into a downtown hotel for several months.
The year 2006 was busy for Domino. He and his family moved into a spacious new mansion in a gated community across the river in Harvey. He was the subject of the official Jazz Fest poster and was scheduled to headline at the Fair Grounds. At the last minute, Domino said he was ill, and his appearance was cancelled. He would record one last album, Alive and Kickin’. His last live appearance at Tipitina’s was in conjunction with the new album. It consisted of 11 songs packed into 30 minutes. That same year, Rick Coleman’s Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock ’n’ Roll was published by Da Capo Press. It was finally the first extended biography of Domino.
The following year started on a positive note with Domino being awarded OffBeat’s Best of the Beat Lifetime Achievement Award in Music at a tribute concert hosted at House of Blues. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin declared the day “Fats Domino Day in New Orleans” and presented him with a signed declaration. OffBeat publisher Jan Ramsey and WWL-TV’s Eric Paulsen presented Domino with the Lifetime Achievement Award. An all-star musical tribute followed with an introduction by Cosimo Matassa. The Lil’ Band O’ Gold rhythm section, Warren Storm, Kenny Bill Stinson, David Egan and C. C. Adcock, anchored the band, and each contributed lead vocals, with swamp pop legend Storm leading off with “Let the Four Winds Blow” and “The Prisoner Song,” which he proudly introduced by saying, “Fats Domino recorded this in 1958… and so did I.” The horn section included Lil’ Band O’ Gold’s Dickie Landry, the Iguanas’ Derek Huston, and long-time Domino horn men Roger Lewis, Elliot “Stackman” Callier and Herb Hardesty. They were joined by Jon Cleary (who also played guitar in the rhythm section), Al “Carnival Time” Johnson, Irma Thomas, George Porter Jr. (who provided a funky arrangement for “You Keep On Knocking”), Art Neville, Dr. John and Allen Toussaint, who wrote and debuted a song in tribute of Domino for the occasion. Though Domino did not perform, those near him recall him miming playing the piano and singing along to his own songs.
In 2008 his wife of 60 years, Rosemary, quietly passed away without the public knowing for several months. Eventually, Domino slowly succumbed to the ills that pursue most octogenarians. He was hospitalized on more than one occasion, and eventually those ills overtook him.
Domino’s funeral was a private ceremony attended by family and close friends at Providence Park Cemetery in Metairie.
Antoine Domino Jr. is survived by four daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Read David Lind’s tribute to Fats in this web-only exclusive.