Antoine Dominique Domino Jr., better known as Fats Domino, died on October 24, 2017. Domino had a huge role in shaping the history of rock and roll. He had eleven top 10 hits between 1955 and 1960, and sold 65 million records in his lifetime. In 1986, Domino became one of the first people inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The Fats Domino story started in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, in 1928, when America was trapping African Americans in Jim Crow laws. Domino was a musical prodigy who spoke French Creole before he ever learned a word of English. He started performing at age 10 and by 14, he had dropped out of schools. Domino wasn’t making money playing music, so we worked in a mattress factory, hauled ice and worked any job he could to support himself. Eventually he started playing piano in Billy Diamond’s band, the regular band at the New Orleans Hideaway Club. He was a chubby kid who was given the nickname “Fats” – and even wrote a song about it. In 1949, he wrote They call me the Fat Man, ’cause I weigh 200 pounds / all the girls they love me / ’cause I know my way around.
The song, “The Fat Man,” was his first collaboration with Dave Bartholomew and first big hit. It became the first rock hit to become number one on the mainstream record charts, and it sold a million copies. Domino signed to Imperial Records. Domino had a distinctive, rumbling piano style and paired with his baritone voice, he rose above everyone in the era. The only person who sold more records than Domino during this period was Elvis Presley.
The early years of rock and roll were marked by what today would be called cultural appropriation. Although Domino had mainstream hits (1955’s “Ain’t It A Shame”), he was often denied the right to play for mixed crowds and was still required to stay in segregated hotels. Pat Boone covered “Ain’t It A Shame” and it went to number one on the pop charts.
Domino had five top 40 hits in 1956 alone, including his cover of “Blueberry Hill.” The Glenn Miller song went all the way to number two on the pop charts, and the song was associated with Domino for the next 60 years. New fans discovered Domino when he appeared in the 1956 films Shake, Rattle & Rock and The Girl Can’t Help It. He was also on American Bandstand in 1957.
Domino was enormously popular and his influence spread across the pond, with artists like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones claiming Fats as an influence. Through the years, Domino has been covered by everyone from Led Zeppelin to Ricky Nelson.
Domino never got too big a head about his contributions to rock and roll. In the liner notes to his 1991 box set, Domino reminded the world that what they called rock and roll was just “the same rhythm and blues I’d been playing’ down in New Orleans. The rhythm we play is from Dixieland—New Orleans.”
In 1970, he scored a hit with his cover of The Beatles song “Lady Madonna.” Ironically, the song had been inspired by Domino to begin with. Domino never stopped performing, but in 1995, he decided to stay mostly in New Orleans, which never stopped being home. Domino was urged to leave the city before Hurricane Katrina, but he refused, losing nearly all of his possessions and being rescued by the Coast Guard. After Katrina in 2006, Domino released the album Alive and Kickin’, in a reference to the rumor that he had died in the storm. Part of the proceeds were given to Tipitina’s Foundation, a nonprofit that helps support local musicians.
In recent years, new generations got an introduction to Domino, thanks to his appearance on the HBO series Treme, a 2007 concert film called Fats Domino: Walkin’ Back to New Orleans, and a 2016 PBS documentary about his life, Fats Domino and the Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Domino died at age 89 of natural causes. He was remembered by musicians the world over as one of the most important musicians in rock history.