Fats Domino may not have been the most flamboyant rock and roller of the Fifties, but he was certainly the figure most rooted in the worlds of blues, rhythm & blues and the various strains of jazz that gave rise to rock and roll. With his boogie-woogie piano playing and drawling, Creole-inflected vocals, Antoine "Fats" Domino Jr. help put his native New Orleans on the map during the early rock and roll era. He was, in fact, a key figure in the transition from rhythm & blues to rock and roll – a transition so subtle, especially in his case, that the line between these two nominally different forms of music blurred to insignificance.
Born in the Big Easy in 1928, pianist, singer and songwriter Fats Domino ultimately sold more records (65 million) than any Fifties-era rocker except Elvis Presley. Between 1950 and 1963, he made Billboard’s pop chart 63 times and its R&B chart 59 times. Incredible as it may seem, Fats Domino scored more hit records than Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Buddy Holly put together. His best-known songs include "Ain't That a Shame," "Blueberry Hill" and "I'm Walkin'."
Fats Domino was born into a large and musical family. He received encouragement and tutoring from his brother-in-law, a trumpet player named Harrison Verret, who introduced Domino to the New Orleans music scene. Following in the footsteps of piano greats as Professor Longhair, Domino began performing for small change in local honky-tonks while working odd jobs (like hauling ice) to make ends meet. Domino’s musical likes and influences included pianists Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, Amos Milburn and Charles Brown; vocalists Roy Milton and Joe Turner; and bandleaders Louis Jordan and Count Basie.
In 1946, he began playing piano in Billy Diamond’s band at the Hideaway Club. It was Diamond who gave him the nickname “Fats.” (Domino weighed 220 pounds while standing only five feet, five inches tall.) By 1949, Domino had become a fixture at the Hideaway in his own right, and he was drawing crowds and solid notices for his musical abilities, which were notable even by New Orleans standards. That same year, he met Dave Bartholomew, who became his producer, bandleader and collaborator, and Lew Chudd, who signed Domino to his Imperial Records label. Scouting for talent, Bartholomew and Chudd checked out Domino’s act at the Hideaway Club, and the rest is history. The run of records Domino made with Bartholomew at Imperial, beginning in 1949 and ending only when Chudd sold the label in 1963, is one of rock and roll’s greatest.
Domino’s nickname became the basis of his first single, "The Fat Man," a huge R&B hit – it went to Number Two nationally – and reported million-seller. Some music historians consider “The Fat Man” to be the first rock and roll record; at the very least, it is a milestone rhythm and blues performance heralding a new age in popular music. Based on an old blues number (“Junker’s Blues,” about heroin) for which Domino wrote a more upbeat, autobiographical set of lyrics, “The Fat Man” features a memorably amusing vocal solo in which Domino mimics a horn. The song was cut at engineer Cosimo Matassa's J&M Studios, at Rampart and Dumaine Streets in New Orleans. Most of Domino's great Imperial sides were recorded at J&M, with Bartholomew producing and a crack house band that included drummer Earl Palmer and saxophonists Alvin "Red" Tyler and Herbert Hardesty backing him up.
A string of R&B hits followed “The Fat Man,” including such powerfully bluesy sides as “Goin’ Home” (Number One), “Going to the River” (Number Two) and “Please Don’t Leave Me (Number Three). Still, Domino’s success remained confined to the R&B charts – that is, until 1952, when "Goin' Home" got to Number 30. The following year, "Goin' To The River" reached Number 24, but his major crossover hit came in 1955 with “Ain’t It A Shame.” The song was retitled “Ain’t That a Shame” by Pat Boone, whose cover version actually did better on the pop charts (it was Number One for two weeks) than Domino’s original (which reached Number 10). The Four Seasons would also have a hit with “Ain’t That a Shame” in 1963, when their remake went to Number 22.
Domino experienced extraordinary success in the burgeoning rock and roll market, especially in the latter half of the Fifties. “Ain’t It a Shame” became the first in a string of 37 crossover hits for Domino over the next eight years. His biggest hit came in late 1956 with “Blueberry Hill,” a song that had previously been cut by Glenn Miller, Gene Autry and Louis Armstrong. Domino’s version reached Number Two, kept from the top by Guy Mitchell’s “Singing the Blues.” (Despite his hit-filled career, Domino would never top the pop chart. Might that have to do with the fact he recorded for an independent label?)
After “Blueberry Hill” firmly established him as a star, the hits came fast and furious. Some of Domino’s most memorable singles from the late Fifties include “Blue Monday” (Number Five), “I’m Walkin’” (Number Four), “It’s You I Love” (Number Six), Valley of Tears (Number Eight), “The Big Beat” (Number 26), “Whole Lotta Loving” (Number Six), “I’m Ready” (Number 16), “I Want to Walk You Home” (Number Eight), “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday” (Number 17), “Be My Guest” (Number Eight) and “Walking to New Orleans” (Number Six).
The secret behind the appeal of Domino’s music’s was, unsurprisingly, rhythm. "You got to keep a good beat," Domino said in a 1956 interview in Downbeat magazine. "The rhythm we play is from Dixieland — New Orleans." He elaborated on that point in the liner notes for his 1991 box set, They Call Me the Fat Man...: The Legendary Imperial Recordings: “Everybody started callin' my music rock and roll,” noted Domino, “but it wasn't anything but the same rhythm and blues I'd been playin' down in New Orleans." Perhaps the definitive statement on the matter was Domino’s song “The Big Beat,” whose lyrics included these lines: The big beat keep you rockin’ in your seat/The big beat keep you rockin’ in your sleep/Clap your hands, stomp your feet/You got to move when you hear the beat.
Domino became highly visible in the late Fifties, appearing in several rock and roll movies (including Shake, Rattle and Rock) and joining many of the big "caravan" tours of the day. While he was admittedly less charismatic than his extroverted contemporaries, the easygoing Domino got by on the irresistible rhythms and solid foundation of his music. Likable and down-to-earth, Fats Domino was the least affected superstar of rock and roll’s first decade. His genial temperament and immense talent assured his success.
The arrival of the Beatles and the British Invasion in 1964 proved devastating to the careers of first-generation rock and roll and rhythm & blues artists like Domino, whose hit streak came to an end that very year. He made the Hot 100 just one more time – ironically, with his cover of the Beatles' “Lady Madonna,” a song Paul McCartney had specifically written with Domino’s big-beat boogie style in mind. Domino continued to find work as a live performer, especially when a rock and roll revival took root in the early Seventies. In 1975, John Lennon included “Ain’t That a Shame” on Rock and Roll, his album of early rock covers. Rockers Cheap Trick revived the song again, including it on 1979’s Cheap Trick at Budokan. Released as a single, their cover of “Ain’t That a Shame” made the song a hit for the fourth time when it reached Number 35.
Revered as a rock and roll pioneer, Domino was in the original class inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, joining such fellow icons as Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Cooke, James Brown, Ray Charles and the Everly Brothers. During his induction speech on Domino’s behalf, Billy Joel credited Fats Domino for proving “the piano was a rock and roll instrument.” Joel, Elton John and Paul McCartney are only a handful of musicians who have derived influence and inspiration from Domino.
One of the most long-lived of Fifties rockers, Fats Domino made headlines for non-musical reasons in August 2005. Speculation ran rampant that he’d perished when his home in the Ninth Ward was flooded in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, but he survived and was rescued by boat. In 2007, some of the greatest figures in rock and roll contributed tracks to a charity album, Goin’ Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino. Funds from its sale were used to help rebuild Domino’s home in his beloved New Orleans.