Rock ’n’ roll pioneer Fats Domino dies

BY RICHARD CROMELIN
AND JAMES REED
LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS

AVIV SMALL/ZUMA PRESS/TNS
Antoine “Fats” Domino performs at the Pink
Elephant at a tribute event honoring him on
Nov. 8, 2007 in New York City.
Fats Domino, one of the architects of rock ‘n’ roll — and one of its last surviving members — died Tuesday. He was 89.

According to the Associated Press, Mark Bone, chief investigator with the Jefferson Parish, La., coroner’s office, said Domino died of natural causes. New Orleans TV station WWL-TV first reported the news and said Domino died at home surrounded by family.

Fueled by archetypal 1950s hits such as “Blueberry Hill,” “Ain’t That a Shame,” “I’m Walkin’” and his version of “My Blue Heaven,” Domino’s music gave the nascent genre a shot of rhythm and blues and boogie woogie from his native New Orleans. And he was often credited as proving that the piano had a vital place in rock ‘n’ roll.

Barrage of hits
In the 1950s, Domino was one of the biggest stars in popular music, selling more records in that decade than anyone except Elvis Presley.

Thirty-seven of his singles made the Top 40 — more than Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry combined — with 11 of them reaching the Top 10.

Domino was one of the cornerstones of rock ‘n’ roll, helping define the form with such R&B-rooted early-’50s records as “The Fat Man,” “Goin’ Home” and “Please Don’t Leave Me.”

The singer and pianist followed his 1955 national breakthrough, “Ain’t That a Shame,” with a barrage of mainstream hits, including “Blueberry Hill,” “Walking to New Orleans,” “Blue Monday” and “I’m Walkin’.”

International impact
Working with his indispensable collaborator Dave Bartholomew, Domino showed an uncanny knack for taking songs from diverse genres — country, Tin Pan Alley standards, folk songs — and turning them into unmistakable Fats Domino records.

He rarely strayed from the basics of New Orleans-style R&B, and his adherence to his hometown’s unique mash-up of blues, country, Dixieland and zydeco made Domino a beloved figure in the city.

But his impact was international. He was adored by British youth, and the opportunity to meet Domino was a treasured perk for the Beatles.

“Ain’t That a Shame” was the first song John Lennon learned, and Paul McCartney often performed it in his own concerts. McCartney also paid homage with the Beatles’ Domino-style record “Lady Madonna.”

Hero to fans, stars
He was an acknowledged hero to Elton John, and when Billy Joel inducted Domino into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, as one of its first 10 inductees, he called him “the man that proved that the piano was a rock ‘n’ roll instrument.”

Domino was also popular in Jamaica, where he influenced the ska sound that evolved into reggae.

Family life
His ambitions were modest, his life unassuming. Despite his hectic schedule of touring and recording, he remained rooted in his childhood neighborhood, where he enjoyed cooking Louisiana dishes, cracking a bottle of beer and spending time with his family.

He married Rose Mary Hall in 1948 and they had eight children with their father’s initial in common: Antoinette, Antoine III, Andrea, Anatole, Anola, Adonica, Antonio and Andre.

Variety of jobs
Antoine Domino Jr. was born Feb. 26, 1928, the youngest of nine children. It was a poor family, and a musical one, and Antoine learned piano from a brother-in-law, Dixieland musician Harrison Verret.

The youngster was performing in public by age 10, and at 14 he quit school to work at a variety of jobs.

One of them, at a bedspring factory, nearly ended his career before it started when he cut his hand so badly that the doctor who examined him advised amputation.

Domino declined, and at age 18 he was a member of Billy Diamond’s band playing the Hideaway club.

Before long, Domino was leading his own band and drawing crowds to the Hideaway.

‘Fat Man’ history
One fateful night in 1949, Bartholomew dropped in to size up the young singer. The popular New Orleans trumpeter and bandleader had signed with Los Angeles-based Imperial Records, whose owner, Lew Chudd, commissioned him to sign artists to the label.

“When I went down there, people were standing in line, trying to see him,” Bartholomew told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 2010. “It was rough trying to get in there. It looked like the whole of New Orleans had turned out to see him.

In December 1949, Bartholomew took Domino to the J&M recording studio, located behind an appliance store and music shop and beneath a bookie operation.

One of the eight songs they cut that day, “The Fat Man,” reached No. 2 on the R&B chart in 1950 and would become a perennial contender in the “what was the first rock ‘n’ roll record?” debate.

More hits
Imperial kept the Domino releases coming. Several did well in the R&B market, and a few even sneaked onto the pop chart. Then came 1955 and “Ain’t That a Shame” (mistakenly titled “Ain’t It a Shame” on the original release), which hit the promised land of the pop Top 10.

He would return there repeatedly over the next five years, with “Blue Monday,” “All by Myself,” “Blueberry Hill” (the Los Angeles recording was one of his few songs cut outside of New Orleans), “Whole Lotta Lovin’” and more, most written by Domino and Bartholomew.

Domino received a lifetime achievement Grammy in 1987, but his shyness and growing performance anxiety made him increasingly reclusive. He did his last tour in 1996 and then was in and out of the public eye.

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