Fats Domino obituary: giant of American music

Rock’n’roll star who was crucial in breaking down the musical colour barrier and proved enormously influential

Out in his own uncategorisable stratosphere, the vocalist and pianist Fats Domino, who has died aged 89, sold astonishing quantities of records from the start of the 1950s until the early 60s. Domino was an original, one of the creators of rock’n’roll, and by far the biggest selling rhythm and blues artist of that time.

He was crucial in breaking down the musical colour barrier, but too mainstream and popular to retain credibility as a blues singer. He brought a new, heavy back-beat to white ears, yet trailed old-fashioned, jazz-band habits behind him.

His famous records were many, stretching across a decade from the early 50s: Valley of Tears, I’m Walkin’, The Big Beat, I’m in Love Again, I Want to Walk You Home, Be My Guest, Country Boy, Walking to New Orleans, Three Nights a Week, My Girl Josephine, It Keeps Rainin’, What a Party, and, in 1963, when he finally left Imperial Records for ABC-Paramount, Red Sails in the Sunset.

His chart placings were oddly modest. His only British Top 10 success was Blueberry Hill in 1956. In the US he never topped the mainstream charts and by 1962 had no Top 20 entries. Yet in the mid-70s it was still true that, with record sales of 60 or 70m, no one had outsold him except Elvis and the Beatles.

He behaved like a star. When he toured he took 200 pairs of shoes and 30 suits on the road, and wore big diamond rings. Thus he asserted himself on the era’s extraordinary multiple bills. On the first, in 1956, Domino was with BB King, Hank Ballard, Jerry Lee Lewis, James Brown and Duane Eddy. A 1957 tour put him in among the Drifters, Frankie Lymon, Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, LaVern Baker, the Everlys, Paul Anka and Buddy Holly.

His performing style was simple, like his songs – he’d sit at the piano sideways on to the crowd, showing his solid right profile and turning his splendid head to grin and beam as he sang and played, but he would add a touch of flamboyance at the end by pushing the piano off stage with his stomach. (That head of his was a perfect cube, thanks to his flat-top haircut. This would became fashionable 30 years after he pioneered it.)

Born Antoine Domino in New Orleans, to Donatile (nee Gros) and Antoine Domino Sr, he began playing the piano in public at the age of 10. He was dubbed “Fats” by the bassist Billy Diamond’s band at his first professional engagements, at the Hideaway Club on Desire Street. The city’s pianists included Professor Longhair and Amos Milburn (from whom Domino took what became his trademark 6/8 hammered triplets), but his main influence was the Chicago pianist Albert Ammons, first recorded in the 1930s.

Domino was offered a record deal by the Imperial boss Lew Chudd, and cut his first sides on 10 December 1949, with the trumpeter/arranger Dave Bartholomew’s band. This would remain much the same on Domino’s huge hits of a decade later, and the band would tour behind him for more decades still. The tenor saxist Herb Hardesty would support Domino for half a century.

The second number recorded was The Fat Man (named after a radio detective), which sold 800,000 in the black market and gave the 22-year-old the first of many gold discs.

Domino and Chudd soon fell out with Bartholomew, the man held to have given Domino his musical credibility. Domino recorded without him, using his own musicians, including his brother-in-law Harrison Verrett. The rift was healed in 1952, after Bartholomew persuaded Domino to play piano on Lloyd Price’s Lawdy Miss Clawdy. It is one of the great contributions to embryonic rock’n’roll.

Domino’s early singles had mixed success, but he re-signed to Imperial and packed out live shows, clinching his stardom at Alan Freed’s Cleveland Arena show in 1953 and thrilling the new white audience for black music at Freed’s New York rock’n’roll Jubilee Ball in January 1955. Then came Ain’t It a Shame (AKA Ain’t That a Shame). Though Pat Boone’s cover topped the pop charts, Domino’s original chased it, the blackest sound that had ever hit the hot 100, and the No 1 R&B side for 11 weeks.

fats poster
A poster for the 1956 film Shake, Rattle and Rock!, which featured Fats Domino. Photograph: Getty Images

Domino rarely took sole composer-credit for songs. Most were written with Bartholomew, some by Bartholomew alone, including Blue Monday, a hit from the 1956 Frank Tashlin film The Girl Can’t Help It, starring Jayne Mansfield and Tom Ewell, in which Domino appeared, as he did (this time with top billing) in Jamboree (1957).

Domino’s voice had dropped an octave around the end of 1954. Before that, his was a high, reedy voice; by Ain’t It a Shame he had a rich warm baritone. What unites these two styles as much as the shared big beat is Domino’s magnificently quirky pronunciation, New Orleans-based but carried to a disarming extreme. His way with the title of his hit My Blue Heaven (Mah, Blee-oo, HeaVON) still delights, as does the rhyming he could achieve: “cryin” with “down”, “man” with “ashamed”. Irrational pronunciation was always a factor in rock’n’roll’s appeal – there’s no overestimating the attraction of non-received English in the 1950s. In his amiable, non-confrontational way, Domino offered this liberation early.

His career dipped in the 1960s when a new black consciousness rejected the pre-soul stars, and white consciousness shied away from hit-singles artists and the suddenly embarrassing, unhip simplicities of 50s music.

Creatively, the 60s and beyond was one long period of decline. The songwriting ended; a 1961 album showed a painting of nonchalant, cigarette-smoking Domino as if he were Dean Martin; another was called Twistin’ the Stomp. He sounded equally perplexed on Ah Left Mah Hot in San Francisco and the Beatles’ Lady Madonna and Lovely Rita, but he understood country material perfectly, as with Hank Williams’s Jambalaya and You Win Again.

Nor could decline be blamed on his tendency to cover “standards”. Some of his biggest hits had made rock’n’roll classics of them, especially When My Dreamboat Comes Home, Blueberry Hill and My Blue Heaven. He sometimes proved his mastery of boogie-woogie on them too: gasp at his Stephen Foster makeover on Swanee River Hop. There was one fine later album, the self-produced Sleeping on the Job, cut in New Orleans in 1978. Authentic and fresh, it surprised everyone. He never managed that again.

Domino was reduced to night clubs and Las Vegas. It demonstrates his limitations and artistry that he could play his hour’s worth with such enthusiasm so many hundreds of times. But his vice was gambling, and trying to work off his debts by touring only kept him in the Vegas trap.

Worry thinned him. Even yellow crimplene suits couldn’t disguise his being disappointingly less than massive, yet he still pushed the piano off stage with his stomach at the end of his high-energy show. He was still at it in London at the Royal Festival Hall in 1985, and the Royal Albert Hall in 1990, his mike still placed so that he took up a supplicating pose, crouched down, head twisted round and upwards, radiant smile fixed on the punters in the circle.

Illness overtook him in 1995, on a UK tour with Little Richard and Chuck Berry. His performance ended when he tried the piano stomach-push in Sheffield, and was taken to hospital with breathing problems. He would not tour again, restricting his live appearances to his home city of New Orleans. He refused to travel to Cleveland, Ohio, for his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and even declined a White House invitation from Bill Clinton to receive a National Medal of Arts in 1998.

He was at home when his house was one of those ruined by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Domino had always lived in the badly hit Lower Ninth Ward – he’d built his mansion there – and though he and his wife, Rosemary, whom he had married in 1948, were rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter from their roof, he was thought to be missing for several days afterwards. His daughter Karen, living in New Jersey, recognised him in a newspaper photograph of survivors at a shelter in Baton Rouge. It was months before Domino could revisit his home and reportedly only three of his many gold discs were retrieved.

Moved by the widespread concern for his welfare, Domino responded with a new album, Alive and Kickin’, donating proceeds to the Tipitina’s Foundation, dedicated to preserving and restoring New Orleans’ musical culture. The album’s title track opens with as simple a lyric as any of Domino’s classics: “All over the country, people wanna know / Whatever happened to Fats Domino? / I’m alive and kickin’.”

Alive and kickin’ maybe, and living back in New Orleans, but in poor health. Domino was to have been the closing act at the city’s first post-Katrina jazz festival in May 2006, but he was admitted to hospital shortly beforehand. A year later, at the 2007 festival, he gave what would be his last performance, of just five songs. A tribute album, Goin’ Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino, by artists including Dr John, Norah Jones, BB King, Willie Nelson, Toots and the Maytals and Neil Young, was released later that year.

Other artists continued to record and perform Domino’s repertoire, and always will. He was one of the few true giants of postwar American popular music: no one sounded like him, yet ask who he influenced, and the answer is everyone.

He and Rosemary had 13 children. She died in 2008.

• Fats (Antoine) Domino, musician, born 26 February 1928; died 24 October 2017


Michael Gray

The GuardianTramp

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