Fats Domino Dead at 89

Antoine “Fats” Domi­no, the jovial New Orleans enter­tain­er whose bluesy singing and boo­gie-woo­gie piano style helped launch rock-and-roll in the 1950s with such rolick­ing songs as “Blue­ber­ry Hill,” “Ain’t That a Shame” and “I’m Walkin’,” died Oct. 24. He was 89.

Mark Bone, chief Inves­ti­ga­tor with the Jef­fer­son Parish coroner’s office in Louisiana, con­firmed his death to the Asso­ci­at­ed Press. Addi­tion­al details were not imme­di­ate­ly available.

Among the ear­ly rock­ers, Mr. Domi­no was rivaled only­by Elvis Pres­ley in record sales. He dom­i­nat­ed Bill­board mag­a­zine’s Pop and rhythm-and-blues charts from 1955 to 1963. More­over, Mr. Domi­no’s sig­na­ture piano triplets — three notes for every beat — became the basis of rock and pop bal­lads for the next three decades, includ­ing such diverse record­ings as the Bea­t­les’ “Oh, Dar­ling,” Otis Red­ding’s “These Arms of Mine” and even Per­cy Faith’s “Theme From ‘A Sum­mer Place.’ ”

In a music style iden­ti­fied with rebel­lion, Mr. Domi­no was­n’t very rebel­lious in his approach. Unlike Pres­ley, Jer­ry Lee Lewis, Lit­tle Richard and any num­ber of oth­er flam­boy­ant per­form­ers, he sang in a mel­low voice and sport­ed a wide grin on stage. His lone gim­mick involved using his immense girth to push the piano to the front of the stage — and this he did only dur­ing his encore.

He had a nat­ur­al tal­ent,” said rhythm-and-blues his­to­ri­an John Broven. “Yet he seemed to have lit­tle idea as to why he was famous, which only enhanced his charm and appeal. His biggest hits made rock-and-roll accept­able by appeal­ing to all age groups and races. And he did it with­out com­pro­mis­ing his New Orleans roots.”

The Fats Domi­no sound,” Broven added, “was a com­bi­na­tion of Fats’ clear­ly enun­ci­at­ed and nat­u­ral­ly melod­ic Cre­ole-laced vocals, aid­ed by his under­rat­ed piano work — from cre­ative boo­gie-woo­gie to sim­ple triplets — and the impec­ca­ble solos and riffs from the accom­pa­ny­ing band.”

Such songs such as “Walk­ing to New Orleans” and “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” instant­ly iden­ti­fied Mr. Domi­no with his home town. The lat­ter record­ing, from 1961, was revived on the radio dur­ing the after­math of Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na in 2005.

New Orleans cul­ture was heard in the catchy parade rhythms of such hits such as “I’m Walk­ing” and “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Some­day” — a reflec­tion of his arranger Dave Bartholomew’s back­ground in tra­di­tion­al jazz.

Antoine Domi­no Jr. was born Feb. 26, 1928, in New Orleans’ 9th Ward, the youngest of eight in a bilin­gual Cre­ole fam­i­ly. His father played Cre­ole songs on the vio­lin. Mr. Domi­no learned the basics of piano from his broth­er-in-law, Har­ri­son Ver­rett, a ban­jo play­er and gui­tarist with Papa Celestin’s Dix­ieland band, who would lat­er work as Mr. Domi­no’s road manager.

Mr. Domi­no stud­ied boo­gie-woo­gie records by Meade Lux Lewis and devel­oped a smooth singing style from croon­ing blues singer-pianists Charles Brown and Lit­tle Willie Littlefield.

He put a band togeth­er and secured an engage­ment in 1947 at the Hide­away Club while work­ing dur­ing the day in a bed­springs fac­to­ry. His way with boo­gie-woo­gie proved a good draw — good enough to con­cern Bartholomew, a trum­peter whose band worked down the street.

Bartholomew, moon­light­ing as the tal­ent scout for Impe­r­i­al, a strug­gling Cal­i­for­nia record label, brought the label’s own­er, Lew Chudd, to the Hide­away. Chudd, who was white, lat­er recalled that he had to scrunch down in the back seat of Bartholomew’s car because of New Orleans’ seg­re­ga­tion laws. Mr. Domi­no signed with the label, an asso­ci­a­tion between Bartholomew, Chudd and Mr. Domi­no that last­ed more than a decade.

For his first record­ing ses­sion in 1949, Bartholomew sug­gest­ed they write new words to Cham­pi­on Jack Dupree’s “Junker’s Blues,” one of Mr. Domi­no’s most pop­u­lar live num­bers. The result­ing hit, “The Fat Man,” estab­lished his hap­py-go-lucky stage persona:

They call me, call me the fat man 

Cause I weigh 200 pounds 

All the girls they love me 

Cause I know my way around 

While Mr. Domi­no ini­tial­ly balked at trav­el­ing out­side New Orleans, the hit made him a tour­ing attrac­tion with a band that often includ­ed ses­sion sax­o­phon­ists Herb Hard­esty and Lee Allen.He occa­sion­al­ly lent his piano trills to oth­er per­form­ers’ record­ings such as Lloyd Price’s 1952 hit, “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” lat­er cov­ered by Presley.

The 1955 hit “Ain’t That a Shame,” his first record­ing to enter the pop charts, was nar­row­ly eclipsed in sales by pop singer Pat Boone’s cov­er ver­sion. Pro­duc­ers had to dis­suade Boone from chang­ing the song’s refrain to the gram­mat­i­cal­ly cor­rect “isn’t that a shame.”

We were actu­al­ly search­ing for a sound in those days. I nev­er want­ed to get things too com­pli­cat­ed,” Bartholomew once said. “It had to be sim­ple so peo­ple could under­stand it right away. It had to be the kind of thing that a 7‑year-old kid could start whistling. I just kept in simple.”

Blue­ber­ry Hill,” per­haps the song most iden­ti­fied with Mr. Domi­no, proved dif­fi­cult to record. He had learned the stan­dard from a Louis Arm­strong record­ing but remem­bered only one verse. The engi­neer edit­ed the fin­ished record togeth­er from two incom­plete takes.

Mr. Domi­no suc­cess­ful­ly record­ed oth­er pop stan­dards includ­ing “My Blue Heav­en,” “When My Dream­boat Comes Home” and “I’m In the Mood For Love.”

Leav­ing Impe­r­i­al for the larg­er ABC-Para­mount label in 1963, Mr. Domi­no record­ed in Nashville with con­sid­er­ably less suc­cess. The pop­u­lar­i­ty of the Motown sound had made Mr. Domi­no’s style less fash­ion­able. Crit­ics have also cit­ed the lack of New Orleans spon­tane­ity on his lat­er records. Unde­terred, Mr. Domi­no toured Eng­land, where his records were still pop­u­lar with the rock­er subculture.

As his record sales declined in the 1960s, Mr. Domi­no per­formed steadi­ly in Las Vegas but lost mon­ey in the city’s casi­nos. At his first Las Vegas engage­ment in 1962, he gam­bled away $180,000 in two weeks. His fee for the engage­ment was $6,500 a week.

I went to play the Flamin­go for two weeks and I stayed for 15 years,” he told USA Today.

He briefly reemerged on the pop charts in 1968 with a ver­sion of the Bea­t­les’ “Lady Madon­na,” a song that crit­ics have point­ed out owes much to his piano-dri­ven style.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induct­ed him in 1986, its first year. The next year, Mr. Domi­no won a Gram­my Award for life­time achieve­ment. He received a Nation­al Medal of Arts from Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton in 1998.

His wife, the for­mer Rose­mary Hall, for whom he named the song, “Rose Mary,” died in 2007. They were mar­ried in 1947. Their son Andre died in 1997. A com­plete list of sur­vivors was not imme­di­ate­ly available.

In lat­er years, he toured with less fre­quen­cy. “I trav­eled all over for about 50 years. I love a lot of places, and I’ve been to a lot of places, but I just don’t care to leave home,” Mr. Domi­no told USA Today.

Mr. Domi­no remained in New Orleans in the impov­er­ished neigh­bor­hood where he grew up. He often invit­ed peo­ple into his home from off the street to taste his Cre­ole cooking.

The home, a man­sion among the neigh­bor­hood’s “shot­gun shacks,” was not spared dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na. Many news out­lets ini­tial­ly report­ed the singer as dead. How­ev­er, he had wait­ed out the storm with his wife, two daugh­ters and a son-in-law on the house­’s third floor as the water lev­el rose to 15 feet. Mr. Domi­no was res­cued by helicopter.

A local char­i­ty, the Tip­iti­na Foun­da­tion, helped repair the home in return for his record­ing a ben­e­fit album, “Alive and Kickin’, ” in 2006.

The next year, rock jour­nal­ist Andrew Per­ry vis­it­ed Mr. Domi­no at his home in New Orleans.

Just as he was the most con­ge­nial and inof­fen­sive of the first-wave rock­ers, he would also be the last New Orlean­ian to voice anger about Kat­ri­na,” wrote Per­ry. “When I ask him to give his thoughts on how the dis­as­ter was han­dled, he ami­ably deflects from the issue. Sud­den­ly, he thrusts his beer bot­tle into my hand again. “Feel it,” he says, “ain’t that cool?”

The singer had reemerged after the hur­ri­cane with ben­e­fit con­certs in New Orleans and New York.

When Per­ry asked him if he was mak­ing a come­back, Mr. Domi­no said, “I just drink my lit­tle beers, do some cookin’, any­thing I feel like … Let us know when you’re comin’ again, I’ll cook some­thing up for you.”

 

 

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