Everybody knows Antoine “Fats” Domino. He is the celebrity’s celebrity, a walking trademark, known and loved throughout the world. Unlike all the other larger than life figures who’ve emerged from the fertile crescent along the Mississippi to become international stars, Domino never really left his New Orleans home. Even at the height of his career, he shunned the limelight in favor of the good times and home cooking he found in his Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood.
Domino never went far from his birthplace at 1937 Jourdan Avenue, building his famous home only a few blocks away at a time when he could have constructed his own version of Graceland anywhere he wanted to. He grew up in the New Orleans tradition, listening to music played by his older relatives and joining in after the family obtained an upright piano when he was 10 years old. He worked various jobs, including a stint at the Fair Grounds Racetrack, where his father was a groundskeeper for many years, but Domino lived to play the piano at backyard parties and Ninth Ward barrooms. He became a local sensation as a teenager for his hot boogie woogie playing, especially his rendition of Albert Ammons’ “Swanee River Boogie.”
In partnership with bandleader and Imperial talent scout Dave Bartholomew, Domino produced a remarkable series of hits beginning in 1949 with “The Fat Man” that helped define classic New Orleans R&B and set the stage for rock ’n’ roll. Domino went on to become one of the biggest rock ’n’ roll stars, second only to Elvis Presley in record sales during the 1950s and early ’60s.
Domino became a pop star in 1955 when “Ain’t That a Shame” made the Top Ten and was covered by Pat Boone, who scored a number one hit with the song. In 1956, Domino crossed over to both the pop charts and the country charts with his epochal rendition of “Blueberry Hill.” His run of 35 Top 40 hits included “Walking to New Orleans,” “Blue Monday,” “I’m Walking,” “Whole Lotta Loving” and “I’m in Love Again.”
Domino headlined some of the biggest rock ’n’ roll tours of the 1950s, but Domino would often become homesick and leave the tour to return to New Orleans.
“If he got within 300 miles of New Orleans he’d disappear,” road manager Allen Bloom told Rick Coleman, author of the Domino biography Blue Monday. “It didn’t make any difference how closely you guarded him.”
Even after he left Imperial and stopped having hits in the mid-1960s, Domino continued to lead a top New Orleans R&B band. His legendary performances over the years at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival ensured his status as a giant of New Orleans music.
Fats Domino stayed in his beloved city through the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing floods. In the first days after the horror, he was thought to be one of the thousands of casualties, and his subsequent rescue was one of the most poignant stories in the heartbreaking days that followed. Domino lost neighbors and friends as well as most of the landmarks of his childhood in the flood, but his survival stands as a metaphor for the city’s determination to go on in the face of tragedy. Fats Domino is a New Orleans hero and an example to all of those who’ve followed in his footsteps. His music is alive in the performances of the musicians who keep Fats Domino songs deeply rooted in New Orleans culture. Here is what some of them have to say about him.
The key to happiness in this life is a simple, sweet song. Mr Domino and Mr. Bartholomew were the masters of writing them. Fats was the master of singing them. There’s always a Fats song floating around in the Radiators’ set list.
When he came out in the ’40s and early ’50s, he showed how effective simplicity could be. There were a lot of guys in New Orleans who were great musicians, but they weren’t able to focus that ability into a message of simplicity. His ability to do that is probably why his records sold so well. I think he sold something like 75 million records. I think what one probably remembers about Fats is his use of the triplet, sometimes using triads, and his use of trills, as he did on “Blueberry Hill,” but he used them in other songs as well. The triadic triplet figures on “Walking to New Orleans” and a few other more obscure pieces. I’ve always appreciated his work musically, and I don’t think that New Orleans would have had the kind of recognition it wound up with in the R&B era without people like Fats Domino.
Fats’ melodies were certainly memorable. He was more melodic than say Professor Longhair or Tuts Washington. He was more the pop version of that approach; he was the epitome of pop R&B in those days.
If you think about what New Orleans music is or how famous it was, it got to be famous through either Louis Armstrong or Fats Domino. Louis Armstrong and Fats Domino are known in every household in America. My current favorite is “Walking to New Orleans.” When you’re out on the road and you’re missing home, that’s a great song to be thinking about.
“Hello Josephine,” the way the rhythm of the words to that song lay on top of the piano groove, and the incredible drum beat that Earl Palmer threw down on that—it’s perfection. We do that song at just about every wedding I play. I could play that groove for 15, 20 minutes nonstop and the dance floor will be packed. That’s the magic of Fats Domino.
Right after the hurricane, I got a call from a friend who told me Fats was hanging out at a hotel bar every afternoon. He was staying there and he would go down to the bar at happy hour, have his couple of beers and go back to the room. I went over there and there he was. I went up to him and I’m gushing, “Mr. Domino, it’s so great to meet you, I’ve been playing your music all my life and I’ve taught 5,000 kids the song, ‘Blue Monday.’ Here’s a copy of my album.” So he takes the album very graciously and asks me to autograph it. I couldn’t believe it, Fats Domino is a man of such humility that he’s asking for my autograph.
That’s where they say swamp pop came from: fais do do meets Domino. That phrase says it all.
I saw Fats at Jazz Fest about ’82 or ’83 from the middle of an ocean of people and I could swear that during the performance, he looked at me and smiled and winked right at me. That’s the kind of gift the man had, to be able to make somebody in the 80th row think that he was singing for him.
When I was a kid I had a compilation album called The Golden Ones and it had “Blueberry Hill” on it. I was listening to that record when I was five years old. “Blueberry Hill” is definitely one of the first songs I ever learned how to play on the piano. This trumpeter I know got me into his duo gig. I was in over my head a little bit, kinda struggling and holding on. We played this party down in New Iberia and everybody pretty much ignored us like we were servants over there in the corner playing music. Then at some point the trumpet player said, “You got anything, man?” I just said, “Get a load of this.” I hit “Blueberry Hill” and the instant recognition of that song by everybody at that gathering changed the whole party. The second I hit that first lick of “Blueberry Hill,” everybody arched their necks, slapped their knees and went “Yahoo!” It’s just one of those magical songs.
I didn’t realize Fats was such a devastating piano player until I got more into him and really heard him play. Fats was a great crooner, but he was always overlooked as far as being a formidable piano player. When I got the Fats Domino box set, I was able to hear his boogie woogie recordings. Fats is blistering on that stuff. He was right up there with Meade Lux Lewis in how he nailed it, tempo wise and just everything else. His box set really opened me up as a piano player.
I’m a huge fan of Fats’ vocals. He’s a guy who kept a lot of the boogie woogie piano tradition going, the straight-ahead, old-time tradition of Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons. There must be a little Jimmy Yancey in there, too. Fats, with songs like “Swanee River Stomp,” he kept that tradition alive.
Fats was my introduction to New Orleans music when I was a kid. I saw The Girl Can’t Help It or one of those films. He came on and the kids were jumping around and I thought, “This is great!” Fats has a very distinctive style. It’s not rocket science, it’s a certain feel he puts into the way he plays. That triplet sound, playing the triplets with the right hand. They had been playing that in New Orleans for a while but he really established that style when he broke out. After Fats played it, that style was copied all over.
I think the most important thing to say about him is that when you hear a Fats record or you see him live, it will just put a smile on your face because it’s all about the good times of New Orleans and right now, it’s medicine for all of us. It’s a very positive aspect of New Orleans culture that we really need right now.